10 Women Writers You Should Know


In many ways, this is the golden era of publishing. More books are being published by a wider and more diverse range of authors than ever. Authors and publishers have new ways to reach readers via social media, websites, and even old-fashioned email. Word of mouth has never worked as fast or with as great an effect as today.

As a result, passionate readers are likely to be aware of more writers than ever before. In fact, I sense a low-grade form of “positive” stress among dedicated readers over the fact that there are “so many books, so little time.” Our “To Be Read” lists (or stacks, if we’re compulsive book buyers) are growing like vines that take over their territory.

And yet, many writers remain criminally unknown or, at the very least, under-appreciated. Today’s post is one humble blogger’s attempt to rectify that situation by recommending 10 women writers every discerning reader should know (by which I mean “read,” not “know of”).

1. Molly Antopol

As I read The UnAmericans, it soon became clear why Antopol was selected by the National Book Foundation as a “5 Under 35 Author” last November. Antopol’s stories display an impressive insight into the psyches of the various damaged characters, all of whom are trying to find their place in their own family, culture, or time. The stories take place against a backdrop of significant events, whether World War II, the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, or the tectonic social and economic shifts in the former Communist bloc countries. Though the stories vary widely in terms of characters and settings, they share the ability to pull the reader in like a riptide and carry you away before you realize it. The title of the book refers to the fact that the characters in Antopol’s stories are Communists from the first half of the 20th century, dissidents from Russia or Eastern Europe, or non-Americans like the Israeli characters in “A Difficult Phase” and the heartbreaking closing story, “Retrospective.” More broadly, it refers to people who are, in fact, Americans, but are viewed as “un-American” in their beliefs, behavior, or sub-culture by the mainstream culture.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6X

2. Rilla Askew

Askew is an Oklahoma writer in fact and in subject matter. Her novels Kind of Kin, Harpsong, Fire in Beulah, and The Mercy Seat, and a story collection, Strange Business, constitute as strong a body of work as any writer has created in the last 20 years. She has an eagle eye for both the overview of a town and the individual lives of those who live there. While Askew tells hard truths about people, places, and events, her writing is distinguished by great empathy as she reveals her characters’ damaged hearts like a skilled surgeon. In her latest book, Kind of Kin, she explores the lives of those on both sides of the immigration issue without turning it into a one-sided screed. While Askew’s position is clear, Kind of Kin uses multiple narratives to put us inside the kaleidoscope of immigration politics at the national, state, and local levels.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-80

3. Vanessa Blakeslee

Blakeslee is a new talent on the scene. Her debut story collection, Train Shots, was released in early March and made a very positive first impression. She writes about characters who are trying to figure out why their lives, and life in general, are hard to control. They are beaten down by bad breaks, selfish strangers, and the inevitable suffering that comes with being human. Yet they struggle to make sense of themselves and others, to find a purpose despite their loneliness, grief, broken heart, or lost opportunities. While Blakeslee’s stories are dark, they are not unremittingly so, and the reader will find it difficult not to root for these characters to sort things out, just as one does when one’s friends are having a rough time crossing from the past-haunted present to the waiting future.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-7g

4. Karissa Chen

Karissa Chen is a magician with words, a poet who turns prose into astonishing images and emotions, from the surreal to the sublime. Her chapbook of five stories, Of Birds and Lovers, will captivate you and hold you spellbound. Reading her short, delicate, yet powerful stories is like floating in a translucent bubble that, rather than being ephemeral, floats long distances, allowing you to view the world as if you are part of it and yet removed into a silent sphere. Of Birds and Lovers features three stories with the tone and voice of fables or parables, bookended by two stories depicting the progress of modern relationships. A major publisher would do well to grab Chen while she’s still flying below the radar and publish a collection of all her stories.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6T

5. Elliott Holt

Elliott Holt pulled off a clever hat trick of a novel with her debut, You Are One of Them. First, it’s the story of a friendship between two young girls coming of age. Second, it’s a time capsule that contains the mid-80s sociopolitical tension between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. And third, it’s a quasi-thriller with a missing persons case at its center.  And through it all, Holt’s writing is nearly flawless. She delicately opens up the heart of a close friendship between 10-year-olds Sarah Zuckerman, the narrator, and Jenny Jones, while powerfully recreating the mood in the last years of the Cold War, when strong rhetoric from President Reagan had many Americans fearing the nuclear end was near. Highly recommended.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-3D

6. Anne Korkeakivi

Korkeakivi’s first novel, An Unexpected Guest, is a thought-provoking, cleverly-structured, and well-written examination of one woman’s privileged but very complicated life, with all its entanglements in the past and the present. Clare Moorhouse, the wife of a British diplomat based in Paris, is as multi-faceted as a diamond. Guest is both a closely observed character study and a stately suspense novel. Korkeakivi brilliantly explores the various ways the past continues to live inside us — and occasionally outside us, to be imposed upon the innocent people around us.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-4j

7. Jessica Lott

Jessica Lott’s first novel (she previously published a novella, Osin), The Rest of Us, reads like the work of a much more experienced writer. She displays two traits in particular that I found to be convincing evidence of her true talent: she digs very deeply into her main character’s inner life and she never writes an awkward, clunky, or unclear sentence. The Rest of Us captures the lives of two people who are very different, and yet both are struggling with their art and their personal life. It’s the story of 34-year-old photographer Terry, whose life has been derailed into an emotional and professional ditch since the relationship she began as a 19-year-old college student with her poetry professor ended nearly 15 years earlier. I enjoyed The Rest of Us largely for its depiction of a complex intimate relationship and the way people think and feel when they are falling in and out of love.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-5A

8. Katey Schultz

In the last few years, several women writers have addressed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the unspoken one on the home front). One author stands out from the others with her stylistic choice: Katey Schultz has written a collection of “flash fiction,” very short stories that are the equivalent of a snapshot of a character, a place, or a moment in time. Her recent collection, Flashes of War, features 31 selections, most of which range in length from two to five pages, although there are a handful of stories in the 12 to 17-page range that anchor the collection. While each story has its own compact power, in part precisely because of its brevity, the cumulative effect of reading these 31 stories over 164 pages is like watching one of those gut-wrenching videos of dozens of people affected by the war. Schultz breaks the reader’s heart a hundred different ways in these stories. But she leaves your mind and your conscience intact, pondering the hidden costs of war. Flashes of War was published by a small university press and has not garnered anywhere near the attention it so strongly deserves. At the very least, now that you know about it, you can read it.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6E

9. Leora Skolkin-Smith

It’s no secret that the publishing world is so crowded with books that outstanding, even important, books sometimes get lost in that crowd. Leora Skolkin-Smith’s Hystera is one of those books. It is a short but powerful depiction of a young woman’s emotional breakdown following the accidental death of her father, for which she blames herself. Hystera follows Lilly’s journey through madness, from her initial examination at the hospital to her stay in a New York City psychiatric hospital to her eventual discharge. Hystera captures Lilly’s state of mind brilliantly, as she struggles with challenges and threats both internal and external. Skolkin-Smith’s penetrating insight into mental illness and emotional breakdowns is so accurate, it appears to have been gained through either the crucible of psychiatric work or personal experience as a patient.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-4P

10. Alexis Smith

Smith’s debut novella, Glaciers, published by Tin House, at first seems coolly beautiful. But as the story of a day in the life of young librarian Isabel progresses, Glaciers steadily warms up until, ultimately, like the title object, it calves, revealing its blue heart and making an indelible impression on the reader. Alexis Smith’s writing is lean prose-poetry with a quiet narrative current below the surface. There is not a wasted or misplaced word anywhere. And there are countless sentences and even paragraphs that demand to be flagged for their sharp insight into the foibles of human nature or Smith’s felicitous use of language.

Read my full review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-2I

Other Writers Worth Your Time

Ramona Ausubel

Helen Benedict

Suzanne Berne

Nichole Bernier

Robin Black

Jessica Anya Blau

Lea Carpenter

Amanda Coplin

Jennifer duBois

Siobhan Fallon

Julia Fierro

Gina Frangello

Ru Freeman

Amity Gaige

Lisa Gornick

Elizabeth Graver

Kate Grenville

Lauren Groff

Jennifer Haigh

Cara Hoffman

Kristiana Kahakauwila

Hannah Kent

Rebecca Lee

Joan London

Jessica Helen Lopez

Charlotte Mendelson

Celeste Ng

Chinelo Okparanta

Marisha Pessl

Virginia Pye

Vaddey Ratner

Peggy Riley

Roxana Robinson

Charlotte Rogan

Karen Shepard

Joan Silber

Marisa Silver

Jessica Sofer

Martha Southgate

M.L. Stedman

Natalia Sylvester

Valerie Trueblood

Ayelet Waldman

Claire Vaye Watkins

Joan Wickersham

Mary Kay Zuravleff

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4 thoughts on “10 Women Writers You Should Know

  1. Thanks for this great list – I am unfamiliar with all in your top ten, though I have read some in the second list. Will be checking them out! (and I am giving away Rebecca Lee’s book for World Book Night!)

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    • Thanks Karen, nice to hear from you again. I LOVE LOVE LOVE “Bobcat and Other Stories.” It made my top 10 of 2013 (probably the top 5, I can’t remember). Rebecca Lee is for real. I almost requested that book for World Book Night, but I opted for “The Dog Stars,” one of my favorites from 2012, instead. I thought it might appeal to a wider range of readers (in other words, I think I can get some men to read it!). If you haven’t read Peter Heller’s book, do yourself a favor and do so ASAP. And enjoy the women on my top 10 list and the many others in my Honorable Mention list (some of their books won’t be published until later this spring or summer).

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