Millions of books are published every year, so it's no surprise that not every one of them becomes a bestseller that grants their author all of the fame and fortune they desire. Over the course of history, there have been plenty of writers and books that never got the recognition they deserve, include several female authors who should have been way more popular than they were.
It has always been a tough world out there for writers. Whether they're penning epic sci-fi fantasy novels, prolific essays, or groundbreaking works of fiction, it has never been easy to gain proper recognition is such an oversaturated field. For women, and more specifically women of color, it has been nearly impossible to gain footing, let alone popularity, in the industry. Throughout history, their works have been dismissed, ignored, unfairly criticized, or, like many of the authors themselves, forgotten altogether.
While it's true there have been significant strides in equality in the publishing in the past few years, it's an industry that has had a long withstanding problem giving credit where credit is due, specifically to women. That's why, over the last century, there have been so many wonderful, talented female authors who have fallen through the cracks. I think it's about time we give them the credit they deserve.
If you're trying to expand your reading list outside of the mainstream, here are 11 female authors who deserved to be way more popular, but who probably haven't made a blip on your radar. That is, until now.
While it's true that her Australian romance novel The Thorn Birds became an international bestseller and inspired a successful mini-series, author Colleen McCullough never quite got the recognition she deserved. The author of over 25 works of fiction, she is better known for the plagiarism controversy surrounding her novel The Ladies of Missalonghi than she is for her remarkable writing. Even in her death one critic grossly reduced her to a woman "plain of feature and certainly overweight" in her obituary. Talk about not being as popular as you deserve.
What to read: The First Man in Rome
Ann Petry's The Street made her the first black female author to sell over one million copies of a novel, but it still wasn't enough to make her as popular as she should have been. A famously private person who avoided the limelight, Petry resisted her celebrity status to focus on her artistic endeavors. Her work, which was often inspired by her own experiences, dealt with issues of race, poverty, family, and womanhood, especially black womanhood. Although Petry went on to write several ambitious novels and children's books throughout her lifetime, none of her work received the same acclaim as The Street.
What to read: The Narrows
During her lifetime, Mary McCarthy made a name for herself as a sharp critic and outspoken political activist, but her author status was not nearly as well celebrated as it should have been. Smart, bold, and unafraid to speak or write her mind, McCarthy was frequently engaged in a feud with other public figures who disagreed with her liberal politics. While her 1963 novel The Group was a staple on the New York Times Bestseller list for two years, but her over 20 other works didn't gain the same kind of popularity.
What to read: The Company She Keeps
You'd be surprised how many Pulitzer Prize-winning authors end up almost entirely forgotten. Among them is Jean Stafford, whose collected short stories earned her the honor in 1970 but whose literary merits did not lead to the lifelong popularity the author deserved. A prolific writer whose work regularly appeared in The New Yorker and several other literary magazines, Stafford didn't get the acclaim she deserved until just a few years before her death, and despite her successful novels and story collections and remarkable talent, she remains largely unknown to readers today.
What to read: The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
A writer of all trades, Elizabeth Hardwick was a novelist, short story writer, and literary critic whose work wasn't as popular as it should have been. Hardwick was active in the literary world in her lifetime and famously criticized the state of book reviewing before founding The New York Review of Books with Robert B. Silvers, Barbara Epstein, and A. Whitney Ellsworth. She penned three novels, a collection of short stories, and several works of criticism, as well as other works of nonfiction, but her writing never gained the popularity she helped the books she reviewed achieve.
What to read: Sleepless Nights
A novelist and product of the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen only published two novels and a handful of short stories in her lifetime, but her complex examinations of race and identity should have made her far more popular than she was. Praised by her fellow writers and recognized by many as one of the most important black voices of the time, Larsen eventually gave up writing in favor of a career in nursing, a choice that many critics think robbed her of the opportunity to become the prolific writer she was destined to be.
What to read: Passing
Another writer during the Harlem Renaissance, Dorothy West ran in the same circle as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, but never quite reached their level of popularity among readers. In fact, it wasn't until her novel The Wedding was published in 1995 and became a bestseller that West, then 85-years-old, was properly recognized for her contributions to the African American literary canon.
What to read: The Wedding
8Pearl S. Buck
Another prize winner whose popularity did not equal her literary merit, Pearl S. Buck was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Drawing from her experiences living in China for most of her early life, her work focused on depictions of life abroad, especially poor, rural life. Despite her literary accomplishments and her bestselling fiction novel The Good Earth, Buck's beautiful prose never gave her the star status that other writers around her achieved. She was celebrated in literary circles, but her work remains largely ignored by readers.
What to read: Pavilion of Women
Close friend and eventual biographer of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell was a popular for the ghost stories Charles Dickens published in his magazine, Household Words, but she never reached the same level of fame as her friends and contemporaries. Her writing was praised for its three-dimensional female characters and complex storytelling, but it was also Gaskell's focus on women's narratives that boxed her in and limited her popularity among readers of her time. Her most famous novel, North and South, is well-known and highly praised, but much of her other trailblazing feminist works are left unknown.
What to read: Ruth
A prolific writer and pioneer of science fiction, popularity did not come easy for Leigh Brackett. Harshly criticized for her pulpy space operas that were despised by "real" science fiction writers, Brackett devoted herself to the stories she loved and continued writing sci-fi fantasy, even though it hurt her popularity. It wasn't until she was tapped to work on the first script of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back that she began to get the credit she deserved. Still, despite her major contributions to the sci-fi world, she her writing was put-down for decades, and remains largely forgotten today.
What to read: The Long Tomorrow
Best known for her chilling short story "The Lottery," Shirley Jackson was popular during her lifetime, but not as popular as she deserved to be. A talented author and possibly one of the best ghost story writers ever, Jackson failed to earn the same level of recognition as her contemporaries, including William Faulkner and J.D. Salinger, until recent years.
What to read: We Have Always Lived in the Castle