Great Books By Women

If I were ever invited to join a secret cabal of culturally wise writers - the kind of club where you'd find Erik Davis, Douglas Wolk, Jonathan Lethem, or Luc Sante all sipping absinthe while deconstructing reruns of Man From Uncle - I imagine it would also host the kinds of women who are writing the books that have ended up in my mailbox this month.

Jessica Helfand's Scrapbooks is a well-documented by highly visual history of the American scrapbook, using photos and scans from books by creative figures such as Zelda Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, Anne Sexton, Hilda Doolittle, and Carl Van Vechten. The book is as informative as it is trippy, and chronicles an under-appreciated lineage of smart craft culture.

Columbia complit prof Jenny Davidson just wrote a young adult novel, The Explosionist, with a premise that I was going to use myself for a graphic novel: someone sets off a bomb at a boarding school. Now call it a guilty pleasure, but I like today's young adult novels better than most of what is passing for literary fiction these days. (Blake Nelson's Paranoid Park became a weird Gus Van Sant film, remember.) And in Davidson's hands, the genre transcends expectations for a safe read.

Dubravka Ugresic, the Yugoslavian exile, wrote a collection of essays I hadn't heard of before called Nobody's Home, translated recently from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac (and having nothing to do with the Avril Lavigne single of the same name). She's best known for her fiction, but this collection of essays puts her on par with Zizek or Baudrillard for observation and critique - and maybe a cut above for courage to speak the truth. There's something decidedly female about this writing as well, which exposes a bit of the bias of the rest of post-modernism.

(Douglas Rushkoff is a guestblogger)


  1. Damn Rushkoff, you are a prolific blogger. Have you been saving these up for a long time, or do you write new ones every day?

  2. This is an area I’d like to explore more, but for now I can only cite the ‘big names’: Woolf; Nadine Gordimer; Aphra Behn; Gaskell; Katherine Mansfield.

  3. Great Books By Midgets!

    Great Books By The Retarded!

    Great Books By Jews!

    What does it matter, the race, religion, or gender of an author? Why would we bother holding up a double standard on thought and expression?

  4. Dubravka Ugresic’s Thank You For Not Reading is also an excellent collection of essays (about the publishing industry). My favorite is when she begins submitting proposals for existing great works of fiction and reprinting the rejection letters she received.

  5. @2 Freya Stark is one of my heroes, her writing is amazing and she is a real life person who actually did cooler stuff than the fictional Indiana Jones. She roamed the desert meeting mystics with a Burberry trench and pistol, speaking with kings and leaders soaking up esoteric wisdom.

    @Rushkoff I’ve enjoyed your writing for years, especially Media Virus and you’ve been posting some great stuff here. Cheers for that.

  6. I’m just finishing “Look at Me” by Jennifer Egan. A fine example of contemporary literary fiction. Look at Me would appeal to YA fans I think because it explores teenage sexuality from a young female’s point of view. One of the characters has an affair with an older male teacher (or is he a terrorist?) There is a social networking/ profile site that turns out to be ghostwritten by a novelist researching her next project but she is undercover as a newspaper writer. My favorite character is the former football star turned brooding professor on a quest to impart his vision of, urban decomponsation. Its pretty rich.

    Beyond that, I’m speechless. I didn’t recognize a single name in Doug’s cabal. (Frowny face.)

    But I do love the idea of getting slowly stoned on absinthe with my favorite writers. I want Jonathan Franzen, Kurt Wenzel, Jeffrey Euginides, Joyce Carol Oates, and Christopher Buckley at my table. Probably a few dozen others as well.

    I’m pretty much a graphic novel virgin, but I do appreciate the expert recommendations.

  7. Yeah, unfortunate posting title.

    But, interesting content – Dubravka Ugresic sounds fascinating, but the “Nobody’s Home” link is dead.

  8. Possible to update that link to the _Nobody’s Home_ excerpt? Sounds exceptional, yet the link goes nowhere (how post-mod . . .) Thanks much.

  9. @ various,

    Are you aware that J. K. Rowling publishes as J. K. rather than Joanne, because her publisher, in the 1990s, felt that her books wouldn’t sell as well if it were known that she is a woman. Gender may not matter in writing, but it apparently still matters in publishing.

  10. Here’s something odd. In my comment up above (#6), I referenced #4.

    Hours later, a new #4 has arrived on the scene. Peculiar.

    I’m more interested in championing #5 than #4.

    In any case, clearly an interesting topic that’s sadly overshadowed for me by a thoughtless choice of title.

    Carry on.

  11. “The Sparrow” and “Children Of God” are two incredible books by Mary Doria Russell that are at the top of my list.

  12. “Oryx and Crake,” by Margaret Atwood. And everything else she ever wrote.

    The Sparrow was too brutal for me. Are you sure a woman wrote that? Kidding, kidding.

  13. Dubravka Ugresic is terrific.

    I also second that recommendation of “look at me” by jennifer Egan.

    Another great book by a woman that this crowd would appreciate: Eat The Document by Dana Spiotta. In it, a woman who participated in a Weathermen-like group in the 60’s goes underground after a bombing goes wrong, and 40 years later, can’t discern which is actually her: the “real” identity she gave up, or the “false” cover identity she’d been ever since.

  14. re: #15

    Speaking as the author of #4 I would like to say that I was glad to see other posters repeating my sentiments, and say that it is not a double-post by the same author.

    A reader of boingboing for nearly ten years, I have never commented before this.

    I have a question: why was my closing remark turned into gobbeldy gook? It said nothing offensive, it only said I would never expect to see an entry title as ‘asinine’ as this.

    Women authors as a special category? C’mon. Yes, it is a thoughtless, silly title.

  15. How about “great books by women I’d like to sleep with because they write so well”?

    I’m compiling a boy’s list as well, for what the gender categorization is worth.

    But all three of these books come from an intentionally female perspective. Not sure how to express that in a title. Maybe “from” instead of “by”?

  16. i like roug dushkoff, and “great books by women” is maybe a silly title, but this is equally silly:

    “Now call it a guilty pleasure, but I like today’s young adult novels better than most of what is passing for literary fiction these days.”

    books for the young have always been better than books for the “olds.”

    still i agree with all the recommendations made by rough dushkoff.

  17. “Now call it a guilty pleasure, but I like today’s young adult novels better than most of what is passing for literary fiction these days.”

    Never! I have felt that way for years, that YA is far more entertaining than “adult” fiction.

  18. Eat the document is very good. The stuff that is set in the 70’s is then set against activism in the 90’s. I think the former-radical’s son works in a graphic novel shop? The book gets into the economics of running this small business, how it interacts with the community, how the owner feels about this younger generation, many many other things as well.

    It was a book full of ideas. I find many women-authored novels are so plot driven and character driven. The emotional experience can be rendered in exquisite detail, but they can lack an analytical appraisal of the culture at large outside the lives of the book’s characters. Anyway, the authors mentioned here do seem to transcend the norm and achieve a higher status (at least in my mind.) Oh, and there are plenty of books by men that fail to meet the threshold of what I consider to be “literary.”

    Then again, we all have different standards.

  19. Barbara Kingsolver and Anne Lamott are another two of my heroes. Lamott’s essays on religion and politics are very accessible and completely open hearted in a way few men could dream of.

  20. Headline miss-step notwithstanding …

    Stevie Smith – Novel on Yellow Paper

    Stevie was her nickname, rather than literary cross-dressing. Or maybe not. Anyway, fascinating reading.

  21. “Great Books by Women”, and the first title is about the suburban hell waste of money hobby *scrapbooking*?

  22. Actually, Sagetyrtle, my book is about the other side of scrapbooking, the cultural and social and formal history of this peculiar medium… about people during and between the wars, during the Depression, men and women of all social and ethnic groups who, for whatever reason, felt compelled to keep visual documents of their lives. Read the conversation that started it all here.

    Jessica Helfand
    Author, Scrapbooks: An American History

  23. If anyone is still reading this thread… I started “Special Topics on Calamity Physics” by a lovely and very young writer named Marisha Pessl. The first paragraph:
    “Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it.
    ‘Unless your name is something along the lines of Mozart, matisse, chruchill, Che Guevera or Bond-James Bond-you best spend your free time finger painting or playing shuffleboard, for no one, with the exception of your flabby-armed mother with stiff hair and a mashed-potato way of looking at you, will want to hear the particulars of your pitiable existence, which doubtlessly will end as it began-with a wheeze.”

    It is shaping up to be a very literary big important social novel. At least, I hope it ends up being that good.
    Sorry for the very long post.


    Accomplished fiddler and step dancer, Julie Fitzgerald, was allegedly the first family member to confirm the infamous “Eagan-Fitzgerald Cabal“, a term coined by famous crokinole player and analyst Eric Miltenburg of Toronto. In the World Crokinole Championship’s very backyard in Tavistock, in early July 2010, Fitzgerald explained in great detail to Bill Gladding of the Tavistock Gazette the importance of her family’s contribution to crokinole’s history. Fitzgerald stated that many of Thomas Eagan’s descendents still play dominant crokinole, but are now scattered across the continent, with some in the Greater Toronto Area, the Ottawa Valley, remote areas of Northern Ontario, British Columbia, and San Francisco. The family do not participate in the World Crokinole Championships, because they consider the level of competition inferior to their own and concentrate on developing their family’s skills. Fitzgerald boasted about the family’s political connections and stated they are developing crokinole software with an unnamed technology company in Sunnyvale, California. Unfortunately, the story was never published in the Tavistock Gazette. Bill Gladding and Julie Fitzgerald have since denied any conversation taking place. However, Julie’s sister Kerry and brother Tom have confirmed they were in Tavistock with Julie and that she spoke to Gladding on two separate occasions on July 2 and 3, 2010.

    It’s also going mainstream! 2010 WCC champ Justin Slater, was the first to secure a major sponsor in his exclusive arrangement with O’Neill Canada. Justin is also rumoured to be “the face” of Nova Scotia crokinole manufacturer Muzzies Canada, once he attends university there in the Fall of 2010.

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