Esquire just posted a list called “12 Authors Every Man Must Know.” With entries like Stephen King and Philip Roth, it was the most phoned-in list I’ve read recently. I mean, really: Norman fucking Mailer? Shakespeare? The only woman chosen was Zadie Smith, which is legit but still, kind of obvious. It’s like someone did a Google search for “good authors” and picked the first ones they saw.
I’m not trying to discredit the authors chosen for the list; I’ve read something by most of them. I think each has his place in the literature canon. I was just a bit disappointed by the predictability. Maybe they could’ve included Tom Robbins? Michael Chabon? Junot Diaz? Or you know, maybe more than one woman?
A few friends and I put our heads together and made a list of the female authors that everyone needs to be aware of and the best places to start if you’d like to become more familiar with their work.
Alice Munro is the master of the short story. She just won the Nobel Prize, for Christ’s sake. Her stories are written in a simple, clear tone but so layered and complex that you could spend a whole day just visiting and analyzing one. I love Alice Munro’s heroines. They’re sometimes plain, sometimes pretty, sometimes young, sometimes old, but always feel real. (Start here: “Runaway,” which began my love affair with Munro.)
Don’t discredit JB because she is primarily a young adult author. Her books dealt with real shit young girls were going through: sex, periods, parents divorcing … Where would pop culture be without “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” Her forthright tone generated controversy in the ’70s and ’80s, but her books have since been published in over 31 languages. And if you’re anything like me, reading her adult novel “Summer Sisters” taught you a lot about sex when you were like, 12. (Start here: “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” Seriously! Read it.)
Nora Ephron is my personal favorite on this list. I just chewed my way through “The Most of Nora Ephron” and loved every second of it, especially her novel “Heartburn.” The late Ephron was a screenwriter (“When Harry Met Sally,” “You’ve Got Mail,” etc.) but also a director (“Bewitched”), essayist, blogger, playwright and all-around brilliant wit, sort of a modern-day Dorothy Parker. I miss her. (Start here: “The Most of Nora Ephron“)
Eternally cool, eternally influential. Joan Didion is famous for her pointed, sharp essays on culture and history. She’s also written two devastating memoirs, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” about her husband’s death, and “Blue Nights” about the death of her daughter. She’s so smart it’s scary. (Start here: Essay collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking.”)
Mary Karr defined the memoir genre with her groundbreaking, earth-shattering “The Liars’ Club,” which details her Texas childhood with a crazy but lovable mother. She went on to write two more: “Cherry,” about her teen years, and “Lit,” about her life as a young mother, writer and alcoholic and her eventual conversion to Catholicism. She’s razor-sharp both in prose and poems. I interviewed MK in person a few years ago and I was insanely nervous. She was perfectly lovely. (Start here: “The Liars’ Club“)
Canadian author Margaret Atwood likes to inject a bit of sci-fi into her fiction. Consider “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Oryx and Crake,” which deal with alternate worlds, often in a restricted nation, that could actually take place in our modern-day society. (Kind of like the “Hunger Games,” yes.) She calls it “speculative fiction.” Atwood has also written several volumes of poetry and is active in politics, environmental issues and now, Twitter! (Start here: “The Handmaid’s Tale.”)
The relationship between a mother and daughter can be complex, and Amy Tan captures the dynamics perfectly in “The Joy Luck Club.” “The Joy Luck Club” is her most famous novel, and it’s been adapted for sale all over the world as well as made into a film. She often writes about Chinese-American immigrants. Tan also writes award-winning children’s books and nonfiction. (Start here: “The Joy Luck Club“)
Joyce Carol Oates
Oates deserves a place here simply for her incredible output. She has written 40+ novels, plays, short stories and non-fiction works. I became acquainted with Oates via her imaginative biography of Marilyn Monroe, “Blonde,” for which she was nominated for a Pulitzer. Oates is famous for her fastidious work ethic; she writes in longhand! She somehow finds time to teach creative writing at Princeton. (Start here: “Blonde.”)
London-born, American-raised Lahiri grew up in Rhode Island, but her parents made sure to teach their children about their Bengali culture. She grew up to receive several writing degrees, publishing her first story collection in 1999. She writes often about Indian-Americans like herself. “The Namesake” was turned into a movie in 2007 and “Unaccustomed Earth” debuted at no. 1 on the NYT Bestseller List. (Start here: “Unaccustomed Earth.”)
Have you ever read anything as devastating as “Beloved?” Probably not. (If you haven’t read it, I’m not going to spoil it for you!) Morrison has both a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize under her belt. Most of her oeuvre centers on black women, from “The Bluest Eye” about a little girl who wants nothing more than blue eyes, to the aforementioned “Beloved,” which is about slavery. Morrison is an inventive writer and her prose hits you right in the heart. (Start here: “Beloved.”)
Lydia Davis is another noted short-story writer. Her work is never boring; several of her stories are only a sentence or two. Some toe the line between fiction and poetry. She toys with the idea of a conventional short story and reforms it to her own liking. Tao Lin cites her as an influence. (Start here: “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.”)
Who cares if she writes romance novels? She’s the bestselling author alive right now and the FOURTH BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF EVER. That’s of all time, since books were made. That’s insane. Now 66, Steel has written hundreds of books and continues to churn them out. And guess what? All of them are bestsellers. I mean, they’re not high art, but there’s something to be said about someone who excels so wonderfully in the realm of mass-market literature. My grandma has to read too, you know. (Start here: I’ve always quite liked “Zoya” and “Palomino.” “Palomino” is my personal fantasy: inherit a ranch, fall in love with a hot ranch hand.)