As I was preparing to launch this post, I saw on the day’s news feed that Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, had passed. How utterly appropriate to include her here, among the lady authors I loved most. I must confess that in my decades of being a passionate reader, most of the authors I read were female, not male. I hope that doesn’t seem sexist, but it’s absolutely true. And it angers me when (male) academics and others refer in a dismissive way to ‘women’s books.’ As if there is some actual difference in quality! And so here, I would like to pay homage to some of the great ladies of yore whose writing I found so meaningful and engaging, I wanted to emulate them myself.
Younger readers may be dismayed by the preponderance of early and mid-20th century authors on my list, but this is what I grew up with, in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. And in the fiction section of my high school’s library, and also later at my college’s library, that’s all there was. I pulled a book from the stacks, studied the blurbs and mini-reviews on the back cover, trying to figure out if it was a book worth reading. This in the days before Amazon and instant reviews and indeed, computers themselves.
I began with historical fiction, and so discovered the graceful work of Anya Seton, all but forgotten now (At a party at my brother’s house, I did actually meet a cousin of hers, who seemed amazed that I actually knew who she was). My favorite of hers was Avalon. I moved from there to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, which I actually read before seeing the movie. Even though I saw it as an imperfectly constructed book, showing the seams and edges of how it had actually been pieced together,like a literary quilt, by its editors, I liked it so much I read it twice. For all her flaws, Mitchell was a vivid and colorful writer. In college, I tackled Sigrid Undset’s ponderous 12th-century trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, which I spent half a semester on. It was slow going and utterly glacial in parts, but strangely compelling. The books I borrowed from the campus library were so old, dust and book flakes rose up from them every time I opened them, making me sneeze Miss Undset actually won the Nobel Prize for Literature, though I’m not sure why: She was an interesting writer, but not a great one.
I loved two Dorothys, Parker and Day. Dorothy Parker, who I wanted to be the late 20th-century version of. Her famous wit is beside the point; her stories are insightful and moving and perfectly capture the era she inhabited. And I think Dorothy Day’s book, The Long Loneliness, inspired my leaning toward faith-based fiction.
And then there is the lady whose books filled an entire shelf, and then some. This is the weird, strange, neurotic but very compelling Anais Nin, famed for her voluminous diaries, which chronicle the literary life of the twentieth century, and later, her erotic writing. In reading her diaries as a college student, I sensed a talented but very troubled woman; and when I read the unexpurgated stuff later—whoa! She was brave, if nothing else. Or maybe desperate. Her need for sex and love (seemingly in that order) was almost nymphomaniac, obviously revealing some great ragged hole in her psyche. After her death, it was revealed she was a bigamist: She actually had two husbands, one on each coast, two different lives she struggled to keep separate, until her body betrayed her and developed cancer. Whew! It exhausts me, just thinking of her.
In college, I was also reading the exciting ‘new’ novelists of the time, and these would be Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro (whose short stories I distinctly remember reading behind the Circulation Desk when I was supposed to be working, long before she became famous), Nancy Thayer; and Gail Godwin, who I dearly love, whose quiet, revelation-filled fiction served as an early template for my own work. And so on. When I went on to work for the women’s magazines in New York City, I would become acquainted with many, many more authors, on a more personal basis: I would copy-edit and proofread their offerings (back when magazines still published fiction) and see that famous authors made the same stupid mistakes we fledgling writers did. And since then, I have read so many worthy authors, mostly female, that I can’t really pick out or distinguish a single one now in my near-old-age. But that vast collection of work is lodged firmly in my brain, a secret library (where I hope Dementia or Mr. Alzheimer won’t be a patron) as I often recall phrases or plotlines from long-forgotten books, haunting ideas and notions and issues I too want to explore in my own efforts.