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The Garjectionist: Female Characters in Literature

October is drawing to a close, and National Novel Writing Month is upon us. Which means that some members of the Beatdown Brain Trust might be trying their hands at noveling, with the jaunty scarves artfully thrown over the shoulder and the good seat in the coffee shop and the endless Internet browsing loops and the WHAT DO YOU MEAN I HAVE TO WRITE SOMETHING? At some point you may find yourself creating a character who is a Lady.

Once upon a time I tried my hand at creating female characters. I assumed that my female characters would have the infinite variety of actual women, that not desiring them sexually would make me immune to drawing two-dimensional caricatures of femininity. And I failed. I failed abysmally. I failed by assuming that a lifetime spent reading fiction had prepared me to see women in stories as anything other than plot devices. Looking back, I can see how those sections of the work sagged as I created flimsy cardboard cutouts and expected them to do the work of fully-realized people. I worked at it for a long time. I have gotten better.

But luckily for you, The Rejectionist and I are here to school you in the various problems with female characters in the wordpapers of the mindstories, which are many. Enjoy!


GARLAND:  Oh, gee, I don’t know. She should have an internal life, apart from the ways she interacts with The Dudes? She should have her own goals and aspirations?

REJECTIONIST: You make it sound so simple! But clearly, it is not this simple, or else we would not have quite so many books about The Ladies and their endless quests for Shoes, also A Man To Marry!

GARLAND:  Clearly Ladies are only really important and alive in the years after they get breasts and before they get married. After that they just become the mother of the male protagonist, baking pies and giving advice.

REJECTIONIST: Or else, in this modern era, they fight international crimes while looking super sexy all the time, and are defined by their inability to have meaningful relationships with other human beings. Other than lots and lots of hot hot sex, throughout which their hair never gets mussed and they never develop anything so unsightly as emotional attachments. Which is, you know, super feminist. You can tell the feminism of a book by the number of dudes who want to have sex with the hot empowered lady character.

GARLAND: Because no matter how little institutional power women have, they’ve always got that vagina to fall back on. THE VAGINA! IT’S LIKE A BUSINESS MINOR!

REJECTIONIST: THE VAGINA TAKES US PLACES, it truly does. And yet somehow, despite this panoply of fictive options, I feel strangely limited when reading a lot of modern novels that have ladies in them.

GARLAND: I’ve read so many books about Men who live their lives apart from the rest of society, walking the streets at night, staying in their little apartments, FACING THE EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. But I’ve never read a book like that with a female protagonist. It seems like female characters aren’t just limited by the depth of their character, but also by the questions they are allowed to interrogate.

REJECTIONIST: Well, ladies don’t have very deep thoughts. They get so distracted with their baking. But I think even if a novel does have ladies interrogating the existential condition etc., it gets received as being a novel about that lady doing lady-things. If a novel has a man pondering the same questions, it is a great work of transcendent genius. Because ladies have Emotions, whereas men have Insights.

GARLAND: One thing that I utterly hate that reinforces this idea is that scene that crops up quite a lot where the male character realizes that a female character has an internal life of her own, and he’s blown away by this startling revelation, his world is turned upside down, etc. And we, the readers, are supposed to be very proud of the author for having realized that Ladies are people too, even when they aren’t baking or having sex.

REJECTIONIST: Oh yeah, I read that book, too! Male writers do not by any means have a monopoly on producing shallow and poorly drawn female characters. But male writers definitely dominate the field of Critically Acclaimed Literary Masterworks, and so those same tired ideas about the ladies get reiterated to the point where people don’t even notice them anymore. I recently read a Masterwork by one such great man, the title of which I shall not mention here but I’m sure you can guess, and there were points where I was shouting out loud in a rage–like, dude, have you ever even TALKED to a lady? Because it is so clear from reading this book that YOU HATE THEM. This text, it PULSATES with hatred. I wrote a while ago about my complicated relationship with Michel Houellebecq, a profoundly misogynist writer whose work I love. Someone tried to make the point that he was just a misanthrope, and I would counter that by saying it is certainly possible to hate humanity in general and women in particular, and those are two very different kinds of hatreds.

GARLAND: Hating people may or may not be acceptable, based on your belief in their capacity for kindness. Hating women, specifically, ignores all the ways in which Dudes can really and truly suck. OH THAT BOOK. Well can you blame him, really? I mean, women are either flat, boring emotional wrecks or unknowable mysteries. Because men are interesting and important, and women certainly must be complicated enigmas for men to be so interested in them. And the dudes! They are not ashamed to admit the power that women have over them! So sultry and seductive and unknowable. And they never once pause to consider that making women out to be mythic sex goddesses is just as reductive as making them fainting waifs. It is still about the male author and his obsession, and so totally not about who she is as a person in the real world. This whole series by Kate Beaton is perfect, but the fifth comic really needs to be read by every dude who wants to write about women.

REJECTIONIST: Oh I LOVE her. And yes, exactly. This umbrella of the removed, cynical, astutely misanthropic Novelist serves as a cover for a whole bunch of pernicious shit. Such as: it’s fine to promulgate sexist/racist/homophobic caricatures in the Novel, because the Novelist doesn’t hate women/people of color/queers, he just hates Humanity. And of course lots of ladies really are harpies or quasi-underage sexy exotic (read: brown) nymphos who die conveniently in a car crash so the forgiving male character can reunite with his stupid, cheating wife. So the Novelist has free license to people the Novel with those caricatures, since the Novelist is writing about how much humanity sucks. Any kind of critique trying to point out specific apparatuses of hatred gets met with OH YOU PC BITCHES AND YOUR COMPLAINING! He’s just writing about Human Nature!

GARLAND: And this has created a cultural milieu where these ideas have become so deeply entrenched that any writer who doesn’t subscribe to them is “The Other” and we are led to believe that misogynistic horseshit is the default and that anything that deviates from it lacks verisimilitude. And since all of these rules about what is true to life and what isn’t were laid down decades ago by older, white male authors of a certain generation, it is called “the literary tradition” instead of “white male author fantasyland” and anyone who doesn’t participate in the fantasy is an outsider.

REJECTIONIST: Outsider? Oh, you mean a Vagina! So, by default, within those critical parameters men are always going to be writing about Humanity and women are always going to be writing about Ladies and Their Tiny Concerns. And you know, a person just gets so tired! I would honestly like to stop HAVING this conversation, it is a conversation that EXHAUSTS me. I do not wake up every morning thinking OH YES UNIVERSE ANOTHER DAY IN WHICH I WILL BE CONTINUALLY REQUIRED TO ASSERT MY PERSONHOOD INCLUDING IN THE REALM OF THE IMAGINATION HUZZAH! And then I finish yet another Great Novel where by the end I feel like the Novelist has basically taken a doody of lady-hate on my head, and ask myself, Self, have we gotten ANYWHERE? This is a conversation about literature the ladies have been having publicly since Christine de Pizan smacked down the Romance of the Rose in the year fourteen hundred. CAN WE MOVE FORWARD PLEASE I DON’T LIKE THIS VIEW.

GARLAND: And one way to move that conversation forward is to talk about Ladies and Dudes who write well-developed, interesting female characters. SO! Send us the titles of books like that so that we may praise them, in a semi-regular, if-we-get-around-to-it, you’re-not-the-boss-of-us fashion! IF WE FEEL LIKE IT. And maybe we can start having a different conversation.


  1. Rave wrote:

    Okay this is only my favorite subject on the planet, no big deal.

    At the top of my list of “Dudes who write ladies good and also write other stuff good too”: E.M. Forster. Why don’t I just copy these two paragraphs from A Room With A View and then we can all take a moment to appreciate how relevant they STILL ARE.

    “Mr. Beebe was right. Lucy never knew her desires so clearly as after music. She had not really appreciated the clergyman’s wit, nor the suggestive twitterings of Miss Alan. Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big, and she believed that it would have come to her on the wind-swept platform of an electric tram. This she might not attempt. It was unladylike. Why? Why were most big things unladylike? Charlotte had once explained to her why. It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored. Poems had been written to illustrate this point.

    “There is much that is immortal in this medieval lady. The dragons have gone, and so have the knights, but still she lingers in our midst. She reigned in many an early Victorian castle, and was Queen of much early Victorian song. It is sweet to protect her in the intervals of business, sweet to pay her honour when she has cooked our dinner well. But alas! the creature grows degenerate. In her heart also there are springing up strange desires. She too is enamoured of heavy winds, and vast panoramas, and green expanses of the sea. She has marked the kingdom of this world, how full it is of wealth, and beauty, and war–a radiant crust, built around the central fires, spinning towards the receding heavens. Men, declaring that she inspires them to it, move joyfully over the surface, having the most delightful meetings with other men, happy, not because they are masculine, but because they are alive. Before the show breaks up she would like to drop the august title of the Eternal Woman, and go there as her transitory self.”

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  2. emjaybee wrote:

    Welp, off the top of my head, Ursula LeGuin is one. Most of the women writers I like who write good women characters are in science fiction or YA. I think those particular genres have been where women go when they get tired of fighting the White Dude Fantasyland/Novels About Shopping binary.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  3. Ira Wyatt wrote:

    “about Men who live their lives apart from the rest of society, walking the streets at night, staying in their little apartments, FACING THE EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. But I’ve never read a book like that with a female protagonist.”

    If you’re looking for something like that, you might be interested in Kit Whitfield’s Bareback (US title Benighted”) Amazon link here if this blog uses html

    Her blog is here for anyone interested.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 11:11 am | Permalink
  4. Maine Character wrote:

    It’s totally possible to hate humanity but still love women, gays, and mice. If I ever hate them, it’s individuals – the lesbian mouse getting into my animal crackers. But I get over it.

    And speaking of the “white male author fantasyland…”

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  5. Hayley B wrote:

    JEANETTE WINTERSON. and tom robbins, to some extent. Winterson is the absolute best at everything. Excellent female characters, excellent nongendered characters, excellent everything. Okay you can tell I’m a huge fan.

    You know, I’ve read a ton of Ursula LeGuin, but I’m just not sure I buy some of her writing. It still comes off as two-dimensional sometimes.

    (First time commenting, woo! Let the games begin!)

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink
  6. Samantha B. wrote:

    I really liked “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson. It won awards, as have all of her novels, but she never gets the same sort of Great American Novelist hype that gets reserved for male authors. She and Jonathan Franzen are fairly comparable in terms of their focus on contemporary American family life and their degree of talent(IMHO!) Yet there’s no fucking way the attention they get is comparable. Which is boring. Very, very, very boring!

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  7. CassieC wrote:

    Both men and women can write credible women characters, as long as they are willing to face the fact that being a woman in a male-dominated society sucks in very specific ways. Maupassant is one example of an old-timey writer whose women don’t make me want to go out and burn libraries down, because he’s writing about their doomed struggle to be themselves, in one way or another, and how they are trapped by the vision others (and they themselves) have of their condition.

    Then of course Jane Austen, whose books are some of the least romantic works written in the English language: they’re about the bare knuckled struggle for survival of a class of people who can’t properly work for their living, and are always dependent on the men in their lives, who more or less repulsive or unpleasant. The women survive guided by their skills at relationships and interacting in society, which are their only “means of production.”

    In terms of movies, I’ve recently been watching Hitchcock, and am consistently impressed with the secondary female characters (the main female role is often worse): the old lady in “A lady vanishes,” the woman on the moors in “The 39 steps.” They are resourceful, have an inner life and are completely human.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  8. kate wrote:

    Delurking on a blog I love just to do this.

    Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower and the Lilith’s Brood series (I also particularly love her short story, “Speech Sounds”, in Bloodchild, and think it falls into this category.)
    Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry.
    ZZ Packer’s short story “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” is really standing out in my head. Don’t know if it’s appeared in a collection.
    Grace Paley. “Faith in a Tree” in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.
    Jamaica Kincaid, Lucy.
    Thi Diem Thuy Le (can’t do diacritical marks, sorry), The Gangster We Are All Looking For.

    I know some of these are short stories, not books, but I think that if an author can create nuance and complexity in a smaller space that’s pretty cool too.

    Is it actually interesting that in a lot of these the nuanced, complex character is the narrator, or is that … not really that interesting but just normal? I’m having trouble thinking of such characters in more ensemble-having books.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  9. Catherine wrote:

    I recommend the coming-of-age story The Dancers Dancing by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne (I think she may have now hyphenated her surname to Ní Dhuibhne-Almqvist.) I both like and dislike the main character, Orla. After the second reading, I’m still trying to decide which one I do more.

    The book is set in the Irish Gaeltacht in 1972, and I think it’s not better known in the U.S. because a passing knowledge of Irish is definitely useful in understanding how the author is playing with language, for example, writing English in Irish syntax.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  10. Agnes wrote:

    Joan Vinge is a scifi author I’ve long been impressed by; all her characters are really well developed, even the villains. A lot of the themes of her work center around exploring the causes and effects of othering.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  11. jennifer wrote:

    i really love the way marian keyes writes about women. its fun and fluffy, but each female character is wonderfully specific.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  12. ritchey wrote:

    Zadie Smith: her ladies struggle with existential questions in interesting ways. She is the first “modern novelist” I ever read where I was like “oh, this is post-second-wave feminist stuff, i.e. the ladies are people too, worrying about their poems and the Iraq war”
    Carson McCullers: I cried and cried the first time I read “Member of the Wedding.” Written so long ago, yet starring a 13 year old girl and it just captures not only the anguish of being a 13 year old girl–which lots of dumb novels are about, also Judy Blume–but it takes that anguish and makes it universal, makes it about the shrill shrieking void of cosmic nothingness we all face. Totally a romantic depressing questing poetry novel except with a little girl instead of some boring white dude. BEST BOOK EVER. Also compassionate portrayal of black people? Whoa. Carson McCullers is a genius
    David Foster Wallace: such a tender dude! Such great characters of all shapes and genders. Everyone dealing with grander issues. There is no “too worried about baking and/or dudes to worry about the universe” type lady in the DFW oeuvre. I salute and respect him so much for this, and for so many things. how could such a troubled and depressed person who saw such darkness actually love humanity so much? Oh man.
    Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It’s a series of interlocking narratives that are sort of related but moreso conceptually than anything else. Some star dudes, some star ladies, and everyone is well-drawn and interesting and worried about issues bigger than vaginas and baking.
    I second Jane Austen

    Just make sure we never read Ernest Hemingway ever again.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink
  13. Duckgirlie wrote:

    I generally think Terry Pratchett writes good female characters. They’re all very much genre ‘stock characters’ on the surface (as most of his characters are) but he does interesting things with them. And he deals with gender conformity and presentation quite a lot as well.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink
  14. Catherine wrote:

    CassieC, I’m with you to a point, but the thing I find so depressing about Austen’s novels is that it’s always obvious right from the beginning that the whole thing is going to be wrapped up in a way that perfectly maintains the status quo. By contrast, a writer like Edith Wharton gives her protagonists the opportunity to fail miserably. In either case, I think the struggle is the opposite of “bare-knuckled,” both literally and figuratively, though I know generally what you meant. I do admire Austen’s writing style, but I have trouble bringing myself to read her books.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  15. Maggie wrote:

    Connie Willis writes the best strong women characters I’ve ever seen. They hit that perfect balance, all the way from Uncharted Territory (how far did you read before you knew she was a she? or did you assume?) to Doomsday Book and Bellwether and all the rest.

    Caprica on tv is doing an amazing job of writing not just great female characters but actually getting into the psycho-mythology (I made up that word) of women through history. It’s outstanding.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  16. CKHB wrote:

    I thought I was the only one who read and loved SEXING THE CHERRY! Huzzah!

    I’d like to step up and defend Hemingway for a moment here. Sure, he obviously had some, shall we say, ISSUES with the lady-folk, and overall he was an astonishingly humorless writer which makes it hard to get away with writing about the ladies-whom-he-does-not-fully-comprehend, but I think he actually has a certain amount of RESPECT for women that comes through in his work. He doesn’t LIKE them, perhaps, but his women have affairs and have babies and have abortions and live and love and die and shoot their husbands and NOT ONCE did I ever see them shopping or trying to “meet Mr. Right.” They may have been evil or shallow, but rarely were they bubble-headed. If a woman was just going to be a prop, then he DIDN’T BOTHER PUTTING THAT WOMAN INTO HIS STORY BECAUSE WHO NEEDS HER? His women had AGENCY, by god. They did shit. I wouldn’t want to date him but I will never be sorry for reading him.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  17. Emily wrote:

    I’d be curious to see what you (or one of the other TB writers) have to say about The Awakening. On the one hand, Edna’s problems are kind of all about dudes, but on the other hand, her problem is actually that her problems are of the dudes, by the dudes, and for the dudes. Realizing that as a female she can only exist in two-dimensions (Life Options: Goodewife or Artist/Reclusive Hermit), she opts out of the story altogether.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink
  18. Ossie wrote:

    “’ve read so many books about Men who live their lives apart from the rest of society, walking the streets at night, staying in their little apartments, FACING THE EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. But I’ve never read a book like that with a female protagonist.”

    You should read more.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  19. alanna wrote:

    Ooooooh I must enthusiastically second Ira’s recommendation of Kit Whitfield’s “Benighted.” I can’t say enough superlative things about it. (Fits with the recent discussions of Betty Draper, too, particularly the idea that being oppressed doesn’t automatically make you a noble, righteous person.)

    I’m a big fan of Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” series – the first two books in particular. The main character is a wonderful, smart, prickly, lacking-impusle-control teenage girl – it’s YA but doesn’t read very “young” at all.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  20. Alicia wrote:

    I hated “The Awakening” more than just about any book I’ve ever read. Well, maybe Edmund Burke and the sublime. But it is CLOSE. Essential thrust: It’s hard out here for the ladies. Yeah, we know. SOLUTIONS, people!

    Lately I’ve been escaping the Dudely White Novel by reading Lyndall Gordon’s biographies of female authors, which are completely the antidote. I don’t even LIKE Emily Dickinson, and I still devoured “Lives Like Loaded Guns.” And now I’m onto “Vindication,” about Mary Wollstonecraft. Gordon’s that rare species of biographer who reads as easily as fiction.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  21. ritchey wrote:

    I really love Hemingway–unlike a lot of feminists I know, I don’t generally find it hard to enjoy a book/movie with gnarly gender issues so long as it is well made. So yes, I love Hemingway! He’s fucking awesome. I just included him flippantly as an example of a dude who doesn’t write great female characters, which is just my opinion, although I see your point.

    I also have to second Caprica. I thought I was the only person who watched it! IT IS SO FUCKING AMAZING YOU GUYS. I know it is hard to give the sci-fi channel a chance but Battlestar was some of the best tv or film I have ever seen, especially with regard to the ladies, and Caprica is just as good. It’s like, you watch it and you realize “oh yeah, this is what it could feel like to watch something where the ladies and the men are all just people together.”

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  22. T.H. Mafi wrote:

    The Rejectionist is a brilliant gem in this mess of internetspace.
    & Garland Grey is so many kinds of awesome.

    Thank you both for your Genius.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  23. ritchey wrote:

    oh man, also, CRUDDY by Lynda Barry. There truly are not words enough in the english language to express how brilliant this book is. Also starring a young girl.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  24. Aestas wrote:

    Barbara Kingsolver is amazing. Everything she’s ever written is amazing.

    Also, Khaled Hosseini writes great women. “A Thousand Splendid Suns” was wonderful.

    And Wally Lamb is another male author who writes women well. When I first read “She’s Come Undone,” I had to keep flipping back to the cover to check: “A MAN wrote this? Really?!”

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  25. meave wrote:

    I just finished The Exception by Christian Jungersen, it’s nuts.

    As a small person I loved the Anastasia Krupnik series by Lois Lowry, and a book called Pageant, by Kathryn Lasky–I read it so many times, even thinking about it makes me giggle.

    Maybe it’s controversial but I’m very fond of the Georgia Nicolson series as well; there’s lots of stuff about boys and all that, but a lot of it is the group of girl friends being ridiculous together, or being ridiculous with boys in a non-romantic way, and it’s just really funny.

    Also Roald Dahl; he considered all children important, so little girls got as much attention as little boys in his novels, and it was never “boys vs. girls” so much as “adults vs. children.”

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  26. Itamar wrote:

    I second emjaybee’s point about science fiction. Perhaps this is because good science fiction is far more likely to be about politics (in the broadest sense) than other genres of fiction.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  27. Amy B. wrote:

    Love the conversation, and the conversations it’s inspiring.

    But I have to ask, Maine Character, where oh where is that fabulous chainmail-bikini-comic from???

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  28. Kathy wrote:

    Seconding Cruddy. Lynda Barry creates amazing female characters. I wish Marlys and Mabonne had a novel of their own, but I love them in comic form regardless. Lorrie Moore and Mary Gaitskill also have written some fantastic, nuanced characters. I wish I could add to the list of “men who write believable women,” but unfortunately I can’t think of any. The writers of my generation in particular (the Hornbys, Couplands, etc.) seem to have trouble writing three-dimensional female characters.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  29. AK wrote:

    #25 meave wrote:

    “I just finished The Exception by Christian Jungersen, it’s nuts.”

    I read this a few years ago, it was a really overpowering reading experience. I’m happy to hear it’s been translated to English. At first, I was surprised and impressed that a man could write women so well – all the four or five main characters are women, and the view point alternates between them. Then I was surprised that someone could write PEOPLE so well. And then I just felt sick, because of what those people were doing and thinking.

    I remember that the ending felt just a little over-the-top (and also that I think he may have misrepresented a certain mental illness, but I’m no doctor), but this writer’s way of capturing petty evil (and, uh, huge evil) really got to me. I was physically disgusted, yet I couldn’t stop reading. Like, this book should probably have a warning label. Or maybe I just was the perfect audience. Good book though.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 8:11 pm | Permalink
  30. AK wrote:

    Oh, maybe I should clarify – I didn’t mean that the book is gross or gory. It’s not. It’s the subtle emotional and psychological violence that really stands out.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Permalink
  31. AVS wrote:

    Main Street by Sinclair Lewis has, at least off the top of my head, one of the best female character written by a man. And, she’s the main character! Cats and dogs, living together! Oh, and Wallace Stegner, especially Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose, wrote really well-developed, fully formed female characters. Side note, read Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety. Amazing, absolutely amazing.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
  32. Sara wrote:

    “I’ve read so many books about Men who live their lives apart from the rest of society, walking the streets at night, staying in their little apartments, FACING THE EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. But I’ve never read a book like that with a female protagonist.”

    Antarctica on a Plate is a memoir of a woman going to Antarctica as an adventurer. And it’s way funnier than most of the “men in the wilderness” books.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 9:31 pm | Permalink
  33. bxley wrote:

    get your Latinamerican on!
    Clarice Lispector, whose work is often about this very thing and uses fake in-story male authors to make the point, at least in The Hour of the Star.
    And Elena Garro, whose Recollections of Things to Come is enough to wipe the aftertaste of fetishization from your Magic Realism experience.

    Monday, October 25, 2010 at 11:50 pm | Permalink
  34. Maine Character wrote:

    Amy B – the chainmail comic I found at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 1:45 am | Permalink
  35. Stora My wrote:

    Anything by Sheri Tepper. She is amazing at writing great female characters of all ages.

    Best book: Grass

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 3:25 am | Permalink
  36. k not k wrote:

    I’m reading The Golden Compass out loud to a Gentleman Companion (because we are dorks) and so this post comes at a time when I’ve sufficiently refreshed my knowledge on it to say with authority: The Golden Compass, y’all.

    I loved this book more than any book when I was in my early teens, and reading back through it now, it’s easy to see why. Lyra, the young protagonist, is a tough little brawler of a girl determined to help a friend. She gets intimidated by the big wide world and sometimes just wants to go home, but also has the defiance and fortitude to get shit done.

    And, though the book is set in a male-dominated fantasy world, the main villain is also female. Mrs. Coulter shoots straight past bad mommy and femme fatale stereotypes and lands right at HOLY SHIT, this woman is basically employing an army of Josef Mengeles. Later in the story it also becomes clear that she is a good example of an oppressed person working the system, and using that talent not for good but to be a total raging asshole. It’s fantastic, at least in my opinion!

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 6:10 am | Permalink
  37. Maggie wrote:

    I need to read more Octavia Butler. I got super turned off by Bloodchild, but recently I read a short story of hers in an anthology and realised that she writes things that are amazing as well as things that are inexplicably dull!

    Kelly Link is a personal favourite of mine who happens to have a lot of work online

    Her work ranges from fantasy to literary with a lengthy detour in the New Weird and can certainly be relied on for interesting female characters. Interesting male ones too! Take this particularly literary one for a sample:
    And for anyone who’s tired of the State of the Lady Sidekick in superhero comics, I reccommend Origin Story

    Another writer relevant to your interests is China Mieville, who I am sure you have heard of, but in case you haven’t he writes fantasy, and also dips into the New Weird particularly in his short stories. the Bas Lag series, starting with Perdido Street Station, has definitely got some interesting and fully-dimensioned female characters, including a lesbian who doesn’t die at the end and a prostitute who starts a revolution – it does also touch lightly on some of the old problematic tropes but with enough individualism for me, at least, to forgive. You are cautioned that the writing occasionally gets a bit dense in the novels, but what am I saying, you guys read Literary Fiction, you’re used to it :P

    PS I kind of love these TB namesmoosh conversations :) and on an unrelated note it would be helpful if, next site redesign, you stick the name of the poster at the top instead of just the bottom. I keep getting three paragraphs in and realising the post is by a different person to who I thought.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 7:33 am | Permalink
  38. Itamar wrote:

    Kate Beaton has apparently been following along at

    “Here we have Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a book written to tell ladies that if you’re not a submissive waif, society goes to hell and ungodly monsters are going to turn you into child killing horrors and someone is going to drive a bowie knife through your heart/cut off your head/etc. As you deserve! Thanks Bram! I wrote it down so as to remember it.”

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink
  39. Erin wrote:

    I’d be interested to see what you think of The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle. When it was released, there was a lot of controversy about how a man could write a female character in the first-person so very well. I loved it.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink
  40. ritchey wrote:

    I second the Golden Compass and all related books of that trilogy! I read them for the first time as a grown-ass woman and still I cried. And if you read Phillip Pullman’s statements about those books, he says he wrote them explicitly to counterract the insidious gross example of the Narnia books, in which men are better than women, in which Susan isn’t allowed to come back to Narnia once she “discovered boys and lipstick,” the Christian theological framework, etc. I love that the Golden Compass books are not just really well-written but are explicitly feminist and political. SO GOOD

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  41. Ali wrote:

    I second everything said about the Golden Compass (we call it Northern Lights in the UK) and its sequels! Mrs. Coulter is an amazing character, and apparently the one he most enjoyed writing as well.

    @Ritchey Speaking of C. S. Lewis and his ickyness, apparently Mrs. Coulter was tangentially based on this woman that walked into C. S. Lewis’s debating club in Oxford(/Cambridge?) and out-argued him in front of his students about the existence of God. He was so embarrassed that he gave up debating. I really wish I could remember her name!

    Oh wait, wikipedia says it was Elizabeth Anscombe. What an awesome lady :)

    @Meave It might not be the most overtly feminist of depictions of women but I have a lot of love for the Georgia Nicholson series too!

    If you are into that kind of thing, there are many, many young adult books that have brilliantly-written, awesome and/or feminist female characters! I really can’t list them all, but off the top of my head authors worth mentioning here: Sarah Rees-Brennan, Libba Bray, Scott Westerfeld, Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, Anna Godbersen, Melissa Marr, Alaya Johnson, Holly Black, E. Lockhart, Suzanne Collins.

    Also: I love this post to tiny little pieces.

    Also: eff yeah Kate Beaton!

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  42. Emrys wrote:

    William Gibson’s novels in general are quite good with women from my perspective. Neuromancer in particular has a good take on the misanthropic male protagonist and the sexy sexy ass kicking woman stereotypes.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  43. alanna wrote:

    Remembered another: “Daughters of the North” by Sarah Hall. Absolutely fascinating, particularly in its exploration of aggression, self-defense, and violence.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  44. Karen wrote:

    I loved ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s a diverse collection of short stories mostly (maybe all? I don’t remember) about Nigerian women. She has a great talk on TED actually, about ‘The danger of a single story’ when writing about any oppressed group. []

    Kamila Shamsie writes some pretty diverse female characters in Burnt Shadows too.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Permalink
  45. Claudia wrote:

    It’s not high literature or anything, but I’ve always liked the Thursday Next books by Jasper Fforde. I’ve struggled with how to say it exactly, but here goes anyways. I’ve read/seen entirely too many stories written by male writers in which female characters tend to have one role- they’re either the kick-ass sex pot or their the emotional victim or they’re the supportive mother/wife, like there’s no middle ground in between any of those things. I appreciate the Thursday Next books because the character seems to strike a balance. She’s not solely defined by her job or her relationships. When, say, she’s a mother or a wife, those things are presented as…extensions of her character, not the definition of it, if that makes sense. They’re additions to her life- they don’t supplant it.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 7:52 pm | Permalink
  46. Seraph wrote:

    I actually just re-read Silence of the Lambs and was struck by what a whole character Starling is. Not that there are no problems with the book or her characterization, but then when is there not?

    I also second Ursula LeGuin, and HARDCORE second Barbara Kingsolver. I have a vague notion in my head that she’s a bit written off as a chick lit writer–am I right about this? But The Bean Trees has been on my favorites list since I read it in like, middle school. I’m currently rereading it and loving Taylor and Lou Ann’s relationships, with the inside jokes.

    Madeleine L’Engle is also one of my favorites. She’s kind of a Christian writer, which doesn’t bug me if you’re not a preachy asshole, but your mileage may, of course, vary. I personally love love love her. Certain Women and A Ring of Endless Light are my favorites.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 9:11 pm | Permalink
  47. JustDucky wrote:

    Just about anything by Margaret Atwood. I love that woman.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 10:03 pm | Permalink
  48. AliasMitch wrote:

    I have to second Margaret Atwood, but I also have to say that I think Janet Fitch’s White Oleander and Paint It Black contain very nuanced female protagonists. I also have to join The Golden Compass Club. Ms. Coulter is just so wonderfully complicated and Lyra is just awesome.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 11:14 pm | Permalink
  49. Sharon wrote:

    Err. . . these might be fluffier in general than the other recommendations in this thread. . .

    I third or fourth (whichever number we’re on?) Barbara Kingsolver.

    I don’t think anyone has mentioned Tamora Pierce here yet; I feel a little silly doing so, as I feel like at this point lots of people know about her (?). Young adult fantasy — I lived and breathed her books in middle school. All of the main characters are female and fully realized, and while a lot of secondary characters are male, usually there’s (at least) a strong female mentor in any given book.

    Other authors: Patricia C. Wrede (okay, her books are fun and silly, but everyone needs to laugh, right? — fantasy), Elizabeth Peters (she writes mysteries in various historical settings, and her protagonists are invariably sensible women who are occasionally badass and occasionally awkward), and Robin McKinley (who makes my head throb with awesomeness — fantasy.)

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 12:39 am | Permalink
  50. kate wrote:

    Sticking my head back in the door to say that I love Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley. I reread The Hero and the Crown every year because it makes me feel good. But I do think that in the books of theirs I’ve read, which are mostly the older ones, their characters tend to have ONE major motivation with attendant major flaw or weakness (which is often self-doubt). They definitely take initiative, make difficult decisions (including ethical decisions), and are the hearts of their own stories, and all those things are super important and not always easy to find; but as far as complexity in the sense of having a lot going on inside as well as out, I think Pierce’s Alanna comes closest. I’m more than willing to be argued with.

    While we’re on the YA train, I would like to put in a word for Wise Child by Monica Furlong, whose protagonist, mentor figure and villain are all female, and all extremely round and real.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 8:37 am | Permalink
  51. Elise wrote:

    . . . I LOVE Tamora Pierce. I know her novels are technically “Young Adult” fiction, but they have awesome female characters I can sympathize with, plus lots of horses (because the world is medieval-esque) and her books are definitely half the reason I’ve become the person I am. I like the original quartet Pierce wrote, but my favorite is the Protector of the Small quartet – it’s about a girl training to be a knight in the midst of the fallout of . . . well, a lot of things, including the revelation that Alanna was a female.

    In the field of Fantasy, I’ve actually found that strong, developed female characters (to me, at least) are more common than general fiction. There’s Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books in YA, and Mercedes Lackey and her Heralds of Valdemar series (also completely fun and awesome, but very horse-centered) and . . . a whole slew of others, all with their flaws but also all featuring pretty well-rounded female protagonists. If you want a completely female-centered series by Mercedes Lackey, I’d recommend the Vows & Honor trilogy.

    Sorry for the random babbling of happiness, but I do *LOVE* Tamora Pierce and Mercedes Lackey. I’m sure they have their flaws, of course. But I’d recommend them to anyone looking for a fun, light read (Mercedes Lackey is less so, and I’d note that there are certain scenes that can be triggering in her books, especially the Vows & Honor trilogy and the book, “Arrow’s Fall”).

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  52. ritchey wrote:

    what about Scarlett O’Hara? I’m conflicted about that book for obvious reasons…but damn, what an amazing main character.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  53. Gnatalby wrote:

    I have to strongly disagree about Tom Robbins. I love reading him, but Manic Pixie Dreamgirl is not an exciting and fully developed female character, and that’s what all his ladies are.

    Plus while I appreciate the sentiment I don’t need so many lengthy descriptions of lengthy pubes and their musky sweat scent or whatever.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink
  54. ritchey wrote:

    I strongly agree with @gnatalby. Although I went through a heavy Robbins phase in my youth, it is true.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 4:35 pm | Permalink
  55. MonkeyGirl wrote:

    BrontesBrontesBrontes! Especially Jane Eyre and Tenant of Wildfell Hall

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink
  56. ritchey wrote:

    I am posting too much but YES TO THE BRONTËS!!!!! Wuthering Heights! Also really reading anything ABOUT Emily Bronté will make you fall in love. She used to walk to the alehouse and single-handedly carry her reprobate drunk brother home at night. When her father died he gave HER his gun (instead of his son), a symbolic gesture of passing on who would protect the family. She said marriage was dumb, she wore men’s clothing, and when she died her dog howled outside her bedroom door for 3 days. What an amazing weirdo.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  57. ALEXANDRA wrote:

    Anyone read much of Isabel Allende? I recently read De Amor y De Sombra and loved it, actually ended up writing one of my college application essays about it. Although it has arguable faults, it’s very worth reading. She also has some short stories that are neat, too, some dealing with the whole “machismo” thing of Latin America that’s really intense and interesting to explore.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Permalink
  58. kristinc wrote:

    Ditto on Robin McKinley.

    No one has said Lois McMaster Bujold? Oh, maude. I can’t say enough about Lois McMaster Bujold. If you like science fiction, no scratch that, if you like funny, fairly light pageturner stories with exquisitely real characters, sly social commentary and asskicking women, she is the go-to lady. Read.

    Nancy Kress is great too. I never get tired of recommending “Beggars In Spain” to Ayn Rand types.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 11:38 pm | Permalink
  59. Maggie wrote:

    Oh man, I can’t believe I didn’t mention Bujold myself, the Vorkosigan series is one of my favourites. Her protagonist’s eventual love interest has a compelling feminist story and his mother, who is herself the protagonist of a couple of prequel novels, is one of my favourite fictional people of all time. I find it endlessly amusing that Bujold and David Weber appear to mirror each other in the Horatio Hornblower In Space genre – each writing an almost-implausibly-gifted commander of the gender opposite their own who rises through the ranks and is embroiled in political intrigue… Bujold is a somewhat more competent writer, but Weber’s Honor Harrington books are definitely good for competent female characters if you can handle the slightly dodgy prose. Also great if you like your French Revolution analogies heavy-handed :P

    Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink
  60. ritchey wrote:

    I second Allende. “House of Spirits” is amazing. So weird and good and trippy and sad and funny, and so many cool lady characters.

    Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  61. Jeni wrote:

    I third Atwood! Really liked Handmaid’s Tale.
    I just finished Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and it just about blew my mind. Has anyone read her other book, Gourmet Rhapsody?

    Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  62. Helen wrote:

    Then of course Jane Austen, whose books are some of the least romantic works written in the English language: they’re about the bare knuckled struggle for survival of a class of people who can’t properly work for their living, and are always dependent on the men in their lives, who more or less repulsive or unpleasant. The women survive guided by their skills at relationships and interacting in society, which are their only “means of production.”

    I’m not a literary academic, merely an Austen enjoyer, but I reckon that is the best paragraph summing up Austen’s work I’ve ever, ever read.

    Friday, October 29, 2010 at 6:01 am | Permalink
  63. Carol the Long Winde wrote:

    okay, so its poetry but Ted Roethke kicks ass writing about all ages of women. He’s awesome

    Friday, October 29, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  64. kristinc wrote:

    “Her protagonist’s eventual love interest has a compelling feminist story and his mother, who is herself the protagonist of a couple of prequel novels, is one of my favourite fictional people of all time.”

    I still want a rubber bracelet that says WWCNVD? (What Would Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan Do?)

    I really enjoyed “The Gate To Women’s Country” by Sheri Tepper, but when I sought out other books by her I was unpleasantly surprised. It was as if someone completely different and vastly more competent had written just that one book, which is thoughtful and moving and well-written. The other books by Tepper that I read seem to have been slapped together with a “sure, why not” ethos. So, you know, fair warning, but Women’s Country was very good.

    Saturday, October 30, 2010 at 12:15 am | Permalink
  65. ourlipsbend wrote:

    Best book recs list ever on my favourite blog ever! THANK YOU. I work at a bookstore, so I’m totally going to be distracted during my shift tomorrow, looking up all of these books.

    And, okay, I had to delurk, even just to say: yes yes yes to Suzanne Collins. Her series has so much going for it, not the least of which is a resilient & realistically flawed young female protagonist, who takes incredible action even in a society that is specifically structured to not allow anyone to have agency.

    As for Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors, I don’t really know much about the original critical responses to it, but personally I read it last month and LOVED it to a degree that is truly ridiculous. I’m currently being an inarticulate insomniac about why, but I’d love to hear what anybody else here thought about it.

    OH ALSO: Derby Girl by Shauna Cross. More YA lit with a young lady protagonist who is singularly sassy, strong, and true-to-life. (Plus, it’s one of those few cases in which the movie adaptation — Whip It — is just as fantastic as the book. Actually, it’s even better in some bits, like the way she handles her relationship with Dude-in-a-band.)

    One more: if you read rom-coms, please please please be reading Jennifer Crusie (especially Bet Me).

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 4:39 am | Permalink
  66. Catherine wrote:

    To the couple people who liked The Woman Who Walked into Doors: Be sure to read the sequel, Paula Spencer! Lots and lots of books feature characters “with a past,” but not many are about the daily uphill trudge of recovery.

    Also, I just remembered Hilary Mantel. I can’t think of any of her female characters that are really feel-good types, but they are well-written and interesting.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  67. firefoot wrote:

    this post is awesome because I HAVE SO MANY BOOKS TO READ NOW *___________*

    um! well, I quite like Terry Pratchett. His portrayal of his female characters has never skeeved me, though Angua’s bond to Carrot has always annoyed me. Um.

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 6:43 pm | Permalink
  68. Val wrote:

    Denise Mina’s books…all of them. Wonderful, occasionally horrifying, fully developed characters written with empathy and amazing humour. These are mysteries with serious subjects: child abuse, domestic violence, addiction, and mental health issues. Not for everyone, to be sure, but I have found them very rewarding. The female protagonists in the Garnethill and Paddy Meehan series are amazing.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  69. Yukie wrote:

    Throwing in some Canuck material (though it’s YA) – Monica Hughes’s The Dream Catcher is bloody awesome. Ditto Suzanne Martel for Canadian awesome.

    More awesome YA stuff = Lois Lowry.

    The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova has some epic women in it, too. I love the narrator to little bits, and Helen is just an all-round badass.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 7:58 pm | Permalink
  70. strato wrote:

    Would like to try something a bit more exotic? Spanish literature, for instance? “El amigo Manso” Benito Pérez Galdós.

    Sunday, November 7, 2010 at 7:07 am | Permalink
  71. nunki wrote:

    Val McDermid writes wonderfully three-dimensional lady characters. They kick ass, work, eat, get grumpy, get happy, think about their lives/the world, etc. They’re real people!

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 7:40 am | Permalink
  72. Rose Petersky wrote:

    When you said:
    “I’ve read so many books about Men who live their lives apart from the rest of society, walking the streets at night, staying in their little apartments, FACING THE EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. But I’ve never read a book like that with a female protagonist. It seems like female characters aren’t just limited by the depth of their character, but also by the questions they are allowed to interrogate.”

    That made me think about Subnormality by Winston Rowntree. His comics are all about the human condition, almost universally from the perspectives and experiences of recurring female characters.

    Found here:

    Wednesday, November 24, 2010 at 3:10 am | Permalink