Below you'll find our list — compiled following lively debate by Powell's staff — of 25 women you absolutely must read in your lifetime.
In one sense, singling out a small group of female writers as eminently worthy of attention feels like an injustice to a gender who has published an immeasurable amount of profound, enduring literature. At the same time, recognizing great female authors is an exercise we here at Powell's are dedicated to undertaking again and again — emphatically, enthusiastically, unapologetically.
And so we present to you 25 female writers we admire for their vision, their fearlessness, their originality, and their impact on the literary world and beyond. To get you started, we've included a book recommendation for each author.
How often, among literature lovers, are poems from Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language quoted? ("I choose not to suffer uselessly // ...I choose to love this time for once / with all my intelligence," from "Splittings.") This collection, especially the middle sequence, "Twenty-One Love Poems," contains some of the most beautiful and arresting love poetry written this century. Adrienne Rich is a feminist giant, and these poems, written in 1974, map and delineate the territory of women's love for women (sexual and otherwise) and the struggle of selfhood, consciousness, history, and art with strength, creativity, and fierce empathy. Even if you think you're not a fan of poetry, Rich's work — her "common language" — will move you. – Jill O.
Bechdel first became well-known as a cartoonist for her long-running series Dykes to Watch Out For (1983-2008). When Fun Home was published in 2006, it was clear her work had taken a much different direction. She says that Fun Home is about how she learned to be an artist from her father. "Fun Home" was what she and her brothers called the funeral home that her father ran part-time. Bechdel narrates her childhood through diary entries that catapult the reader back in time, clever juxtapositions of literary classics, and artwork with a slightly gothic feel. The subtitle is "A Family Tragicomic," and Fun Home is exactly that, but so much more: the story of Bechdel's coming out, her relationship with her father, her father's death, and his own sexuality. – Mary Jo
Hempel used to be in that category known as a "writer's writer" — critically praised, loved devotedly by fellow authors, and often taught (particularly her near-perfect story, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried") but not widely read. In fact, several of her early collections of stories were out of print and difficult to find. But with the publication of her Collected Stories a few years ago, there's now no excuse for not reading her. Hempel is one of the best story writers in America today, hands-down — her incredible, sharp-edged prose, her precise minimalist style, her devastating and often absurd humor and poignancy have made her a touchstone and influence for other contemporary writers. Hempel's Collected Stories is an abundance that will reward readers again and again. – Jill O.
Adichie's ability to write with compassionate, brilliant prose about topics such as civil war, political strife, immigration issues, race, cultural differences, and love has earned her well-deserved critical acclaim and many awards, including a MacArthur "Genius Grant" in 2008. Adichie's most recent novel, Americanah, parallels some of her own experience as a Nigerian coming to America for the first time to attend college. Alternating between the present and past, Ifemelu tries to adjust to her new temporary home, learning what it really means to be black in America. Although now "settled" and with a successful career, Ifemelu longs to return to Nigeria and leave everything behind, including shutting down a popular blog about her notable American observations. A poignant, funny, sometimes scathing look at the reality of being a new immigrant in the United States — especially from an African perspective — Americanah is an unforgettable work of literature not to be missed. – Jen C.
Lispector, a Jewish, Ukraine-born Brazilian author and journalist, is much-beloved throughout the world, but is sadly under-read in the United States. Her last (and most popular) work, The Hour of the Star, was originally published mere months before her death in 1977. Lispector's novel offers the story of Macabéa, a poor, unattractive, and malnourished — yet curious (if not a little naïve) — Rio-based typist, as well as that of the book's narrator, Rodrigo S.M., and his mounting hardships in conveying the tale of young Macabéa. Exquisite and singular, the often-woeful novel is magnificent as much for its story as for the uncommon approach by which it's told. Lispector's gifted prose frequently shimmers with an innocent beauty, and so many of her passages nearly radiate from the page. Lispector may well be one of the most brilliant writers you haven't yet had the honor of reading. – Jeremy G.
There's no living writer like Donna Tartt. Not since reading the Greek and Russian greats in college have I encountered a writer so gifted in weaving the melodramatic, even the supernatural, into the everyday; nor have I read prose so finely calibrated and opulent that the story's atmosphere quickly supplants my own. All of Tartt's novels — each a decade in the making — involve eccentric characters who find themselves in increasingly outlandish, dangerous situations. Her excellent debut novel, the literary thriller The Secret History, follows a cult-like group of classics students at a prestigious college who begin committing murders, possibly under the direction of Dionysus, Greek god of ritual madness. A spellbinding and darkly humorous drama of privilege and desire, The Secret History is the type of book you read through the night and think about long after you've finished. – Rhianna W.
Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat's themes of mother-daughter relationships have exotic rhythms that feel as magical as they do earthy. There is honesty in her storytelling of the Haitian diaspora, of divided families; revealing love, loss, and longing. Her novels and short stories are of bittersweet memories and quick, violent societal injustices. Danticat's award-winning writing (National Book Critics Circle, American Book Award, etc.) embodies the spice of the cooking pot, the vibrant colors of Haiti, and a sisterhood of women. In Breath, Eyes, Memory, a Haitian daughter is removed from the world she knows and understands to be sent to New York for a reunion with a mother she doesn't recall. They do their best to accommodate each other's love, but adherence to generational tradition endangers their delicate trust. Danticat's writing is alluring, almost tribal. Simple and complex, crushing and beautiful, Breathe, Eyes, Memory will linger long in your own memory. – Tracey T.
In her Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Sixth Extinction, New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert confronts what may well be the most compelling, portentous, and defining characteristic of our modernity: the nearly inconceivable and irretrievable loss of earth's biodiversity at the hands of our own species. Although earth has endured five mass extinctions over the last half-billion years — during which "the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted" — we now have the distinct and dubious honor of not only "witnessing one of the rarest events in life's history, [but] also causing it." Incisive, imperative, and full of shrewd reporting, Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction is a most significant and substantial work — one that foresees the calamity of our future and aims to forestall the most ignominious bequest imaginable. – Jeremy G.
Eliot is an author most people know from school or because they see her books on lists of "important literature." But reading Middlemarch, her extraordinary monument to early-19th-century provincial England, is far from a stodgy, academic experience. With a touch of satire and an incredible grasp on the intricacies of human nature, Eliot illustrates the patterns — and peculiarities — of the people inhabiting her fictional town of Middlemarch. Flawed and conflicted, her characters stumble along as we all do, navigating mistakes and misfortunes with varying levels of success. This is not a book of classic character arcs or happy endings, but it is a true masterpiece, something to be enjoyed for its intrigue, savored for its razor-sharp prose, and admired for its timelessness. – Renee P.
From 1915 to 1970, almost six million African Americans left the South in search of better economic opportunities and a higher quality of life. It was one of the largest internal migrations in history and had a profound effect on the culture and politics of this country. To better understand this monumental yet underdocumented event, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson spent 15 years and interviewed more than 1,000 people researching and writing The Warmth of Other Suns. In this masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, Wilkerson gives the epic scale of the Great Migration a human angle by focusing on three individuals to represent each of the three main migratory routes. The Warmth of Other Suns is an illuminating and riveting account, filled with stories that are finely crafted, meticulously researched, and immensely readable. – Shawn D.
Jacobs was a writer, activist, and visionary whose work had a profound effect on the way we look at the urban areas around us. She was considered an outcast in the male-dominated world of urban planning, yet her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, remains a seminal text in this field. One of the great joys of this book is that Jacobs is not an academic, but rather a committed city dweller who obliviously derives much pleasure from living in an urban landscape. Her writing is insightful, honest, unpretentious, and eye-opening. The enthusiasm Jacobs feels for our cities is contagious and shines through on every page of this classic. – Shawn D.
Didion is a true original. Her spare, no-nonsense style and acute observational skills completely changed the way we view literary nonfiction, and the influence she's had on generations of authors is immeasurable. Though often grouped together with Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and others in the New Journalism movement, her work has endured in ways theirs has not. It's been nearly 50 years since the first essays in Slouching towards Bethlehem were written, yet her unblinking portrait of America in general and California in particular remains as vibrant and relevant as ever. – Shawn D.
Armstrong's career began when she wrote and presented a documentary on the life of St. Paul, which aired on BBC's Channel Four. A former nun and one of the foremost authors writing on comparative religion, Armstrong has published over 20 titles. A History of God discusses the origins of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and explains how our concept of God has changed throughout the course of history. It is fascinating to learn how politics, philosophy, and various schools of thought have changed the way we think about monotheism. Most of us don't spend much time considering where our ideas about God came from. In A History of God, Armstrong gives the reader a wealth of information in order to better understand the big picture. It's a meaty book, full of big ideas and well worth the read. – Mary Jo
Shriver sent the manuscript of We Need to Talk about Kevin to her agent just after 9/11. Her agent found the book thoroughly distasteful and suggested an extensive rewrite. Shriver eventually found a new agent and published the book to great success. Twelve years later, We Need to Talk about Kevin continues to be a timely and necessary examination of evil in our society and what happens when that evil is under your own roof. It's a compelling and grim read that has a train-wreck quality to it; you can't seem to look away from the characters. Are they despicable, or well-meaning people floundering in a situation beyond their control? – Mary Jo
Erdrich's writing runs deep with 14 acclaimed novels, including The Round House (winner of the National Book Award) and The Plague of Doves (a Pulitzer finalist). While it's likely you've read her more recent titles, to get the keenest sense of Erdrich and her heritage, it's well worth it to return to the first novel of her Native American series, Love Medicine. Winner of the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award, Love Medicine is heartbreaking, raw, and mesmerizing. The story exposes the heart and soul of the Kashpaw and Lamartine families living on a North Dakota reservation, across generations. Erdrich's writing is colorful and melodic throughout, with breathtaking passages like her depiction of Grandpa Kashpaw: "Elusive, pregnant with history, his thoughts finned off and vanished. The same color as water." Fans and readers new to Erdrich alike should not miss this classic. – Kim S.
It can be hard to pinpoint what makes Lydia Davis's writing so magnetic. Her precise, no-nonsense language combined with her liberal definition of the short story? Her attention to the overlooked, the mundane, the clutter in our lives that holds so much meaning? Her understated sense of humor, so deeply ingrained in her observations about the absurdities of life? Whatever it is, you'll find it in spades in her Collected Stories, which compiles all of Davis's short fiction from her seminal Break It Down (1986) through Varieties of Disturbance (2007). Few writers' work lends itself so well to a compilation. Whether you pick stories at random or start at the beginning and work your way through the collection (highly recommended), this is a book that feels like the best gift: fun, poignant, and endlessly rewarding.
– Renee P.
Atwood is a master at conveying the inner landscape of her characters, and her novels are frequently peppered with sharp and incisive social commentary. Adored by both readers and critics, she has published over 40 works, including many books of poetry, and has won countless accolades, including the Booker Prize and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Cat's Eye, written in 1988, is the story of Elaine, a famous painter who returns to the city where she grew up for a retrospective exhibit of her work. Long flashbacks take the reader back to Elaine's childhood where she endured much emotional torment from her group of friends. Cat's Eye is an uncanny portrayal of how cruel children can be to their peers, the toll it can take on the victims, and how that cruelty echoes on in the mind for years. Atwood brings Elaine's world alive for the reader in vivid and incandescent detail. – Mary Jo
In her short 53 years, Mary Shelley wrote novels, plays, short stories, essays, biographies, and travel books, but it's not surprising that she is best known for her novel Frankenstein. It's hard to separate the idea of Frankenstein's monster from the popular icon he's become, but everyone should read the original novel. Shelley's gothic masterpiece, first published when she was only 20 years old, is far richer than the legacy it brought to life, a work of elegance and depth, more tragedy than monster story, exploring the dangers of hubris, the nature of so-called evil, the sorrows that lead us to our crimes, and the possibility that rejection and remorse are far greater horrors than any monster. – Gigi L.
Highsmith is a master of stark, poetic prose, acclaimed for her relentless themes of murder and psychological torment. She is best known for her series of five Tom Ripley novels, popularly referred to as the Ripliad. Like the Ripley stories, Highsmith's debut book, Strangers on a Train, is most remembered for its adaptation to the screen. Its hypnotic plot revolves around a moment between two strangers and one very out-of-the-ordinary proposition: "…what an idea! We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife and you kill my father!" Yes, Hitchcock made that famous movie, but Highsmith's original novel is more complex and far darker. More than just a gripping thriller, this fascinating character study asks the question: What is the dividing line between sanity and madness, between the hunted and the hunter?
– Gigi L.
Solnit is one of the most eloquent, urgent, and intelligent voices writing nonfiction today; from Men Explain Things to Me to Storming the Gates of Paradise, anything she's written is well worth reading. But her marvelous book of essays A Field Guide to Getting Lost might be her most poetic, ecstatic work. Field Guide is about the spaces between stability and risk, solitude, and the occasional claustrophobia of ordinary life. With dreamlike transitions, Solnit considers a variety of examples which contrast created wildness with natural wilderness, including Passover, punk music, and suburban youth, the early death of a friend from an overdose, movie-making in the ruins of a mental hospital, and her affair with a hermit in the Southwestern desert. She explores the mysterious without puncturing the mystery, and that is a remarkable achievement indeed. – Jill O.
Sontag was good at pretty much everything related to language — she wrote novels, stories, plays, and memoirs. But the best of her efforts were her essays and critical writings. It's difficult to narrow down a single collection to represent her nonfiction work, which ranged from horror movies to encapsulating "camp" to exploring illness as metaphor. On Photography is one of her seminal works, wherein she redefines and examines ways of seeing, representation, and reality. As Sontag writes in the first essay, "In Plato's Cave," "To collect photographs is to collect the world," and On Photography radically expands our consciousness of what it is to live in such a place. – Jill O.
If the only book you've read by Toni Morrison is her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Beloved, you're missing out. Known for her powerfully evocative prose, her grand mystical tales steeped in black history, her haunting (and haunted) characters, Morrison is an author whose body of work demands attention. Her third novel, Song of Solomon — Barack Obama's self-proclaimed favorite book — is a magnificent, epic story following Macon "Milkman" Dead, along with an assortment of characters whose lives touch, and at times endanger, his own. Violence and a palpable fear of injustice pervades the people of this book, set in Michigan in the '30s through the '60s. But moreover, as the many characters emerge in full color for both Milkman and the reader, Song of Solomon is a book of awakenings, and a tale of one man's journey from defiance to action. – Renee P.
As sinuous a novel as Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd is, it is all the more remarkable on account of it being a debut — and a most assured one at that. The Mexican novelist and essayist's first fiction entwines multiple narratives and perspectives, shifting between them with the ease and gracefulness of a writer far beyond her years (Faces in the Crowd was published when Luiselli was 28). The metafictional scaffolding of Luiselli's novel is seamlessly constructed, and its bibliocentric façade entrenches it within a rich tradition of referential Latin American literature. Faces in the Crowd, beyond its gorgeous writing and superb composition, is modest yet striking, measured yet salient. Last fall, the National Book Foundation named Luiselli one of 2014's "5 under 35," and given the evident range of her myriad literary talents, it's no great wonder why. – Jeremy G.
Reading Virginia Woolf is like stepping out onto a veranda, where the entire world unfurls before you in dazzling detail. Her unparalleled ability to paint a scene so exquisitely, and to inhabit her characters with such clarity and intensity, makes for an experience that is both awe-inspiring and deeply moving. To the Lighthouse, set in a weathered vacation home on the edge of a Scottish isle, depicts lives shaped by the temperament of the environment and the ancient myths of the sea. People's moods change at whim, perspective passes fluidly from body to body, and the grandeur of the landscape beckons the characters to embark on a journey that proves epic voyages don't always involve great distances. It doesn't get more beautiful than this. – Renee P.
One of only 13 women to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (out of 111 total laureates), Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (pronounced vees-WAH-vah shim-BOR-ska) was awarded the world's highest literary honor in 1996. A career-spanning work that features poems from eight separate collections, Poems New and Collected offers some four decades of the poet's finest verse. Despite having published only a few hundred poems during her lifetime, Szymborska was regarded as one of the century's finest European Poets. Described as the "Mozart of Poetry," Szymborska was recognized by the Nobel committee "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality." With rich imagery and a wide stylistic range, the profundity of Szymborska's poetry makes it personal, timeless, and universally relevant. – Jeremy G.