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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.

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At a conference full of ambitious journalists, many of them women, Gay Talese was asked which women writers he admired. His answer? "None."

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Gay Talese is basically a founding father of "narrative" or "longform" journalism — true stories written like novels, full of rich details and beautiful scenes and lots of interesting characters. He talked about his career at a conference at Boston University April 1-3 focused on the craft. But he couldn't think of a single woman writer he liked. Even when someone helpfully shouted out, "Joan Didion?" from the audience. She's not his thing, apparently.

1. Joan Didion

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

In 2013, Joan Didion was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama at a ceremony at the White House. Didion is considered a legend in the world of narrative journalism. Her first nonfiction book, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, is part of the canon of the genre. It came out in 1968, two years after the article "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" put Talese at the forefront of nonfiction writing. You know, at a time that maybe he was also reading books.

2. Nikole Hannah-Jones

Karen Hanley / Via

Inspiring magazine journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was alongside Talese in the conference's keynote slots. Just a month before the conference, she won a prestigious George Polk Award for her coverage of school segregation. She's a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine. She talked about how to tell better stories on complicated social issues.


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.

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

Photo by Carly Romeo / Via

She was a columnist for New York Magazine and a founder of a magazine before she was, you know, an irrefutably influential feminist icon considered required reading by, er, kind of everyone.

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.


15. bell hooks


hooks is a feminist scholar, whose work isn't exactly "narrative journalism" but whose thinking is too influential to be ignored. This book, which is foundational to modern feminism, came out in 1981.

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.


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


Jen Szalai is an editor at the New York Times Book Review, a former editor at Harper's magazine, and a contributor to The New Yorker, The Nation, the London Review of Books, and other great publications.

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


Michelle Nijhuis is a science and environment writer whose journalism has been collected in 10 anthologies, include two editions of "Best American Science Writing." She writes for National Geographic and High Country News, a beautiful bi-weekly newspaper about the American West.

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


Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah writes for the New York Times Magazine, The Believer, and other magazines, and is at work on The Explainers and The Explorers, about how black America will identify itself in the 21st century, coming out next year.


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.)


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

Grayson Harbour / The Media School

Anne Hull's work helped define a generation of narrative journalism in daily newspapers. She's been a Pulitzer Prize finalist multiple times and won a Pulitzer Prize in Public Service, with her Washington Post colleague Dana Priest. Hull has also been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, a fellow American Academy in Berlin, and a visiting scholar at Princeton University. She's got all the chops.


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.

42. Rukmini Callimachi

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

The George Polk Award Winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist covers ISIS and terrorism for the New York Times. She hasn't written a book yet, but we're waiting, eagerly.


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


Elizabeth Rubin was defying death in the 1990s, when she traversed Sarajevo's infamous "sniper alley" while covering the war in the Balkans for the New Republic. Since then, she's worked from Afghanistan, Russia, Chechnya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Uganda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and more. She's a contributing writer with the New York Times Magazine, and she was an Edward R. Murrow Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. She's also written for The New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic, and many others.

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.

50. Karla Zabludovsky


Karla Zabludovsky writes for BuzzFeed News from Mexico, and before that, for Newsweek. (In fact, we could make this whole list out of BuzzFeed's amazing women writers, but that's a list for another time.) Karla's deeply reported, incredibly moving article about the how the families of 43 Mexican students who went missing on a school trip and are believed to have been murdered is a tour de force of intimate narrative journalism. Be warned: You'll cry.


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


Freelance journalist Kiera Feldman blew the lid on a sexual assault scandal at "God's Harvard," in an investigative narrative that won her a Livingston Award. She's written for The New Republic, n+1, The Nation, the New York Times, and others.


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


She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, as the lead writer on a team working on an amazing multi-part narrative about Chicago's O'Hare Airport (we know how that sounds, but seriously, check it out). That was maybe inevitable, since she was a finalist in the same category for another project. You know how they always say, the best way to lose a Pulitzer is to lose it to yourself. Er...

Kiernan spent 18 years at the Chicago Tribune, she also trained a new generation of narrative journalists. Now she's a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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


Sarah Topol has published nonfiction in Harper's, GQ, and Esquire, among many others. She also wrote this pretty incredible "long read" for BuzzFeed News last year, about a village in Kazakhstan where no one can stay awake.