Some books, we love to hate. Others we can’t put down even after ‘The End’. But it’s not the books themselves inspiring such intense emotions – it’s their authors, those able wordsmiths whose art keeps readers glued as surely as a page to its binding. In this art, as in many throughout history, men have dominated for centuries. Only in the last two hundred or so years have women authors begun to come into greater prominence, thereby making lists such as this possible.
This list spotlights a teeny-tiny handful of those creative women whose works stand out for their genre, cultural impact, or time period. Whether you like the story or not, you’ve probably heard of them. Take a moment as you read through and consider – if not for these works, what might our expectations of women authors be today?
Written in 1908, this best-selling classic – with its seven equally beautiful sequels – still enchants readers’ imaginations today, taking us on a soul’s journey through profound joys and tragedies. Orphaned as an infant, the incorrigible, irresistible Anne ‘with-an-e’ is adopted at age eleven by Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, an elderly sibling pair who’d expected to find a boy waiting for them at the train station. The adoption changes not only her own life, but theirs as well, and the now-famous Prince Edward Island will never be the same, in fiction or real life.
Rowling took the world by storm in 1997 with her first book, then followed it up with six additional, impressively-sized tomes. It now stands as the best-selling book series of all time. In case you’ve been living under a rock and missed it, Harry Potter is the orphaned nephew of an aunt and uncle who are anxious to hide his past from him. When an invitation to attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry arrives, however, his journey toward discovering who he is – and why – begins.
Yes, you read the genre correctly. Butler herself, one of the first Black women authors of Sci-Fi, said she might classify it as a ‘grim fantasy’, but to this day it defies categorization. Kindred is a dark and difficult tale of a modern Black woman’s repeated time-traveling back to the slave plantation of her ancestors. There, she is called upon to save a white man who will become her ancestor, but each time, her stay in the past gets longer and more dangerous. The story takes many powerful twists and has become Butler’s most important and well-known novel.
This book is proof that you don’t have to write a lot to make a difference. It was, in fact, the only book Lee wrote until a few years ago, but its theme, characters, and publication in 1960 all conspired to push it deservedly to the forefront, where it has remained ever since. Set in the mid-1930s in the U.S.’s Deep South, the story is told by the young ‘Scout’, daughter to the fair-minded lawyer Atticus Finch. When a Black man is falsely accused of raping a white woman, Atticus agrees to defend him, and the ensuing drama opens Scout’s eyes to what equality and respect for persons really mean.
It’s rare to find a woman author from more than 200 years ago whose work is still widely read. Jane Austen is undoubtedly the best known, and Pride and Prejudice easily the most popular of her works. The story details the joys and tribulations of the lively country gentlewoman Elizabeth Bennet and a certain wealthy Mr. Darcy. More than a simple romance, confusions and frustrations abound as the characters learn to see, understand, and accept each other for who they really are.
Hurley has made a name for herself in recent years with edgy, violent, but thought-provoking works. The Light Brigade, her latest novel, fits right in: It’s a hard-core military sci-fi whose characters are teleported through space to land on Mars, there to carry out their vengeance in an endless war. But something in the process goes wrong for the main character Dietz, who ends up fighting in different locations and at different times than she should, causing her to begin questioning the very fabric of her society.
A trailblazer on many fronts, this book was Le Guin’s first fantasy, first young-adult story, and features a strong protagonist of color – a rarer thing for a mainstream book in the 1960s. Earthsea is a vibrant world full of islands, wizards, dragons, and dangerous spells, all of which drive the protagonist Ged from one place to another as he first flees, then searches for a violent shadow creature he brought into being.
A list of incredible women authors wouldn’t be complete without at least some mention of the best-selling novelist of all time. That’s right, Agatha Christie, a woman, has that title. With more than 70 novels to choose from, it can be hard to find one that is the ‘absolute best’, but this particular title is one of the best-known. Detective Hercule Poirot, returning to London aboard the luxury train, must solve the sudden murder of a man who previously requested Poirot’s protection. One of the passengers must be guilty, but who?
A beautifully written family narrative spanning the period between World War II and the Vietnam War, The Mountains Sing is Nguyễn’s first English book. It’s told alternately by two people, Diệu Lan and her granddaughter Hương, and as it progresses, we are faced with the deep grief of loss, the risk of free-thinking in a Marxist society, and the reality that ‘enemy’ is just another construct born of circumstance.
Sometimes considered to be the very first science fiction book in history, and a key factor in the creation of the horror genre, the story of Frankenstein depicts one of the most enduring and oddly endearing monsters of all time: An ugly creature brought to life through a combination of body parts, ingenuity, and electricity. He is gentle, wanting only to be accepted, but when it becomes plain that this is impossible, he begins to show his creator just what lengths he is willing to go to find the peace he believes all living things should have.