Two centuries ago, Jane Austen was scribbling novels on napkins during dinners. Charlotte and Emily Brontë published Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heightsin the mid-1850s under male pseudonyms. Writing — and publishing — used to be a world reserved for men. But we’ve come a long way since then.
To celebrate International Women’s Day with the rest of the world, we’re taking some time to focus on some of the foremost women's voices in contemporary writing. From Zadie Smith to Carmen Aguirre, these authors are ones we love for their original, funny, and always incisive use of words. Have a look at these 9 women — writing in 7 different genres — whose books you won’t be able to put down, and whose voices you won't want to forget.
1. Joan Didion — Nonfiction
Joan Didion’s trailblazing essays set the standard for nonfiction writing in the 1970s. Since then, Didion’s covered a span of topics from the complexities of morality to growing up and the pitfalls of prestige. Famous for such essays as “On Self-Respect” and “After Life,” Didion writes elegantly but with the keen eye of a critic.
Of particular note for writers: check out, “Why I Write” and, importantly, “On Keeping a Notebook” — always a useful piece for any author!
2. Hannah Rothschild — Comedy
In the mood to smile? Hannah Rothschild burst into the scene in 2016 with her debut novel. Showcasing vibrant characters and a devastatingly witty voice, The Improbability of Love won that year’s Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction and was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction.
For another novel by a funny woman, also see: Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple.
3. Toni Morrison — General Fiction
Fun fact about Toni Morrison, the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in writing: she edited books for 20 years — right before she got fed up with what she was reading and took the plunge into writing.Her first book, The Bluest Eye, was published shortly afterward. Song of Solomon and Beloved, both of which deal with issues of racial prejudice, followed. They elevated Morrison to become one of the best-known names in contemporary fiction.
If you’re an aspiring author, you can believe Morrison when she says: “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”
Watch Toni Morrison and Junot Díaz discuss their careers, female friendships in fiction, and more during an exchange at the New York Public Library.
4. Robin Hobb — Fantasy
In a genre traditionally dominated by male writers, this West Coast author of the Farseer trilogy has established herself as a leading voice in fantasy fiction. If you want the political intrigue of Game of Thrones without the regular bouts of incest and mutilations, do yourself a favor and start with The Assassin’s Apprentice.
5. Zadie Smith — General Fiction
Following two families over three sweeping decades, White Teeth confronts intersections of class, race, and culture in modern-day London. Zadie Smith was just 20 years old when she wrote and sold it.
Though she was compared to Salman Rushdie and John Irving at the time, this British author actually writes with a voice that is entirely unique — she is one for our ages.
Listen to Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides discuss writing and good writing practices over on the New Yorker.
6. Sarah Waters — Historical Fiction
Victorian-era intrigue. Lesbian protagonists. Plots as winding and unexpected as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. What more could you want from your fiction? These are the trademarks of Sarah Waters’ fiction, which includes the Booker-nominated Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet, and most recently, The Paying Guests. Covering a span of eras from the Victorian age to the Roaring Twenties, Waters turns a brilliant eye on identity and the underground spaces to which women needed to turn in the past — while packaging it all into edge-of-your-seat historical thrillers.
Read about the four-year-long historical research process Waters undertook for The Paying Guests here in an interview with The Daily Beast. If you're interested in this topic, Reedsy will release a free course on historical research for novels soon — stay tuned!
7. Edwidge Danticat — Short Story
Edwidge Danticat’s contemplated diaspora and the strange sensation of not belonging to any one country since 1994. As a Haitian-American author who immigrated to the United States when she was 12, Danticat writes about life in Haiti and America in equal parts. Her works often focus on women in these two countries and their relationships with one another. For a collection of Danticat’s short stories, check out Krik? Krak. If you’re interested in Danticat’s own account of moving to the United States, check out her 2007 memoir, Brother, I’m Dying.
For more superb short stories by women, give Alice Munro, Flannery O'Connor, Annie Proulx, and Shirley Jackson a whirl — women have some of the most influential voices in short fiction.
8. Gillian Flynn — General Fiction
The author of the book everyone was reading a few summers back, there’s more to Gillian Flynn than Gone Girl! You can find more that same dark, electrifying tone in Flynn’s earlier novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places.
9. Carmen Aguirre — Memoir
Carmen Aguirre was just six years old when her family was exiled from Chile in the middle of Pinochet’s military coup. At the age of 11, her family returned to South America to join the underground resistance movement against the Pinochet dictatorship. In her debut novel, Something Fierce: Tales of a Revolutionary Daughter, Aguirre pairs drama with humour as she recounts what it was like to grow into her own in the middle of a tumultuous time — as a teenage girl dedicated both to the cause, but also to the frequent fixation of adolescent girls: boys and pop music.