When you think of The Great American Novel, who do you think of first? Hemingway? Fitzgerald? Pynchon? DeLillo? Franzen? Although my college education was exceptional, professors leaned heavily on the Western male canon to define “literature.” Want to learn brevity and Cubism? Read The Sun Also Rises. A good example of Modernist poetry? Go fumble into “The Waste Land.” These are all tremendously important texts, of course. But so often academia, as well as the media and other sources of authority, forget to highlight work by women from around the globe. White women, black women, Asian women, Latina women — we don’t praise female writers nearly enough.
I didn’t just create this list in order to urge women to read more books by other women. In fact, progressively speaking, we shouldn’t even need to assert the difference between male and female literature. However, it’s still important that we as women support other women by reading their books. For too long has women’s literature been deemed “chick lit” or “too female,” and it’s time to challenge those labels, as well as embrace the fact that books by women are awesome. Regardless of what's on your shelf, it’s also important to diversify and experience new texts, new forms, and new ways of self-expression. This list includes classics, but it also features short stories, poetry collections, and non-fiction: The bottom line is that there is so much good literature out there. Some of it is by men, some of it is by women, but let’s take some time right now to celebrate these 30 ladies and their literary accomplishments.
1. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Super-dark and harrowing, The Bluest Eye is a story about Pecola Breedlove, an 11-year-old whose greatest wish and obsession is for a pair of Aryan blue eyes to make her beautiful. If this book doesn’t make you feel like your heart has been crushed by a bag of bricks, I don’t know what will.
2. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn has mastered creating the self-destructive character who more often than not accidentally trips and falls into trouble. Camille Preaker is a troubled journalist who has to visit her hometown for an assignment (a murder case!). She reluctantly stays with her mother’s family, and it’s there that she discovers something horrible and all too familiar.
3. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis
Some of Davis’s stories are extremely brief. Others are hilarious, while a few are kind of dry. All will leave you whole and satisfied. This thick little orange book will be your guide to the different realities of one woman’s smart imagination.
4. Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks
Maybe you read Gwendolyn Brooks in a high school classroom; it was buried in between Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka, or perhaps you were studying the Black Arts Movement as a freshman in college. When you revisit Brooks, you’ll find yourself mesmerized by her rhythm, you’ll want to shimmy along to “The Bean Eaters” or “We Real Cool.”
5. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer
These beautiful short stories take on the African-American experience, showing the effects of racism and prejudice, as well as the hardships several young protagonists face with their families. These struggles transcend the page and enter our lives, highlighting how hard it is to exist sometimes.
6. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
Described by George Eliot as “more important than Jane Eyre,” Villette is about a woman, Lucy Snow, who struggles to gain independence, as well as cope with the deaths of her family members. This novel presents a never-ending challenge for Lucy, as she tries desperately to not let anyone in; she’s a flawed heroine, but she’s an important one nevertheless.
7. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
When I found out I had to read this essay in my British Lit class, I was sad because it was SO. LONG. But after I read it, I was incredibly grateful that my professor assigned it, and I’ve (figuratively) carried it with me since. It explores the role of women as writers and advocates that we just need our own damn room. It also discusses the fact that (at the time) women were deprived of the opportunity to write because they just didn’t have the money or resources (you might have noticed many early female writers came from wealthy families, i.e. Edith Wharton, famously). This is a highly important read for us lady writers who have people like Virginia Woolf to be thankful for. She called attention to the fact that people weren’t taking female writers seriously.
8. Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Bluets is a cross between flash fiction, prose poetry, and non-fiction. It’s stunning. And heartbreaking. Essentially, Bluets is a string of stories and thoughts based on the word “blue” and what the color brings to mind. It's surreal, honest, and curtly gorgeous.
9. Ariel by Sylvia Plath
I don’t know about you, but I went through a huge Sylvia Plath phase in college, where I read her poetry under trees, in the grass, in my dorm room, in the cafeteria, all because I loved the way her poems read like morbid nursery rhymes. Ariel will haunt you probably forever. Vengeful, sad, angry, Plath’s poems are intricate and deeply telling of her life.
10. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
If you want to read something amazing, but completely and utterly unexpected, give The Girl in the Flammable Skirt a go. Bender’s contemporary magical realism is pretty, fresh, utterly strange. For example, the story “The Rememberer” is about a woman whose lover experiences reverse evolution; he goes from man, to ape, to sea turtle, and eventually to a microbe.
11. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Lily Bart always reminded me in ways of Gossip Girl’s Jenny Humphrey. Bart, the protagonist of The House of Mirth gets kind-of accepted by high society, but she realizes that she unfortunately needs a man to allow her to continue her reckless spending habits. From her bad to even worse choices, Bart represents the kind of character that just sort of allows things to happen to her. She never really has any control over her life, and that’s what makes the novel remarkably tragic.
12. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Awakening is a story about a woman who was never meant to be a mother. Edna Pontellier is bound and restricted by her husband, her children, and is unhappy with her life, but discovers there is no plausible way of escaping it. This feminist novel outlines the roles society assigns women, and what happens when they fail to embody them.
13. The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
Some people compare Isabel Allende to Gabriel García Márquez, or people angrily claim she copied him. But just because a writer also writes magical realism, doesn’t necessarily mean she’s trying to be like Márquez, so ignore those voices and focus on her work: House of Spirits is an amazing, magical novel. It truly sucks you into an intense world filled with political strife and romance.
14. Play it as It Lays by Joan Didion
When I think of Hollywood, I think of Maria Wyeth. Empty, beautiful, and reckless, Maria Wyeth leads this story and allows us to examine how meaningless the showbiz life is, and how depression can play a huge part in our lives. I love Joan Didion’s work, and I love this quick read. It’s fast-paced, and so, so well written.
15. Cherry by Mary Karr
Mary Karr’s complex and hyper-honest memoir is relatable for every girl who has gone through high school. Karr is unapologetic as she shares her stories about drugs, feeling alienated, and her shift into godlessness. Her prose is so captivating, refreshing, and poetic, you almost feel yourself become this rebellious girl.
16. The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood
This extended metaphor highlights a bunch of major themes: gender stereotyping and gender roles, consumerism, alienation, and loss of self. Marian McAlpin gets engaged, but right away she feels herself become more and more devoured, in the literal sense. This book, which was labeled as “protofeminist” by Atwood, is one of the first second-wave feminist novels and loudly exemplifies society’s expectation of women.
17. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
This LGBTQ modern classic is about Jeanette, a young girl who is brought up in a pious and judgmental environment. When she confides in her mother that she is attracted to girls, her mother’s response is anything but accepting or comforting. The novel is beautiful on so many levels, but mainly because Winterson’s prose is layered with fairytales and myths that encompass a story bigger than Jeanette herself.
18. Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston
Contents May Have Shifted is one of those books that encourages me to just pack my bags and just go somewhere, even if it’s just a hotel a half-hour away. Or Starbucks, for all I care. Not that I have anything to complain about, but sometimes we all just need an escape from work, school, or the stuffiness of our apartments. The narrator of Contents is so hilariously relatable and funny; I love her voice and the language. The story itself is about a woman who leaves her stifling life behind and just goes.
19. Love, An Index by Rebecca Lindenberg
This collection of poems is Rebecca Lindenberg’s way of dealing with the death of her partner, Craig Arnold, who disappeared on a hiking trip in 2009. Like most books published with McSweeney’s, this one is poignant, smart, and deeply emotional.
20. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stories are always brilliantly addictive as they seamlessly touch upon politics, religion, race, and growing up. In Purple Hibiscus , 15-year-old Kambili is raised by an overly pious father who covets his children’s every move. This family story is tragic, but overwhelmingly powerful.
21. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Regardless of whether your parents are from China or Minneapolis, you will feel for the women of The Joy Luck Club and understand their pain. The novel centers on two generations of Chinese families, their history, their struggles, and their sacred stories.
22. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
I’ve been following Roxane Gay for a while now; her essays on The Rumpus and Salon range from feminism to Game of Thrones to racism, and she has a killer Twitter. When I heard her book, An Untamed State , was finally out in bookstores, I rushed out and bought it. The novel is about a woman who is kidnapped for ransom, but it’s also about the dichotomy between privilege and poverty, as well as the malleability of identity.
23. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange
This book of poetry is really heavy. It’s also non-linear and plays with grammar, so it’s not an easy read. It chronicles the perspectives of different women categorized by the colors of the rainbow, and is a dialogue about race, gender, love, and politics. for colored girls is an experimental project (as well as a theatrical one) that draws upon the works of bell hooks, Gwendolyn Brooks, and other pioneers of the Black Arts Movement.
24. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
I know many of us have read The House of Mango Street in school, but do re-read it. It’s such a pivotal classic that reminds us of what “home” really is.
25. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
If you’re unsure of where to start with Flannery O’Connor, my best suggestion is to start here. Read each story carefully and let the dust and hardness settle on your skin before you absorb the genius that is O’Connor. You will be sucked into a world filled with human monsters, damaged men and women, horrible parents, and unlikeable bigots. O’Connor is best at taking humanity by the skirt and shaking it until there is nothing left.
26. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks
This book is monumental, and truly a prerequisite for every woman who watches television that centers on female protagonists as well as movies that feature more than one race. Although this book was written in 1999, it's still incredibly relevant. Mainly covering feminism's historically rocky relationship with black women, bell hooks outlines the fact that black women were often left out of the conversation. A woman was equated to a white woman, and a black person was equated to a black man. Where did this leave black women?
27. How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
Caitlin Moran breaks down what it is to be a proper “woman” in this book, and it’s a funny read, but also an honest one that speaks universally. What I love about this title is that it preaches feminism without ordering you to get rid of your hot pink stilettos. If you ever come across a friend who is like, “Oh, I don’t know about feminism. I like men. I like bras,” you should gently nudge her with this book.
28. boysgirls by Katie Farris
Farris’ collection of short shorts is the wicked reimagining of myths. If you love fairy tales, you will adore this book. In it, you will come across a boy with one wing, a girl with a mirror for a face, and you will be amazed by how fearlessly she writes through the eyes of a madwoman.
29. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
This book is traumatizing, and it’s hard to read. I know. But I also believe it’s important and magnificent, too. The Color Purple is about Celie, a woman whose letters recall the story of her life, and they start at age 14. As a teenager, she is raped and abused by her father, and as a woman she is tortured by her husband. This story of abuse is shocking and sad. But it’s also a story about friendship and strength.
30. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
Because apparently I like depressing things, I’m going to end on Bastard Out of Carolina , a similar-ish book to The Color Purple, but unique in its own way. Carolina is based on Dorothy Allison’s own experiences, so when you read this story, it’s very hard to think to yourself, “It’s only a story! It’s only a story!” Allison really was abused and sexually assaulted by her stepfather, and she found that poverty had its way with her identity. It's a serious perspective-shifter — a check in we all need before we hit that age milestone.
Until then, happy (or sorrowful, emotional, and soul-crushing) reading!