Hers Not His: A Replacement Reading List

During the seven years I spent studying for my literature degrees, I noticed an alarming trend. For every woman writer on the syllabus, there were at least three men, also on the syllabus, from the same era. We discussed Mary Shelley in the same breath as Wordsworth, her husband Percy, and the illustrious Byron. For every Gertrude Stein, there was a Hemingway, a Fitzgerald, and a Maugham.

It’s only in the last century that women have finally begun to be included in the “Classical Canon.” Many outlets now bring awareness to contemporary poets and writers across color and gender, for which I’m grateful. Still, I often wonder about those far-gone Masters of the Written Word that happened to be women, and thus have been lost to history.

They may have been successes in their day; they may not have been. Many best-selling authors fade into obscurity, but somehow the women of an era are the first to be forgotten. Peruse any list of the Top 100 Writers of All Time, and only around ten are female, if the list is generous.

Even today, we tend to give precedence to men when discussing a period of literature. Certainly, some women’s legacies are lost forever. But there are still many women writers whose legacies need a little propping up. Many of them, despite their critical acclaim, are less-known than the men of their same time-period.

 Our best chance at keeping these women in rotation is to intentionally seek them out, so here is a short list of those I recommend instead of one of their better-known male contemporaries.

  • Dame Rose Macaulay instead of Evelyn Waugh: The Towers of Trebizond deftly blends wit, beauty, truth and sorrow while depicting a fraught young Englishwoman grappling with love and religion against the backdrop of exotic locales. Despite writing similarly existential novels, Waugh and Macaulay hated one another and frequently took each other to task in the newspapers of the day.
  • Lucille Clifton instead of Langston Hughes: Clifton’s verses are rhythmic and haunting, and we have Hughes to thank for them. It was Hughes who first published Clifton’s poetry in an anthology in 1966.
  • Anna Akhmatova instead of Pushkin: These two are not contemporaries, but Akhmatova is as quintessentially Russian as Pushkin. Her dark verses on death and nature rival Pushkin in beauty and intensity.
  • Flannery O’Connor instead of William Faulkner: Each wrote several novels that are grotesque, existential, and set in the American South. 
  • Elizabeth von Arnim instead of F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Enchanted April is credited with boosting Italian tourism in the 1920s. Read about the wealthy enjoying their wealth in a dreamy and romantic setting, while pondering the magic of intense belief.
  • Diana Wynne Jones instead of J.R.R. Tolkien: Diana Wynne Jones studied under both C.S. Lewis and Tolkien at Oxford. She published over 100 titles for young adults and children, and mentored Neil Gaiman’s writing career while she was at it. I highly recommend her Dalemark Quartet for fans of Lord of the Rings.
  • Doris Lessing instead of Kurt Vonnegut: Post-modern Science Fiction for the bitter skeptic.
  • Sappho instead of Homer: She invented the cut-out poem, practically. Read if you love ancient era verse with frequent references to Greek myth.
  • Isabel Allende instead of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: The House of the Spirits is everything you loved about One Hundred Years of Solitude and more. Abundant in magical realism, this is a sensational South American family saga spanning many generations, but it focuses primarily on the women of those generations.
  • Margaret Mitchell instead of Ernest Hemingway: Gone with the Wind has everything you love about Hem’s novels. A personal romance story set against the backdrop of a bloody and violent war, Mitchell’s flowery writing style is just as compelling as Hemingway’s sparse prose.
  • Eliza Lynn Linton instead of Charles Dickens: Read Sowing the Wind if you love a sensationalist, moralistic story of an intrepid protagonist engaged in noble, thankless work, and an abusive relative that comes to a nasty end. Stay tuned for rewards for virtuous character. It’s no wonder Dickens himself liked Linton’s work a great deal. 

C.K. Dawson is a poet and writer living in Los Angeles. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University and her work has appeared in Verily Magazine, Poetry International, Breakwater Review and Ruminate Magazine. She has a deep fondness for literature themed cocktails and mid-century modern furniture. You can usually find her in an L.A. coffee shop, instagramming her latte instead of working.