Chicks Who Can WRITE

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?

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29 thoughts on “Chicks Who Can WRITE

  1. You shame me when I call myself a reader. I’ve only even “heard” of two of these authors. You did make me want to read about Jodi’s hookers, though. 😉

    Did you see the film for Lahiri’s Namesake? I’d be interested to know what you thought of the adaptation to screen.

    Thanks for sharing these. I have some new ground to explore. I’m going to go with your recommendation for Munroe’s Selected Stories. You also made me realize that 90% of the authors I read are male. Shame on me!

    • Dude. You strike me as someone who reads more non-fiction, no? These chicks write fiction.

      I did not see the Namesake movie. Did you not like it? I RARELY like movie adaptations of books. Except the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice.

      If you at ALL like fiction, read Alice Munro.

      • I do read a lot of non-fiction but I got my start with fiction and I’m just recently getting more into “real” literature. I started with a lot of escapist fiction that you would probably thumb your nose at but I’m making my way up the ranks.

        I’m currently reading Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa. It was written in the 70s and its translated from Spanish but it is incredible.

      • Oh and yes, I liked the film version of the Namesake. It dragged a bit at times but they did a pretty good job of telling the story. The parents roles were played fantastically well.

        I never saw the BBC version but I did read Pride & Prejudice and loved the adaptation with Keira Knightley. I hope I didn’t lose my man card with that admission!

      • You did not tear up your man-card w/ a chick flick (my hubby loves them, just as I love action movies), but I hated the Keira version. She has a lantern-jaw and bugs me. You MUST watch the BBC version, promise me. It’s long.

        I don’t thumb my nose at stuff…I think that’s snobby. I certainly think a lot of stuff is poorly written, but anything that gets people reading is okay by me.

        I used to read quite a lot of James Patterson, etc. And even today, sometimes I just want a mindless bit of pulp fiction. 🙂

  2. I thought Joyce Carol Oates was a dude. What! Maybe I’m thinking of Lewis Carroll or James Joyce. I never said my English degree was in lit. Moving on.

    I would have to add Anne Lamott. She is the single-most influential female writer for me as a woman, a Christian, and a regular, messed-up person. She has created the funny-sensitive-Christian-chick niche that fits me so well.

    • Well…when I started this list, I had only read “Bird by Bird” (one of my two favorite writing books), so Anne didn’t qualify (with my “at least 2 books” thing).

      HOWEVER, I have since finished “Traveling Mercies”…and yeah, she’s amazing, and officially one of my favs. I tried to read a novel of hers and couldn’t get into it, but her non-fiction stuff is fan-freaking-tastic.

      I think you were thinking of James Joyce. 🙂

      • First of all, let me salvage my reputation by making clear: I would never think of James Joyce unless you were making a list of Authors Who Bore Me to the Brink of Insanity And Then Some. Also, I was mostly kidding about thinking Joyce Carol was a dude. Mostly.

        I’m with you on her fiction. I never got far with the only book I tried. It was meh. But her non-fiction? Essential. Seriously– essential. To be a thinking, feeling, female Christian, particularly one who writes and drops the occasional and judiciously placed F-bomb, she is water and air.

      • I’ve never read James Joyce. I’d be embarrassed to admit how many classics I haven’t read. I’ve read a lot of them, but by no means all.

        I think Anne’s fiction I tried was that tennis book. What happened there?

        I am pretty conservative (no F-bombs here), but I am also feminist in many areas. If I were a celebrity, my platform would be women’s rights around the world. So yes, I love Anne.

  3. Even though she only has a few books, I would highly recommend checking out Katrina Kittle. I absolutely LOVE her story-telling sensibilities. I think she knocks it out of the park every time.

    And I totally agree with you about Quindlen. Love her.

  4. Great list, and a prompt for me to get caught up with (or introduced to) some of these authors. I would add Ursula K. Le Guin. Her themes tend toward science fiction and fantasy, often with a sociological slant. I will admit that at least part of my appreciation for Le Guin is that she lives in Portland and her books often include local references. A favorite is The Lathe of Heaven, which has been been produced as a made for TV movie twice (neither of which, not surprisingly, did justice to the book).

  5. As I look at the “current” stack of 15 books I am presently reading I despair of getting to the list you have sold me on trying. With hundreds of thousands of titles produced each year it is good to have someone to take up the cream on our behalf. Thanks so much Cathy.
    BTW you are absolutely correct about the BBC P&P version, I have seen it multiple times. Even Hollywood should be embarrassed over the Knightly debacle.

    • I know, I know. My unread stack contains about 30 books. And I keep finding more I want to read. Kids have a way of eating up “leisure” time, don’t they?

      Yes, we own the BBC P&P. So wonderful. I don’t think I’ve watched it in a couple of years. We now have to watch movies in half hour increments. Which takes a while.

    • Have you read some of the above authors, and is Robinson comparable? If so, I will give her a try. (I don’t usually trust recommendations, so feel special.)

      I will say, though…my PBNR (purchased but not read) library now fills one and a half shelves of a large bookshelf in my living room. So….I’m very behind. Sigh.

  6. I’ve read Lahiri and Joyce Carol Oates and am at least familiar with the others from bookselling. Robinson is amazing. She ahs three novels. The first, Housekeeping, was nominated for the Pulitzer and was listed as one of TIme magazines 100 greatest novels of the 20th century. The second, Gilead, won the Pulitzer. The third, Home, was nominated for the National Book Award. That’s a pretty good hitting percentage. Her prose is just…stunning.

    • Ah. Those ARE the types of credentials I trust. 🙂 Sometimes Nobel winners leave me wanting (I couldn’t get into Soul Mountain…should probably try again), but I almost always like Pulitzer winners.

      Not that I’ve read all of them, of course. Just quite a few of them.

      This is fun.

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