What is women’s writing? It’s a fair question – especially as it’s so rare to discuss the art of female writers without addressing their sex or perceived ‘otherness.’ It’s certainly attractive to imagine world where shelftalkers divide books by topic, time or place rather than gender or race – but while we still need it, there is a particular power in the pen to spark social change that’s impossible to deny. As part of our celebration of International Women's Day, we're recognising the achievements of three female writers from very different backgrounds – all of whom have not only used their voice to highlight the unique struggles of womanhood, but have steered literature in new directions, shaping the way we read and write in the 21st century.
A guarded enigma with the poise and aloofness of a French new-wave heroine, Joan Didion’s writing is inseparable from her achingly cool persona – the ironic, wry smile, the ever-present oversized sunglasses, the chic scarf, tied nonchalantly under the chin. And while her packing instructions are enduringly Instagrammable (leotards, bourbon, cashmere scarves, and, of course, a typewriter), her voice has changed the way we write. The patron saint of the personal essay, Didion began honing her craft at Vogue, first as a copywriter, and later as an editor, before rising to prominence in the turbulent 1960’s with incisive depictions of social disorder that replaced the question of ‘what happened’ with ‘how did it feel?’ Exploring world-changing events in a style closer to poetry, Didion was never afraid to merge the personal with the political, exploring inner tumult through the lens of universal unrest.
Where to start with Joan Didion:
‘The White Album,’ 1979 – A seminal piece of new journalism, this hugely influential collection takes a journey into the darkest parts of the American psyche, including the rise of the Black Panthers and the aftermath of the Manson family murders.
The only African American writer – and one of the few women – to have received the Nobel prize for literature, Toni Morrison is a towering figure in the reshaping of contemporary fiction. Writing with unapologetic blackness until her death last year, Morrison did unimaginable things with the English language – a language she considered “at once rich and deeply racist” – dismantling the white-male dominated landscape of American fiction, removing back life from its margins and making the relegated revelatory. Both a critical and commercial success, Morrison harnessed the music and folklore of her race to explore uncomfortable truths through prose, and was both a champion of the arts and a staunch campaigner against censorship and the erasure of marginalised voices.
Where to start with Toni Morrison:
‘Beloved,’ 1987: The winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize, this universally recognised masterpiece lays bare the inhumanity and horror of slavery, chronicling its legacy with unflinching detail. In this beautiful yet harrowing novel, myth, magic and the everyday merge as Sethe, a former slave, is literally haunted by her decision to kill her daughter rather than see them become enslaved, and the spectre of the murdered child takes up residence in her home.
Across the water independent presses are flourishing, literary journals are bursting with bold, new work, and the book charts are filled with often-young, often-female authors who represent the changing face of a country on the precipice of a massive social shift. Rarely has there been such an intense spotlight on Irish writing – and right of the centre of it is 27-year old Sally Rooney, whose heartbreakingly astute ruminations on contemporary relationships have earned her near-universal acclaim, and seen her lauded as the first great millennial novelist. As talented in social observation as she is in portraying interiority, Rooney tackles unglamorous, real-world problems through the medium of deeply flawed characters who are perceptive enough to be crushed by the mundane particulars of life and love, but, cruelly, just short of articulate enough to escape them.
Where to start with Sally Rooney:
‘Normal People,’ 2018: From gracing the Instagram’s of Taylor Swift and Emily Ratajkowski, to being featured as Shiv Roy’s beach-read of choice in the dazzling excessive HBO drama Succession, Normal People had more than a bit of a moment last year. If you haven’t already, there’s no better time than the present to familiarise yourself with this intelligent tragicomedy which finds romance in genuine, soul-baring truth.