Certain books are labeled classic because they are revolutionary, eye opening, gorgeously crafted, or all of the above. These paragons of the written word are classified as must-reads in the hope that they will help make the world a smaller, better place. Historically, it's been almost impossible to get work by women writers labeled "literary," much less classic, and, consequently, deserving, potentially life-changing masterpieces have slipped through the cracks. So it's high time to revisit and recognize some of these lesser-known, brilliant women writers and their incredible feats of literary crafts(wo?)manship.
The novels on the following list might not have the recognition of the old standby classics, but they certainly share the same type of bold originality, unforgettable characters, lyrical writing, and important social messages inherent in some of our most revered literary works. Unfortunately the publishing world has been as notoriously late to the diversity party as it has been to the gender-equalization celebration, which means that there are loads of incredibly talented women writers whose work has been passed by and pooh-poohed for centuries.
So get ready to be amazed, enlightened, inspired, and educated by these forgotten and overlooked masterpieces by women writers. Reading them will change you, just like a true literary classic should.
Based on a true story, this slim novel packs a powerful emotional punch. Firdaus, an Egyptian woman in a Cairo prison, is awaiting death row for killing her pimp. Woman at Point Zero is the harrowing story of how she got there, forced into her tragic circumstances through a combination of poverty, abuse, oppression, and exploitation. It's an eye-opening, gut-wrenching account of what it feels like to be truly hopeless, when death feels like the only path to freedom.
Dorothy West was one of the few black women writers to be published in the 1940s, and her novel about the ambitious, clever, and somewhat devious Cleo Judson is a masterpiece of subtlety. Cleo, the daughter of southern sharecroppers who married the "Black Banana King," manipulates her sisters into moving into her home in order to recreate the original family she left behind, yet she raises her daughter to be a member of Boston's elite. With wit and irony, West explores Cleo's twisted and sometimes downright conflicting motivations, as she's driven by a desire to connect to her family, and at the same time dead-set on escaping her poverty-stricken past. Despite her many flaws, Cleo is certainly a feminist — she was defying gender stereotypes practically before the word was invented.
First of all, this luscious cover, right? It's irresistible, and the story within is just as absorbing. Jeanette Winterson is known for her esoteric, seductive, style, and she certainly delivers in this gorgeous, erotic love story. It chronicles the consuming affair between a genderless, nameless narrator, and a conflicted, utterly beguiling, married woman. Anyone who's ever been head-over-heels will intensely relate, Winterson has a nearly supernatural ability to put the feelings of overwhelming passion, lust, and loss into gorgeous prose.
This novel will almost give you sensory overload, but in the most splendid, indulgent way.
Told in letter format, this intimate, wrenching novel is the story of Ramatoulaye, a widowed African woman, who, according to the Muslim faith, must mourn her husband in isolation. Her letters are written to her best friend, a woman in similar circumstances who, unlike Ramatoulaye, refuses to be treated as a possession or accept her position as a "second wife," and leaves. Mariama Bâ, a Senegalese woman, was a tireless advocate of women's rights, and she wrote Ramatoulaye's story in an effort to bring attention to African women living in degradation and poverty.
Nancy Mitford and her sisters lived such large, dramatic lives that her fictional work is often overlooked. This is unfortunate, because Mitford was an incredibly witty, observant, and talented writer. She wrote about what she knew, and so The Pursuit of Love is certainly about money and class, but it's also a comedy about unconventional women and eccentric families. Humor can be really difficult to pull off, and Mitford does it with masterful grace.
Nadine Gordimer's ground-breaking novel won the Booker in 1974, and she herself is a Nobel laureate, but her work still seems under-the-radar somehow. Her novel about a rich South African addresses practically everything important — racism, sexuality, politics, marriage, parenting, social injustice — in one evocative novel. It's not an easy or comfortable read, but you don't expect that from a book about South African apartheid. However, it is illuminating and eye-opening, which you do expect from extraordinary literature.
Original, inventive, and daring, Sylvia Townsend Warner's work marked her as one of the most vivid voices of early 20th-century English literature, yet somehow she's not widely read. This wildly adventurous and unexpected novel tells the story of Sophia Willoughby, a young Englishwoman who sends her philandering husband packing off to Paris. Despite her strong convictions and iron will, a set of tragedies befalls Sophia, and she finds herself alone and bereft in revolutionary Paris... until she strikes up an unlikely friendship with her husband's mistress.
Warner's novel is totally unconventional for the age she was writing in, and her willful, intrepid characters set her work apart.
Elaine Dundy's provocative 1958 novel about an American girl living in Paris blew the whole "innocent abroad" idea right out of the water, and it's pretty much the original coming-of-age-semi-autobiography, known today as the omnipresent memoir. Dundy's protagonist, Sally Jay Gorce, lives, loves, and libates as hard as she can — she actually diagnoses herself as a "vague nymphomaniac."
Hell-bent on conquering the continent, she doesn't let anyone or anything stand in her way. The result is a hilarious, (like, laugh-out-loud funny) honest, account of a girl living life to the fullest.
Edna Ferber was a straight up literary genius (see Pulitzer logo above), and it's basically a travesty that she isn't a household name. So Big is the story of a widowed woman struggling to make a better life for her and her son. You may be thinking that there's nothing revolutionary about this particular storyline, but Ferber wrote it in 1924. Women were still wearing bustles in 1924, but Ferber was writing about poverty, and sexism, and the importance of education. She sheds light on a multitude of important social and political issues, and she does it beautifully, without preaching or proselytizing. You'll read this novel for the first time and then wonder why in the hell you didn't read it sooner.
Another Pulitzer Prize-winner that has yet to be appropriately recognized by the literary elite — Pearl S. Buck's writing has been criticized for not being as polished or pretty as some of her contemporaries, but as Oprah said when she endorsed the novel in 2004, "it's juicy as all get out." In the 1930s Buck was writing about issues like immigration, imperialism, and the global influence of Western culture, long before these subjects were popular. Her ability to bring awareness to these issues and at the same time craft an epic story is pretty extraordinary.
The best fiction gives us a first-person glimpse into other cultures that we would never have the chance to experience any other way. Like Sandra Cisneros, whom she slyly pays tribute to in this novel, Denise Chávez is a master at this. She totally immerses us in the world of Soveida Dosamantes and her family, bringing to vibrant life the women who live within the machismo culture of New Mexico. But Soveida's story is one of self-discovery as well, and she finds her place within her family, her culture, and her life, as a strong, independent woman.
The resulting novel is rich, unexpected, and deftly, gorgeously, written.
Zora Neale Hurston is more well known for her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, but this collection of oral African American stories, "big old lies," voodoo customs, and superstitions, is simply magical. Hurston took an anthropological approach to the collection, gathering the folktales over the course of seven years, and then meticulously arranging them so that the hidden themes— sexism, oppression, exploitation — are clearly revealed. Hurston took what could have been just an entertaining, humorous collection of African American folklore and turned it into a deep examination of gender inequality and racism.
Leslie Marmon Silko's novel was truly groundbreaking, but also super-controversial. Her book explores the bloody and often brutal history between the indigenous Americans and the later European arrivals, but from the Native American point of view. In the process she pretty much condemns the entirety of western culture, and predicts its eminent demise, but to be fair, from the perspective of the people who were already on the continent, the Anglo Americans were pretty nasty. This is a story that needed to be told, and even though the massive amount of information and seemingly countless characters get a bit overwhelming at times, it's still a tour de force.
I love this book. Sarah Orne Jewett is not a flashy writer, and her work isn't about war, or politics, or wide-reaching external conflicts. Despite this, her contemporaries, from Rudyard Kipling to Henry James, heaped praise on her, because her work is quiet, and lovely, and really just touches your soul. The Country of the Pointed Firs is deceptively simple on the surface. It's basically just about a girl spending her summer in a small coastal town. Despite the uncomplicated storyline, it's deeply introspective, and the girl is transformed by the breathtaking natural surroundings and the life-changing connections she makes to her environment and the town's inhabitants. It's an incredibly powerful story of awakening, written in such an elegant, subtle, way. I'm telling you, it will make you think profound thoughts.
Evelina was originally published anonymously because of its super scandalous nature. When Fanny Burney finally let the cat out of the bag, she became an 18th century superstar. At the time, the story of a young Englishwoman's romantic entanglements, quest for marriage, and tragic love triangles was totally original. Hard to believe now, but true nonetheless. Virginia Woolf called her "the mother of English fiction." What additional evidence could you possibly need that her work is positively genius?
Djuna Barnes' novel is a prime example of 20th century modernist writing, and she was one of Paris' original bohemians, yet somehow her name and novels have been largely forgotten. But Nightwood is not to be missed. This slim, yet dense, novel was way ahead of its time. It's a tribute to the dispossessed, the exiled, the people who feel like they've just never belonged. Set in 1920s Paris and peopled with cross-dressers, ex-pats, petty thieves, liars, drifters, and poseurs, it's simultaneously about love and the chronically lonely. And the language is nothing short of astonishing. But still funny. All in all, it's a revelatory read.
Have you ever wondered where all the historical Jewish women writers are? Not that I don't love all the prolific literary mensches, but they really tend to monopolize the spotlight. Luckily we have Anzia Yezierska, and her novel about growing up as a Jewish immigrant in 1920s Manhattan. Sara Smolinsky's father is an Orthodox rabbi, rigid and unyielding in his interpretation of the faith. But Sara is fiercely independent, and her passionate struggle to live her life the way she wants is nothing short of inspirational.
One of the forgotten, but most powerful, writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen's searing, staggering novel about two women who cross the color line in 1920s New York is basically unforgettable. The scariest part is realizing, as you read the book, the way racism influenced even the most educated, supposedly enlightened people. Particularly in light of recent events in our own day and age regarding race and discrimination, this novel is more relevant and important than ever.
Fun fact: Elizabeth Gaskell was good friends with Charlotte Brontë — she even wrote Brontë's biography. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when those two got to chatting about plot structures and character development. Despite being significantly less well known, Gaskell was a brilliant novelist in her own right. Her ironic, sometimes even mocking, depictions of society's rigid, often ridiculous, rules, give her work a delicious, unexpected edge, particularly in this novel.
Gaskell definitely had a subversive streak, and it elevates her work from charming and sweet, to grown-up and fascinating.
Brilliant, beautiful, and Brazilian, Clarice Lispector herself was as mystical as her novels. Her work is not for the faint of heart, and it certainly isn't for those who like their novels straightforward and simple. But the lack of structure doesn't make her writing any less magical. G.H. is a sculptor, and finds herself in a kind of existential crisis after killing a cockroach. Yes, I know it sounds like an improbable premise for a novel, but the writing is extraordinary. They don't call Lispector "the witch of Brazilian literature" for nothing.
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