When I started putting together my AP Lit reading list a couple of years ago, I ran into a problem: I wanted to include authors who weren’t white and male, but there are very few women writers and even fewer women of color on the representative authors list suggested by the College Board (aka the people who run the AP exams), and the ones who were on there, I hadn’t read myself for the most part.
I’m not saying that the books by white male authors aren’t good. I love Hemingway, Joyce, Chaucer, Vonnegut, Heller, Salinger, you name it, and I love teaching those books. But the struggle for women authors to get published and be accepted into the canon has been long, very real, and is ongoing. Even today, there is a huge gender disparity among the writers being published in most top tier literary journals. (Source: VIDA, a group to promote women in the literary arts, does a yearly count and pie chart of authors in a few dozen lit journals; 2013 charts available here. As a bonus, going back to the why are there so few women authors on the AP list? question, here is a great article from VIDA discussing what makes something be considered a classic.)
Lucky for us, one of the most effective starting points in counteracting the gender disparity of publishing is easy and even enjoyable: Read some books written by women. Here is a brief list of some of my favorite books by women authors to get you started.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
I love Lahiri’s writing in general. There’s a reason her debut book a short story collection named Interpreter of Maladies won a Pulitzer; her prose is sophisticated and her plotlines are classically rendered and strong, all while giving a voice to a specific community (Indian immigrants in the Northeast) that usually doesn’t appear in fiction. But Unaccustomed Earth, which is short stories and a novella rolled into one book, is her best in my opinion. There is a certain real-life maturity to her plots in this second collection and a more tangible sense of rebelliousness running through a lot of her characters that really speaks to me.
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
I first read this novel in a class I took in college (Global Issues in Lit, I think), and I’ve re-read it at least twice. Published in 1998, it tells the story of a Japanese-American documentary filmmaker who takes on a job producing a Japanese reality show that is sponsored by an American meat exporting business. The reality show is a thinly veiled attempt at marketing, and the more the protagonists looks into the meat industry, the more uncomfortable she becomes. Part environmental exposè, part love story, part rumination on cross-cultural identification, and part study of life for the modern woman in her twenties, I loved pretty much everything about this book.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Song of Solomon is one of my all-time favorite novels. (President Obama and I have that in common.) I’ve read it numerous times and look forward to teaching it each year. It follows the stories of various members of the Dead family, taking us into the Civil Rights Movement and reaching back into the oral history of slavery. The plot is fascinating and twisting, the characters are multi-dimensional and complicated, and the writing is absolutely beautiful. If you read one book off this list, I would suggest it be this one.
Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston
I bought this in an airport bookstore and devoured it while waiting for my (massively delayed) flight. Its a short story collection that runs less than 200 pages and takes place in the American West, covering what is typically seen as the territory of male writers. (I cant tell you how many times I’ve heard well-published and successful women writers moan about their editors telling them that they couldn’t write about things like the outdoors, hunting, sports, etc because it was assumed their female audiences wouldn’t be interested, ie the books wouldn’t sell.) The female protagonists in these stories hunt, fish, love, sleep around, and do just about everything else, all with a rawness and sass that makes them utterly compelling.
Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber
Abu-Jaber’s novel about an Iranian-American woman who is 39, unmarried, and works in a Lebanese restaurant is beautiful to read. Its romantic, hopeful, and languid, with likable characters, poignant commentary on society, and touches of magical realism. For me, it was well-written enough to draw me in (I’m stupidly picky about writing style) while still being escapist, what with its focus on food and a protagonist with an awesome name (Sirine) that I was able to root for. Crescent is downright dreamy and one of the few books that I feel falls at the intersection of great literature and beach read.
The Good Body by Eve Ensler
This suggestion is a bit different than the others on this list because its nonfiction. Ensler, who is best known for The Vagina Monologues, took on this second project to tackle body image. Told through anonymous essays and little snippets sometimes as short as a paragraph, women strip down and reveal their bodies and the experiences and insecurities that come with them to us in words. The stories in this collection span a wide range of social, economic, and racial demographics.
The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood
I didn’t read this one until just this past winter break, and holy crap I’m glad I did. I wasn’t too sure about it at first the writing has a very particular cadence to it that took some getting used to for me but the more I read, the more impressed I was. The novel is set in a dystopian future where birth rates have plummeted and fertile women have become rare and sought-after resources in a brutal and controlling Christian theocracy, and the story is told from the first person perspective of one of those fertile women, or handmaid, as they’re called in this society. Its dark, its heart-wrenching, its fascinating, and it has a really cool epilogue.
This is just a quick list there are dozens more I could have included. I’m currently reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (which has literally been on my to-read list for twelve years now) and I suspect, even from the first couple of chapters, that this one will make it onto next years list.