Yes, it’s International Women’s Day! To celebrate, and to honour the achievements of women in literature, the Communications Dept. sent a little email to everyone at WCN asking for their favourite female writer. 

We wanted to hear about writers that they connect with, that have moved them, stayed with them or have truly captured the female experience. We thought we’d tweet about everyone’s favourite, and assumed that some people wouldn’t get back to us… But then suddenly our inbox exploded with suggestion after suggestion, with passionate discussions on the power, beauty and passion of a whole colourful swirling kaleidoscope of writers, from Aphra Behn to Han Kang. Well, what could we do but commit this fantastic list to a blog post!

So here’s a hastily-compiled reading list from the staff at WCN, comprising our own personal favourites, and a, possibly fascinating, insight into the kind of group emails that dart around our organisation:

Our Chief Exec, Chris Gribble, was first out of the blocks, with a swift first response to our email, simply reading; “Gertrude Stein!”

After that, they came thick and fast. Freya, our Business Development Assistant shared her favourite quote from Helene Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa – “Censor the body and you sensor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard”

Then Programme Coordinator Melanie Kidd took a theatre route and suggested Sarah Kane

Communications Coordinator, Brave New Reads, Rowan Whiteside shot back with her current list – “My favourites at the moment are Lynne Reid Banks (oh, The L Shaped Room!) Barbara Trapido (Temples of Delight), wonderful Margaret Atwood, the wondrous and incomparable Ali Smith, brilliant South African writer Henrietta Rose Innes, the phenomenal Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie….. I could go on, but I’ll stop.” (clue: she didn’t stop, but more on that later)

At this point our inbox had a meltdown, as Sam Ruddock, Programme Manager, shared his list –

“My choices would be (somewhat obvious) and cover most of the last 200 years.”

– Mary Shelley – Daughter of one of the founders of feminism,[Mary Wollstonecraft] a writer who lived and loved and wrote way beyond her historical age.

– The Brontes – all for different reasons. Mostly because their prose is some of the finest ever produced.

– Harriet Martineau – the world’s first female retained journalist, don’t you know!

– Virginia Woolf – because, while she was an incorrigible snob, those books never stop ringing out

– Daphne du Maurier – Because Rebecca and Jamaica Inn are two of the finest books of the 20th Century.

– Doris Lessing – for the character of her writing and her life

– Hilary Mantel – Because there’s no-one better in the world today.

– Eimear McBride – for doing something remarkable and new with prose.

– Sarah Perry – a writer of supreme talent most definitely going places.

And of course the fabulous women featured in our NNF City of Literature Programme this year:

– Una and Nicola Streeton who are writing about gender specifically

– Yrsa Daley-Ward, Jackie Kay and Jo Shapcott who are Fierce Light poets

– Lucy Caldwell, Sarah Hall, Anna Metcalfe, Claudia Rankine, Sally Rooney, and Katherine Mansfield who are all featured in The Story Machine

– Kate Summerscale

– Rachel Aspden

– Alison Weir

– Rose Tremain

– Francesca Beard

– Hollie McNish

(Khairani Barokka performs at Translation in the Margins , Free Word Centre, Oct 2015)

Our Finance Officer Annelli Clarke then recommended Viv Albertine’s autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys which she described as “a real, authentic and inspiring telling of one woman’s tale. She’s bloomin’ brilliant!”

Rowan, meanwhile, was having reservations about the length of her list and replied:

“HOW COULD I NOT PUT MAURIER AND LESSING. *hangs head in shame forever*”

At this point, the emails had become something of a whirlwind, with everyone throwing names into the mix. Chris came back with another name for us – Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann

Freya added in – “Also, Han Kang… Just finished Human Acts and wow. Since the International Women’s Day hashtag is #pledgeforparity, a women that writes so existentially about broad human experience (albeit in a time of monumental horror), with such harrowing integrity… phwoar. And hats off to Deborah Smith for translating it … ”

(Want to find out more about Hang Kang and Deborah Smith? Deborah recently started Tilted Axis Press, which has pledged to commit to the Year of Publishing Women 2018, as suggested by Kamila Shamsie in our National Conversation last year. Other publishers to sign up included And Other Stories)

Then Fundraising Fellow, Christie Johnson, threw in some of her favourites: “Majority of them oldies, but <3”,

Vera Brittain

Aphra Behn

Judith Butler

Virginia Woolf

Frances Burney

Head in hands, Communications Director Alice Kent wails “There’re just so many emails flying around!!!” before adding her own names to the list:

“- Nature writer Annie Dillard

– Jeanette Winterson …The Passion is particularly good if you read it on New Year’s Day when you are 21…

– Tove Jansson – Moominpappa sat and thought of the utter meaninglessness of everything……and it’s for kids …brilliant!”

Having sent her email, she went on to eulogise about Annie Dillard’s description of a pond and the way it transports the reader to a whole new world.

Meanwhile, Programme Assistant Tina Garcia recommends:  “Irène Némirovsky, the Ukrainian author who wrote the beautiful and moving Suite Française before dying at Auschwitz. A must read.

Or any book by the Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, for example Leonora: A Novel, a biography of the British-born surrealist painter Leonora Carrington”

And who does this blog-writer recommend? Well, my one true love is A.S. Byatt. I can re-read Still Life over and over, and draw more from it every time. In fact the entire Frederica Quartet is a revelation. I could go on to list every book of hers that I love, but it’s easier to simply say “everything she has ever done”! (And if you enjoy reading Cixous’ Medusa, take a look at Byatt’s The Matisse Stories, too.)

Who else? Angela Carter, especially Wise Children and The Magic Toyshop, and then of course Iris Murdoch, and Margaret Drabble, and although they’ve already been mentioned, I have to stick my own oar in to declare my undying devotion to Hilary Mantel and Doris Lessing. Plus, Elizabeth David’s approach to life and food writing deserve a mention, then there’s Sylvia Plath who with the title of her novel alone, captures the stifling, deadly, invisible yet all-encompassing horror of depression. Olga Kenyon, who tragically died a few years ago, wrote some fantastic books on women writers, and Marina Warner’s work on mythography and feminism is brilliant. And finally, Dervla Murphy, for doing, writing and saying whatever she wants.

But who have we missed out? Share your thoughts below, tell us who else we should add to our teetering towers of “to read” piles, or tell us why you share our love for some of the authors mentioned above.