A couple years ago, I challenged myself to go a whole year reading only women authors. I wasn’t one hundred percent successful, but the main thing that surprised me during that time was that the whole challenge was pretty easy. Writing by women is obviously just as diverse and interesting as writing by men. Therefore, I think it’s essential to note that for every important work of American literature written by a male author, there is an equally important book by a woman author, similar in content and/or style. I’ve rounded up some of my favorites here.
Kerouac wrote his masterpiece On the Road on a continuous scroll during 1951 (the scroll will be on exhibit at the American Writers Museum beginning May 2017), and it provided a colorful, spiraling portrait of the Beat generation. In the next decade, Joan Didion did the same with the hippie movement in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a defining text of New Journalism. While Kerouac’s novel was drawn from his experience as an ecstatic participant in the Beat lifestyle, Didion’s work on her era’s counterculture has the perspective of an outsider and a critic. Kerouac’s writing is beautifully dizzying; Didion’s is cutting and subtle, making Slouching Towards Bethlehem the perfect followup read.
The brilliance of James’ horror novella The Turn of the Screw is in its uncertainty. Is its governess protagonist seeing ghosts, or has she gone crazy? Is there really something strange and sinister about the children in her care? The same paranoia haunts the pages of Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial. A master of humor as well as horror, Jackson quickly became one of my favorite writers after I discovered her during my year of women writers. Like The Turn of the Screw, The Sundial takes place within a mysterious, claustrophobic house. Instead of James’ governess, the main characters are a dysfunctional family preparing for an apocalypse that may or may not come. It’s a lot funnier than James’ tale, but leaves the reader with a similarly unsettled feeling.
The Perks of Being A Wallflower, first published in 1999, became an instant cult classic for a reason. The narrator, Charlie, is an idiosyncratic and irresistible high school freshman who documents the relationships of his family and friends with intense love, all the while struggling to confront a devastating secret. Charlie is a “wallflower,” occasionally a mere observer to his own adolescence, but he and his friends form a special kind of understanding. Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel published the same year, features a protagonist not as instantly lovable, but just as painfully relatable: Melinda, a girl who enters high school sullen and completely silent, the result of her own personal tragedy. Like The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Speak is a difficult read about a difficult time in a young person’s life. The thorny parts make the hopeful endings of both novels all the more beautiful.
This one may seem like a bit of a stretch: Holden Caulfield is a fictional, upper-class, white teenager who flunks out of a prestigious prep school. Much of the action described takes place over one aimless night in New York City. On the contrary, Maya Angelou’s memoir covers a long stretch of years, describing her life from her childhood in rural Stamps, Arkansas. But I read these two books back to back in a class on ‘bildungsroman,’ or coming-of-age story, and found their differences refreshing and their similarities invigorating. Through the course of the story, Maya makes the journey from victimhood to self-possession, while Holden resists his own development. These books are the antidote to one another, which makes reading them together a thought-provoking experience.