68 Women Writers Gay Talese Should Read
The godfather of narrative nonfiction said this weekend he didn't know any women worth reading. Here are some suggestions.
At a conference full of ambitious journalists, many of them women, Gay Talese was asked which women writers he admired. His answer? "None."
So here are some helpful suggestions for Talese:
1. Joan Didion
2. Nikole Hannah-Jones
3. Mary Roach
Best-selling book writer Mary Roach was also keynoting at the conference. Her unique, funny voice has won her legions of fans for her books — from Stiff to Spook to Gulp to Bonk — even though they're technically about science, which we are usually obligated to consider boring.
4. Michelle García
Journalist Michelle García was there too, highlighting how she covers crime and corruption along the US-Mexico border, where myths about masculinity dominate storytelling. Myths, masculinity and storytelling. Kind of a prophetic theme for a conference talk, as it turned out. García is a columnist for the Texas Observer and has written for many places, including the Oxford American and Guernica. She's also working on a narrative nonfiction book on masculinity and myth.
5. Meera Subramanian
Meera Subramanian was there, too. The journalist and Fulbright scholar had some useful tips on how to write a great book — like, say, this one.
6. Alia Malek
Who else was there? Alia Malek. Her first book is a narrative nonfiction retelling of a century of American history, through the eyes of Arab-Americans. She also edited Patriot Acts, an oral history of discrimination in America after 9/11, for Dave Eggers' "Voice of Witness" project. And she has a book coming out next year about Syria, which she talked about at length at the conference.
7. Martha Gellhorn
Martha Gellhorn covered conflict and the human condition for sixty years. The Face of War, her first book, was published in 1959, just a year before Talese jumped from the New York Times to Esquire magazine, where he'd find his first moments of fame. Gellhorn wrote 20 books, fiction and nonfiction.
Some people said, "Gay Talese is from a different ~era~ so maybe he just doesn't ~know~ women to read." But then, everyone was like, "Wait, the Nonfiction Canon is also built on women writers we think of as his contemporaries." Like Martha Gellhorn.
8. Claire Vaye Watkins
She's a novelist but we keep Claire Vaye Watkins at the top of our list, just in case you don't really ~get~ the problem. She basically dropped the mic with her Tin House essay "On Pandering." If you missed it, just stop here and go read it. Please, go. We'll wait.
9. Lillian Ross
She joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1945 and became one of the influential magazine's best-known writers. She was a high-profile writer at the same time Talese hit it big.
10. Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston, who founded Howard University's student newspaper as an undergrad, was the only black student at Barnard College, the women's campus of Columbia University, where studied anthropology alongside Margaret Meade. Her later anthropological research, supported by organizations like the Guggenheim Foundation, was the basis for a robust writing career. She was so great that Uganda made a stamp of her in 1998. (America caught up and did one in 2003).
Her best-known book is a novel — okay, you got us, it's not nonfiction — but the basis for that was her fieldwork as a nonfiction storyteller and anthropologist. Their Eyes Were Watching God is considered a masterwork in part because of how it uses everyday speech and dialect from the American South.
Basically, she was a genius.
11. Gloria Steinem
12. Svetlana Alexievich
She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, the first "full-time, lifelong journalist," as The New Yorker put it, to win a prize that usually goes to novelists. Alexievich, a Belorussian, writes interview-intensive, lyrical oral histories.
13. Katherine Boo
I mean, every nonfiction lover read this book. Katherine Boo writes for The New Yorker and, before that, the Washington Post. She's won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. And this book won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2012.
14. Isabel Wilkerson
Isabel Wilkerson also won a Pulitzer Prize. This book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction in 2011.
15. bell hooks
16. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
LeBlanc spent 10 years on this book about poverty in the Bronx. It earned her a MacArthur "genius" grant and a spot on New York University's list of 100 greatest American journalists of the 20th century. Also on the list was, er, Gay Talese.
17. Amy Ellis Nutt
Amy Ellis Nutt won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Becoming Nicole, a book about a transgender girl's fight for justice in her community, is a bestseller. Her first nonfiction book, Shadows Bright as Glass, is about a man who became a compulsive artist after brain surgery.
18. Helene Cooper
The veteran New York Times reporter's memoir about her childhood in Liberia, House on Sugar Beach, was a bestseller. A few years later, Cooper and her Times colleagues won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
19. Rafia Zakaria
Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for the Pakistani news site DAWN and was a frequent contributor, until the publication's sad demise, to Al Jazeera America's opinion section. Her first book, a history of Pakistan told through the lives of women, was a Newsweek "Best Books" pick of 2015. We consider pretty much everything she writes required reading.
20. Rebecca Traister
A feminist journalist and best-selling author, Traister has been called "the most brilliant voice on feminism in the country" by no less than writing goddess Anne Lamott. She's on a whirlwind book tour right now with her latest book, so you should definitely try to catch her.
21. Aisha Sabatini Sloan
Sloan is an essayist with an incredible, lyrical voice. She's a staff writer at Audostraddle, and her essays have appeared in Ninth Letter, Identity Theory, Michigan Quarterly Review, Guernica, The Southern Review and so many more.
22. Somini Sengupta
23. Jean Friedman-Rudovsky
Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is a journalist who roams the world, writing about women with a complexity and nuance you can't take for granted. She's written for TIME, the New York Times, and others, from nearly every continent, and she's a contributing editor at VICE magazine, and she's at work on her first book.
24. Jen Szalai
25. Zadie Smith
She broke through with her debut novel White Teeth but she's since become an influential literary critic and an author of essays, including this collection.
26. Maxine Hong Kingston
An influential writer of nonfiction and fiction, Maxine Hong Kingston writes about Chinese immigrants in the United States, about gender, about ethnicity, and about all the beautiful, universal things. We chose The Fifth Book of Peace here because of its blend of fiction and memoir, and the sheer determination Kingston showed by rewriting the book after the first draft burned in a fire, at the same time in her life that her father died. That kind of devotion to storytelling seems pretty damn inspiring to us.
27. Michelle Nijhuis
28. Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, an acclaimed poet, also won praise for this memoir she published last year. Basically, people love her.
29. Rebecca Solnit
Obviously, Gay Talese should start here, though she's got an oeuvre going back a good few Talese reading years. She's also a frequent contributor to LitHub and the first woman to regularly write Harper's "Easy Chair" column.
30. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
31. Cynthia Greenlee
32. Hannah Tennant-Moore
Her first book is a novel, but we fell in love with Hannah Tennant-Moore from her essays and reportage, like this beautiful bit of work from Sri Lanka.
33. Roxane Gay
Beloved essayist, novelist, feminist and columnist.
34. Iris Chang
Her 1997 book The Rape of Nanking, was published when she was only 29, and it changed how the history of World War II is written. Chang's book, the first about war atrocities committed by the Japanese in China, was a bestseller. It was also controversial, provoking narratives of denial. She committed suicide when she was 36, after a struggle with bipolar disorder. (That struggle was itself movingly documented by journalist Heidi Benson.)
35. Megan Stack
Megan Stack is an extraordinary writer; she was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, and then she wrote this haunting book.
36. Janet Mock
Redefining Realness redefined pretty much everything we thought we knew about society, gender, and power hierarchies. Before she wrote her bestselling book, Janet Mock was an editor at People magazine and a contributing writer at Marie Claire.
37. Asne Seierstad
The Norwegian journalist rocketed to international renown with The Bookseller of Kabul, before taking on a narrative nonfiction book about Norway's biggest terrorist attack.
38. Anne Hull
39. Anna Holmes
Anna Holmes founded Jezebel, a feminist website itself full of great women writers, and has written and edited pretty much everywhere, including the New York Times and The New Yorker online. Now she's a columnist for the New York Times Book Review.
40. Eula Biss
Biss is an essayist and winner of, among other impressive things, the National Book Critics Circle Award.
41. Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
Abrahamian has written for the London Review of Books, the New York Times, and other places you've probably heard of. She's also a contributing editor at The New Inquiry.
42. Rukmini Callimachi
43. Melissa Gira Grant
Grant challenges pretty much everything anyone has ever thought about sex work, and in the process forces a reconsideration of things like, oh, the patriarchy, capitalism, labor rights... She also just wrote this great piece of longform journalism for BuzzFeed.
44. Elizabeth Rubin
45. Leslie Jamison
An essayist, critic and columnist, her book of essays, The Empathy Exams, was a bestseller.
46. Sonia Faleiro
Faleiro was already a familiar name to nonfiction lovers for her book Beautiful Thing, an immersion in the world of Mumbai's dance bars, and last year's 13 Men, a narrative reconstruction of sexual assault in one village and a window into the problem of rape in India, has made her a must-follow writer. She's also the co-founder of Deca, a project for longform global journalism.
47. Ann Neumann
Neumann has been an editor of The Revealer, which publishes narrative nonfiction about religion, and Guernica magazine. She just released her first book to big praise.
48. Janet Campbell Hale
Hale is a Native author whose fiction has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and whose memoir, Bloodlines, won the American Book Award.
49. Jennifer Senior
Senior's political coverage was always a must-read at New York Magazine. Now she's a daily critic for the New York Times Book Review.
50. Karla Zabludovsky
51. Jennifer 8. Lee
Jennifer 8. Lee was a hotshot young journalist at the New York Times for years. Then she wrote a bestselling book, and then she founded Plympton, a "literary studio" that develops serial stories for digital publication.
52. Mona Eltahaway
Mona Eltahaway is an influential journalist and author, whose first book is a fierce argument for sexual and gender liberation in the Middle East. She's also crazy prolific, publishing criticism, articles and op-eds so fast it's almost hard to keep up. But it's worth it.
53. Kiera Feldman
54. Rivka Galchen
Galchen writes beautifully about weather (weather!!) for The New Yorker. She hasn't written a narrative nonfiction book yet, but her first novel garnered good praise.
55. Anna Badkhen
Badkhen is a bad-ass foreign correspondent. She's traveled through northern Afghanistan, by taxi and by donkey, and walked African deserts with Fulani herders. She's also written for the New Republic, the New York Times, Guernica, Politico... and on and on.
56. Louise Kiernan
57. Angela Flournoy
Her first novel was a National Book Award Finalist last year, btw.
58. Erin Siegal McIntyre
Based in Mexico, Erin Siegal McIntyre is a narrative journalist and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Reporting at Brandeis University. Her book, Finding Fernanda, exposed corruption in international adoptions. It was also the basis for an Emmy Award-winning investigation on CBS.
59. Paula Gunn Allen
Allen's nonfiction was academic, but she was also a poet and a novelist. When The Woman Who Owned the Shadows was published, in 1995, it was the first book about a Native woman to be written by a Native woman in 50 years. We feel like, in the spirit of the list, this book is a must-read.
60. Sarah Topol
61. Claudia Rankine
It's hard to imagine anyone who loves books hasn't yet read Citizen, but, you know, just in case Gay Talese missed it, we're reminding him here. Also, Rankine is also an essayist and playwright.
62. Rebecca Skloot
Rebecca Skloot's bestselling first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was so popular that she started up a foundation to go along with it. The book is about a woman whose cancer cells became the basis of medical research for generations, but she was never asked for her permission. Skloot's foundation gives some financial help to people in need who have similarly made contributions to research, often without their knowledge.
63. Rania Abouzeid
Journalist Rania Abouzeid is having a breakthrough year, with features in The New Yorker and a fellowship at the New America Foundation. She's also writing a book about Syria.
64. Stephanie McCrummen
65. Alexis Okeowo
66. Kathryn Joyce
Kathryn Joyce has written for, like, all the places. Most recently, her Pacific Standard article about a soldier who committed suicide lit the narrative journalism internet on fire. She's published two books, the most recent on entanglements between the conservative Christian world and problematic adoption practices.
67. Delphine Schrank
She was a foreign editor and a writer in Burma for the Washington Post before publishing The Rebel of Rangoon, her first nonfiction book. Schrank is also a contributing editor at Virginia Quarterly Review, itself an influential home of impressive narrative journalism.
68. Toni Morrison
Last but never least, the great Toni Morrison, who could never be not inspiring. This is her latest book. Just a little reminder: Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.
We could go on. And on. And on. And so could you. Please do, in the comments.
You might also want to check out the Women's Review of Books, or learn more about the underrepresentation of women in the literary arts from VIDA, which surveys writers annually to get a sense of gender bias in publishing.