Fiction is far more than just entertainment. The right story can change your life, make you see things in a different way and teach you something about humanity you could never have imagined otherwise. Books are powerful, wonderful, dangerous things. Fiction is one of the most important things in the world to me; I wrote my bachelor’s dissertation on the ethics of fictional representations of evil, and then my master’s dissertation on emotional responses to fiction.
I firmly believe that what you read shapes who you are, and therefore I think that reading feminist fiction is absolutely essential, for our understanding of right and wrong, of who people are, and of what they can go through. Feminist articles, papers and non-fiction books are essential too, but the difference is that the author of an essay is explaining to you; with fiction, the author is showing you. With fiction, you learn through emotions, compassion, empathy. I think that it’s extremely important to learn in a multi-dimensional way, and therefore both fiction and non-fiction are vital tools. So, I’ve put together a little ‘bookshelf’ of a few novels I think every feminist should read.
There are intersectional gaps in this list, but with fiction there pretty much always will be unless you’ve read every book ever written! You certainly can’t just read all these books and then say ‘now I’m done!’. There are an infinite number of stories to tell, and this is just a tiny snapshot, but each one has something individual and important to offer.
[Presented in alphabetical order]
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. I mean…do I really need to explain this one. If you haven’t already read it then come on?! Atwood is a phenomenal author. Her words flow off the page. The main difference between the TV show and the book is that in the book, you get far, far more insight into how June/Offred is feeling and thinking. The show introduces more characters and their different motivations, backgrounds and experiences, but with the book, you have that claustrophobic, lonely insight into one person’s experience of the dystopia. Buy it here.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë. This book is one of the first to truly present a woman’s feelings and emotions as valid, and to focus purely on a small, unimportant woman’s life and desires. You care so much about Jane’s life and her happiness. Mr Rochester, the main male character, is a means to an end in this sense, and I think that so much of this early feminist story is extremely important; for example, Jane not being manipulated into compromising her morals for a man, Mr Rochester’s punishment for his actions, her journey towards finding her own happiness… Jane makes things happen on her own terms. Plus, it’s extremely romantic, and romance CAN be feminist! I really want to read more of the Brontë sisters’ work, but this was the perfect one to start with. Buy it here.
Difficult Women, Roxane Gay. A collection of short stories about a huge variety of different women, their relationships, lives and individual situations in life. If you were trying to explain the complexity of women’s lived experiences to someone, this book would do the trick, even if it does only focus on American women! It’s an extraordinarily diverse collection of stories and every single one is compelling and moving. There are some stories that use surrealism and magical realism too, which just makes it even better in my eyes as I’m a complete sucker for magical realism. Buy it here.
Geisha of Gion (The US title is Geisha: A Life), Mineko Iwasaki. Ok, ok, this one isn’t fiction! But I have a good reason for including this. You are almost certainly familiar with the film/novel Memoirs of a Geisha, yes? Well, in the world of Geishas, secrecy is paramount. For centuries their lives were shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Before writing Memoirs of a Geisha, the man who wrote Memoirs met with one of the few Geishas to publicly quit the profession, Mineko Iwasaki, who trusted him to tell her life story responsibly. And yet… he took her story and completely bastardised it, presenting it as researched fact, when what he actually did was create an inaccurate, disrespectful and sensationalist drama. Of course, everyone ate it up, the book was a bestseller and was made into a film, whilst Iwasaki was left to deal with the fallout and humiliation. So she wrote her own book. Geisha of Gion is the real Memoirs of a Geisha. If you’ve already read Golden’s novel or seen the film, I BEG you to read this one too, but if you haven’t, just read Iwasaki’s memoir and learn about what life as a Geisha (or as you’ll learn when you read it, what life as geiko and maiko) is actually like. Buy it here.
The Vegetarian, Han Kang. This is a gripping South Korean book about a woman’s descent into madness. Set in Seoul, it follows Yeong-hye’s transformation from an “entirely unremarkable” housewife into something tragically extraordinary. It’s fascinating to see how the men who expect to own, consume and control her react when they realise they cannot, and this brutal yet accurate portrait of men is one of the most important messages of the book. Her introspective protest at their anger and violence is heartbreaking and brilliant. Her ‘madness’ seems to me to be an analogy for how we all feel in the face of the society we live in. I think this book will resonate with anyone who has ever felt exhausted by the cruelty in our world of patriarchal societies. Buy it here.
Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. This follows a young girl in a wealthy post-colonial Nigerian household, growing up with an abusive father, a downtrodden but unfailingly loving mother and a quietly strong older brother. I think this story shows what it is like for the many people who grew up in a household with a man so wrapped up in himself that he is unable to love other people. I grew up in a purely loving family, and I think it is very important for people like me to read these stories. To actually ask someone who grew up in an abusive home what it was like, or what it felt like, is to demand an inappropriate amount of emotional labour from them. The story focuses primarily on Kambili’s thoughts and feelings – very few adults book feature a teenaged girl as the protagonist, and yet, as anyone who has ever been a teenaged girl will attest to, they are some of the most fascinatingly complicated people on the planet. The story is carefully optimistic, and very moving. Buy it here.
Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A Victorian feminist novel, Herland satirises men in a way that any exhausted feminist (man or woman) will relish. Not only that, but it inspires you to think about how you could live a more peaceful existence. It might also make you pine for a world where men don’t exist, but if you have any men in your life that you actually like, that feeling won’t last too long. Perkins Gilman does a fantastic job of removing ‘maleness’ from a society, thinking about what a world of women would be without men, and it is a fascinating thought experiment. This book was banned by men of the era because they found it so offensive and threatening, which is just another reason to seek it out! Buy it here.
Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy. This wonderful piece of work is a feminist science fiction novel written in the 70s. Through Connie the protagonist, and Luciente her friend, it depicts a socialist utopian future, starkly contrasted against the horrors of living in 1970s New York as a poverty stricken Mexican American woman. Everything from racism, sexism, womanhood, motherhood, mental health, sexual relationships, gender, political ideology and the environment are discussed in this book, at length, without you even realising because you are so swept up in the story. I’ve never read a book that could tackle so many issues and seamlessly interweave them with a compelling, moving narrative. It’s an incredibly intelligent book. It has aged, there’s no doubt, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a book from the 70s to meet the excellent language standards we feminists have today. This book will teach you that everything is interconnected, you will come away from it understanding that every facet of the way we live our lives and the choices we make have an impact on the planet and other people, and I think that’s a very good thing for every person to understand. I have a personal connection to this book too, not only because my mum gave me her edition of it, published in the year I was born, but also because it made me finally realise that I don’t fit into the gender binary, and I am so grateful to Marge Piercy for helping me to understand that. Buy it here.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath. This is one of those books that every feminist knows they should read. And you definitely should. It is an unflinching and very realistic account of a woman’s experiences with mental health. Plath, of course, was writing with first hand experience. It’s very readable and I identified with the main character in many ways. However, the book is racist. Not in a ‘depicts racism’ way, in a ‘the author is racist because they thought it was ok to write that’ way. Because of this, rather than seeing The Bell Jar as a timeless, emotionally brilliant piece of art, it left me a little cold, so really I see it as a pioneering historical piece, that we must read to ground us and give us the background needed to understand where we’ve come from. Buy it here.
The Colour Purple, Alice Walker. What. A. Book. I don’t even know what to say about it, other than it is phenomenal. It’s original, highly readable, heartbreaking, moving, fascinating, insightful and profound. I’m honestly a bit embarrassed by how utterly lost for words this emotionally brilliant work of art has left me. All I can say is: buy it here.