You can tell a lot about a person by the literary company they keep. Or at least, that’s one of my many theories.
If you’re a writer and you want to improve your own skills, you HAVE to read great writing. Here is a short list of my favorite female authors: chicks who (in my opinion) can write circles around almost everyone else. (Dudes Who Can Write will come in another post.) These women write sentences that are so crazy-good, I often stop and read a particular one over and over.
My own arbitrary criteria for this list are: the writer must be living, and I must have personally read and enjoyed at least 2 of their books. This eliminated a whole lot of one-hit-wonders whose books I LOVED. I’m limiting this post to 10 writers.
With most of these chicks, you can scarcely go wrong by picking up something they wrote. Here they are, in no particular order, along with my personal favorites of their work.
Annie Proulx. Her The Shipping News wowed me more than anything I’ve read in recent years (it wowed everyone else, too – it won nearly every literary award under the sun.) Her style in that book was so wholly original, it was as if she had invented a new way to write. Her short stories are more traditional, but they’re still sharp and interesting.
Favorite: The Shipping News, of course.
Jhumpa Lahiri. In 1999, at the age of 32, Lahiri published her first book, Interpreter of Maladies (a short story collection); and impossibly, but deservedly, won the Pulitzer Prize for it. She has since written another story collection and a full-length novel. I have read all her books, and they are all gorgeous.
Favorite: Interpreter of Maladies.
Joyce Carol Oates. I am a bit conflicted about Oates. Sometimes she dazzles me. Sometimes she leaves me cold. But there’s no denying that she is one of the most prolific (and respected) masters of the craft. “Less is more” does NOT describe Oates: she throws in absolutely everything, including the kitchen sink, but she is SO good, she usually makes it work. I don’t care for some of her earlier work, but I really loved these Favorites: the lyrical, haunting The Falls and the profane Blonde.
Jodi Picoult. She is probably the least “literary” chick on my list – but man, does she know how to tell a story. I’ve read most of the books she’s written in the last 15 years. Picoult writes amazing “hookers” – phrases that begin or end a paragraph or chapter, that are so good they force you to keep reading.
Favorite: My Sister’s Keeper (don’t judge this fantastic book by the treacly movie.)
Anna Quindlen. I first heard of Quindlen when I read a magazine essay she wrote, titled On Losing Your Mom. A photocopy of that article still sits in my filing cabinet. She wrote a fantastic and famous speech for a Villanova commencement address. And she writes novels. I wasn’t crazy about Blessings, but I’ve loved her other books.
Favorites: One True Thing, Black and Blue, and Every Last One.
Ann Patchett. She writes like a dream you never want to wake up from. I resisted reading the wildly popular Bel Canto for years – and once I read it, I was so sorry I’d waited. Patchett combines clever and interesting stories with writing that can almost take your breath away.
Favorites: Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant.
Barbara Kingsolver. Every book she’s written since 1993 has appeared on The New York Times bestseller list, and she’s won numerous awards. In The Poisonwood Bible, a story about an abusive missionary Dad and his four daughters, Kingsolver gave four different first-person narrators astonishingly diverse and believable voices.
Favorites: The Poisonwood Bible and Pigs in Heaven.
Anne Tyler. This smarty was raised in a Quaker community and didn’t attend school until she was 11 years old – but then graduated from Duke University at 19. Her first book was published when she was 22, I think. She’s been a Pulitzer finalist 3 times and won it once. Needless to say – she’s really, really good. Really.
Favorites: Back When We Were Grownups, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and The Amateur Marriage.
Julia Glass. At 46, Glass published her first novel, and promptly won the National Book Award for it, giving hope to late-bloomers everywhere (at least, if they have amazing natural talent like she does.) Like most of the chicks on this list, she writes literary page-turners.
Favorites: Three Junes and I See You Everywhere.
Alice Munro. She is universally considered, by fellow writers and by critics, to be one of the greatest living writers. She will get her own post here at a future time. To me she is simply the queen of everything.
Favorite: Selected Stories. And almost everything else.
** Many of these books have sections that are definitely NOT rated G. If you have a question about whether a particular one is “suitable for all audiences,” ask me.
How about you – who would you add to this list? Anyone here you (gasp) don’t care for?