1. Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013)
In my twenties, I was a foreigner in London. Reading Lessing’s subtly brilliant short story Out of the Fountain, I had that Keatsian feeling of a new world coming into view. As I read my way into the books of this fellow exile, her range and depth emerged – from psychological portraits in granular detail, to vast explorations of cataclysm and survival. Class, sex, old age, childhood, the inner workings of politics, the wilder shores of the psyche – she embraced complexity and got under the skin of the human condition with piercing acuity. This was writing from the frontiers of experience and utterly mind-stretching.
The two landmarks, for me, are Shikasta, her monumental portrait of humanity, and The Four-Gated City (part of the Children of Violence series), Lessing’s visionary mapping of London and the no-man’s-land between psychosis and sanity – this book opened doors for me. Her understanding of resilience and transformation in the midst of upheaval is profound. In our obfuscating times, we continue to need that eye. –barbkay.
Start with: The Golden Notebook – “Hailed as one of the key texts of the women’s movement of the 1960s, this study of a divorced single mother’s search for personal and political identity remains a defiant, ambitious tour de force,” wrote Robert McCrum.
- “I was the cuckoo in the nest” – Writer Jenny Diski tells the story of how she lived with Lessing as a teenager
- My hero: Doris Lessing by Margaret Drabble – “Doris would invite herself to lunch with me in Hampstead, when the mood took her. I never dared to say no”
- Doris Lessing in her own words on the Guardian books podcast
- ‘She helped change the way women are perceived, and perceive themselves’ – by Guardian Review editor Lisa Allardice
2. Toni Morrison (born 1931)
When we asked readers for their favourite books by women, many replied with “anything and everything written by Toni Morrison.” Here are but a few.
Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the best book I have ever read. A horror story in every sense. I re-read it as soon as I had finished it. Chilling, difficult, painful, but absolutely brilliant. –afiercebadrabbit
Beloved. It’s odd reading a book at which you are simultaneously repulsed at how you feel and yet you understand exactly why you feel that way. She’s a terrific writer. –getebi
I love every word she’s written, with Beloved at the top of my list. I’m also sad to see few writers from non-Anglo Saxon cultures listed as there are so many superb writers from other traditions. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is my favourite book of all time, and I also adore Elif Shafak, whose fiction and essays as well as her talks are outstandingly fresh and insightful. Read The Flea Palaceand The Bastard of Istanbul. –spraos
Start with: Beloved – “If Beloved represents the terrible pain and suffering of a people whose very mother-love is warped by torture into murder, she is no thin allegory or shrill tract. This is a huge, generous, humane and gripping novel,” wrote A S Byatt
- ‘I’m writing for black people … I don’t have to apologise’ – interview by Hermione Hoby
- Tea with Toni Morrison, by SL Bridglal
- Toni Morrison on her novels: ‘I think goodness is more interesting’
- Her 1993 Nobel lecture
3. Ursula K Le Guin (born 1929)
The Earthsea trilogy is absolutely magnificent: poetry, wisdom, sadness, satisfaction, fantasy, realism. Far better dragons than Tolkien’s or George RR Martin’s, far better written – the whole shebang, except for humour. But then, Tolstoy didn’t go in for jokes much either. She taught me that there is nothing wrong with life or with death: the one is to be delighted in, the other accepted – Daniel Mccormick in Coatbridge, Scotland
The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin has been something of a personal bible since I was a child. –punkmonkey
Start with: The Earthsea series or The Left Hand of Darkness – “they are some of the very few titles which I would be confident enough to name as true classics, novels that will endure well beyond our lifetimes,” wrote Alison Flood
- My inspiration: SF Said on Ursula Le Guin
- Ursula Le Guin: ‘Wizardry is artistry’
- ‘Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here’ – her fantastic 1987 letter, responding to a request asking her to write a blurb for a science fiction anthology that contained no female voices
4. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
I would like to put in a word for Virginia Woolf, and especially for the under-appreciated Orlando, where the long-lived protagonist starts out as a young nobleman before becoming a wife and mother. The book runs from Elizabethan England to 1928 and says a lot about the position of women while being both clever and funny. Perhaps Woolf is a bit too “literary” for some tastes, but Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse , The Waves and A Room of One’s Own must surely speak to many. I think (hope) she will come to be recognised as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. –JackSchofield
To The Lighthouse, it had a huge impact on me when I first read it. It really made me consider and reconsider how I think and find direction. I loved Lily Briscoe and that devastatingly matter-of-fact middle chapter/section that splits the novel. There are so many books by women that I love, but TTL is my favourite. –daveportivo
Pretty much all of Woolf, whom I read voraciously during the late 90s and still dip into now and then for a quick dose of writerly inspiration. Hard to pick any one favorite, fiction or non-fiction. But A Room of One’s Own changed my life.–Jenny Bhatt
- Portraits of Virginia Woolf: here, the true face of the modern writer
- Virginia Woolf should live on, but not because of her death, by Holly Williams
- Woolf it down: on how the Bloomsbury set shows they were almost as obsessed with eating as with art
5. Clarice Lispector (1920 – 1977)
If a writer such as Clarice Lispector is to be considered significant from a feminist point of view, then it would probably be due to the absence of anything in her work or life which could be said to resemble the stereotype of the “Lady Novelist”. As well as living like a sort of secular hermit, her writing is elusive and mystical, being much less concerned with plot and character than with abstract ideas, such as The Apple in the Dark’s consideration of the nature of artistic creation or Agua Viva’s obsessive focus on trying to isolate single moments in time. Although she could write movingly about women’s experiences (especially in The Hour of the Star), her almost stubborn unworldliness otherwise gives the lie to the awful old cliché that women are somehow deficient in considering the abstract, and shows that women are as unrestricted in subject matter as men. She really is one of the oddest and most individual writers I’ve read. –Jacob Howarth in Oxford
I heard of her just a month ago, from a Korean American friend. All I can say about her at this stage is that she knows me better than I do. I am reading The Complete Stories published 2015, which is full of lovely and shocking surprises. I finish one of her stories with a huge grin that lasts all day, another story may leave me arguing with myself … each one is having an profound impact on me.
She inspires me more than any other author in this second half of my life. Her uniquely fluid style reveals a mind so perspicacious, so permissively poetic … and utterly radical. As a feisty feminist, I find peace in Lispector’s reveries; she defies convention at every level by writing from deep within her psyche, embracing human flaws and foibles as perfectly natural. Her trademark self-acceptance is so refreshingly robust that I have found myself at times interrupting my reading with whoops of awe and admiration for her freedom of thought and spirit. –Mars Drum
- A brief survey of the short story, part 56: “This darkly addictive Brazilian writer is more concerned with perceptions of objects than conventional plot structures”, wrote Chris Power
- The True Glamour of Clarice Lispector, by Benjamin Moser for the New Yorker
- Brazil’s Virginia Woolf, by Brenda Cronin for the Wall Street Journal
6. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (born 1977)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah has moved me like no other in recent memory. I would describe it as transformational because it provided an insight into the reality of what it means to be a young, ambitious, highly intelligent, sometimes single black woman in contemporary America. It’s an honest book about race, identity and the constant longing and nostalgia one feels for this metaphorical place called home. I was also moved by the story because it touchingly describes the loving relationship between the two central characters, showcasing that neither space nor time can erase love.
We usually go back to the same desires and preferences we had as 15-year-olds, and Americanah captures this sentiment. Moreover, it is a transformational book because it portrays Nigeria as a place that is mythical, marvellous, chaotic and slightly dangerous, yet also wildly fascinating, with a magnetic power to attract its brightest emigrés back to its shores. Reading this has made me realise that some of the most powerful narratives in contemporary fiction have been written by young, highly educated female African writers, who are tired of the old clichés frequently bandied around about Africa. Ngozi Adichie is a new, powerful and incredibly talented voice; her novel Americanah is the expression of a different African tale, of a continent and its people that have many more magnetic stories to tell, as well as critiques to raise about the so-called enlightened West. —beograd
- ‘I decided to call myself a Happy Feminist’ – her world-famous TED talk
- ‘Don’t we all write about love? When men do it, it’s a political comment. When women do it, it’s just a love story’ – interview by Emma Brockes
- Every 16-year-old in Sweden will receive copy of We Should All Be Feminists
7. Margaret Atwood (born 1939)
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. She predicted all that is happening today in that book. –shofmann
Everything about it is scarily easy to imagine. Her descriptions of how women began to be punished for abortions reminds me of legislation happening right now in the USA, for example. –getebi
- Haunted by The Handmaid’s Tale – Atwood on the legacy of her iconic novel
- Margaret Atwood webchat – her answers to your questions
- ‘I set myself a schedule of three to five pages a day’ – Atwood on writing
8. Zadie Smith (born 1975)
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. Could read it over and over again. –Sarah Hassam
On Beauty by Zadie Smith is absolutely brilliant. Smith is often categorized first by race and gender and thus is never considered the peer of other modern literary fiction writers like Franzen and Rushdie, but she easily beats them at their own style. –emason1121
Start with: White Teeth, a novel on the lives of various multicultural families living in London; “an audaciously assured contribution to this process of staring into the mirror,” wrote Caryl Philipps
- Fail better: “What makes a good writer? Is writing an expression of self, or, as TS Eliot argued, ‘an escape from personality’?” Thanks to Jenny Bhatt and MildGloster for pointing us towards this 2007 essay.
- Windows on the Will: Smith’s essay about watching the new Charlie Kaufman film Anomalisa, and Arthur Schopenhauer, was recently published on the New York Review of Books. “I went to see Anomalisa, largely because of how interesting Smith made it seem,” shared MildGloster.
9. Elena Ferrante (born 1943)
Of the many beautifully wrought themes explored in Elena Ferrante’s masterful Neapolitan series, one that especially speaks to me, as a woman, is the question of what it means to attain presence versus what it means to disappear. Lila and Lenú, the central characters, each struggles to not disappear, despite the forces of class, history, and violence conspiring against them as women. Each tries to avoid what Lila loathingly describes as the problem of “dissolving margins,” when “the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared.” Reading Ferrante has led me to wonder: How many times have I, as a woman, faced being erased – in relationships, in career, in the larger social order? How many far less-privileged women, in hostile corners of the world, face the threat of vanishing completely, dissolving into the boundaries of others without a trace? –Veronica Majerol, New York, NY
Start with: The Days of Abandonment, a short novel Ferrante wrote before her famous Neapolitan series – a great taster, and brilliant in its own right.
- Elena Ferrante: the global literary sensation nobody knows
- Elena Ferrante: ‘Anonymity lets me concentrate exclusively on writing’ – an interview by Deborah Orr
10. Angela Carter (1940 – 1992)
When I was at university I saw someone give a paper on Angela Carter’s dystopian masterpiece The Passion of New Eve. It was probably another year or so before I got my hands on a copy but I was not disappointed.
The premise alone – a man captured by radical feminists and surgically transformed into a woman so that he may bear the messiah – was enough to pique my interest, but it was Carter’s hallucinatory prose and rich symbolism that made this novel unforgettable. –elbartonfink
Start with: Nights at the Circus – the story of winged circus performer Sophie Fevvers’s travels through 19th-century Europe, that was named the best-ever winner of Britain’s oldest literary prize, the James Tait Black award.
- Angela Carter: a portrait in postcards
- A brief survey of the short story: Angela Carter, by Chris Power
- Femme fatale: Angela Carter’s subversive take on traditional fairy stories in The Bloody Chamber is as shocking today as when the collection first appeared in 1979, wrote Helen Simpson