In June 2011 Nobel prize-winning author, V.S. Naipaul, said that he’d never read a woman writer to equal him. In an interview with the Royal Geographic Society he said he could tell a woman’s writing within a ‘paragraph or two’. ‘Women’s fiction’ is a sub-genre of its own, and marketed by pink covers, high heels, handbags, or bodices. But that is not the shelf of books Naipaul was referring to. He meant the inadequacy and inferiority of female produced literary fiction, women trying the avant-garde and experimental, attempting voyages into the external and internal world. There are several myths about female writing that must be changed in order to take full advantage of a vast and varied world of literature: firstly, that women write about domestic life, and relationships while men – inheritor’s of the epic tradition – write about the bigger picture. Secondly, that women’s writing is copious, emotional, sentimental. And thirdly, mostly damningly, that one can tell the gender of an author from the prose. There is no need for us to defend women’s writing, or respond to Naipaul with a burst of indignation. We don’t believe women’s fiction and men’s fiction have any major intrinsic differences, except for their treatment by markets and readerly expectations. To that end, and in order to suggest a few places to go to extend your palate – whether they’re familiar or new names – Cherwell would like to introduce you to a few female writers we like.
1. Jeanette Winterson
In 1985 Jeanette Winterson published her first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a semi-autobiographical story of lost loves, coming of age and losing faith. The resulting novel is one of the most startling and affecting books I’ve ever read. Then in 2011 Winterson published Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, her actual autobiography, and back came the exorcisms, the world service and two women in the local sweetshop who her mother said dealt in unnatural passions. Winterson’s novels intensely and unashamedly explore female relationships as a norm. From her characters’ mothers, to other women, to their own bodies, Winterson’s writing allows the reader to explore new, very feminine, worlds.
2. Margaret Atwood
I’d heard a lot of people drop Margaret Atwood’s name into conversation before, but it wasn’t until a relaxed browse in Waterstones a few months ago that I picked up one of her novels. It’s difficult to describe what is so fantastic about her writing because it’s so diverse. Her stories are complex, often weaving backwards and forwards in time. The narratives withhold, they hint, they partially reveal, they keep you guessing. Even beyond their end. But despite how challenging her novels can be, ultimately they’re also really simple, because they’re about the most basic and most timeless aspects of life: love, loss, desire, betrayal. It’s all there. Start with the Blind Assassin and you’ll see what I mean.
3. Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison writes with a beautifully lyrical hand that also has an incredibly sharp edge to it. She is able to lull you into a sense of security with eloquent prose and then whip the rug from under your feet with a twist or a bitter revelation of brutality. Beloved is a novel which is constantly evolving. From love story to tragedy to ghost story, there is no one single box that this text will fit into. This is a tale of the traumatic experience of Sethe, an escaped slave who has been abused and degraded beyond recognition in the slave trade of the southern states. She has found happiness in her freedom but the extraordinary measures she takes to keep that freedom have dark and mysterious consequences
4. Wendy Cope
Wendy Cope ruled herself out early on in the race for Poet Laureate when Andrew Motion stepped down. But she is nonetheless the laureate of readers who like poems with rhyme and a spring in their step. Some of my poetry friends think she is old fashioned and insular, an establishment poet. They might be right, in the sense that like Kingsley Amis for whom her first collection was named (Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis), she writes with the irony of the secure bourgeois, only nearly self-undermining. Her best poems have a Wodehousian charm. That is, they invoke mighty difficulties in the understanding of life, but they still make us smile while we think of them.