On this International Women’s Day our thoughts turn naturally to great Women Authors. Who are our favourites? I love this list of the ’20 Most Influential Women Authors Of All Time’. It’s pretty comprehensive and takes in a broad timespan. But I think there are a few authors missing from the list, so I’ve filled in the gaps:
Perhaps best known for her novel Nights at the Circus, which won the 1984 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for literature, Angela Carter’s magical realism brings strange and wonderful worlds to life. I studied The Magic Toyshop at college and have been hooked ever since. If you’ve never read any Carter, I recommend starting with The Bloody Chamber, a collection of short stories based on traditional fairytales.
A giant of the science fiction genre, Ursula Le Guin explores themes of social and psychological identity while looking at cultural and social structures, which are often dismantled and examined. Her books offer a compelling look at the world we live in mirrored in other worlds. Put like that, it sounds intellectual, but the key for me is that her work is never preachy – you really care about the characters and what happens to them. The Left Hand of Darkness, which has won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award, is a good starting point.
Margaret Atwood’s most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, won the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. She describes it as ‘speculative fiction’ rather than science fiction, although she is often referred to as a science fiction writer. Anyone who is interested in feminist writing needs to read The Handmaid’s Tale.
This may seem like an odd choice and some people hate children’s author Enid Blyton’s writing with a passion, but I think she deserves a mention even if only for the sheer quantity of work she produced and the amount she sold. She wrote 762 books in total, including non-fiction and collections of short stories. She also wrote across a wide range of genres and for different age groups. Her work is controversial because of its depictions of race, sex and class, as well as the clear view of the author’s moral framework which some consider priggish. Her books have been banned from more public libraries than any others. If you’ve never read anything by Blyton, the Famous Five series is probably her most, ahem, famous.
Octavia Butler is one of the most highly regarded science fiction writers and her work explores big ideas like genetic manipulation, segregation and hierarchical social structures. In 1995 she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship. Patternmaster, the first novel from her Patternist series, is a good place to start. If you’re a feminist, take your hat off to Butler for being that rare creature, a black woman writing science fiction – very successfully at that.
Like Angela Carter, Tanith Lee’s writing often features different interpretations of fairytales and myths, and she tackles the thorny topics of racism, sexism and homophobia. Her style is lush, rich and poetic and she creates worlds which you can escape into, but which also make you think. It’s like traditional sword-and-sorcery, but with considerable depth. If you’ve never read Lee, you might as well start with her first adult novel, The Birthgrave.
Susan Hill’s writing style is unusual but it has a rhythm which I find strangely restful. Hill has an eye for minutiae and a talent for describing elements of ‘boring’ everyday life in a compelling way. She is a mistress of using understatement to subtly build up tension. My personal favourite of hers is I’m the King of the Castle, although The Woman in Black is probably her best-known work.
No list of great or influential female writers would be complete without Ruth Rendell. She is the true mistress of the psychological thriller and has influenced countless writers of the next generation. in A Judgement in Stone she turns the conventions of crime fiction on their head, revealing ‘who does what to whom and why’ in the opening sentence. The first Rendell book I read was Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter and I have fond memories of it, but From Doon with Death is the first one in the Inspector Wexford series and probably the best choice to start with.
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