Compared to decades ago, today there is more fiction written by women and more literary works in which female characters significantly outnumber the male ones. Still, like almost everything else, much of literature unfortunately remains a majority-male world. So it’s especially nice when one stumbles on, or deliberately seeks out, fiction with a female focus.
And some of that literature isn’t very recent. I just read Dorothy L. Sayers’ interesting 1935 mystery Gaudy Night, which is set at a British women’s college and thus features many female students, alumnae, professors, and staffers. One of the alumnae is Harriet Vane, a well-known crime author who is asked by the college to investigate some weird goings-on in its hallowed halls.
Gaudy Night‘s frequent feminist elements are among the novel’s pleasures — which reminds me that female-dominated literature often strongly or subtly addresses women’s rights, patriarchy, sexism, mother-daughter relationships (good and bad), gender issues in the workplace, and more — usually to a greater extent than male-centric lit does.
And given that women often act differently when they’re around women rather than men, it’s interesting to see how that manifests itself in female-centric lit. (Men also often act differently when they’re around men rather than women, but that’s another story…)
Another school-set novel featuring many females is Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which the unconventional teacher of the book’s title is assigned six girl students who become known as “the Brodie set.”
Many other female-focused novels star sisters — whether it be two, three, four, or five of them. Among the most famous are Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Those and other multi-daughter books often feature memorable mother characters, too. (By the way, Happy Mother’s Day!)
Friendships between women also play a large role in various female-focused novels — including Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. While those relationships are often positive and nurturing, there are obviously some marked by jealousy and worse. For instance, The Robber Bride spotlights the wonderful long-term friendship of three women, even as a fourth woman they all know makes life hell for the trio.
Of course, novels featuring characters who are lesbian (such as Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle) or who are experimenting with lesbianism (such as Colette’s Claudine at School) usually have a strong female focus.
Then there’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, in which the friendship between co-workers Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison has a lesbian subtext that’s understated — partly because the characters are interacting in the pre-World War II American South. Fannie Flagg’s book also includes the wonderful cross-generational friendship between Evelyn Couch and Ninny Threadgoode, who meet in the novel’s 1980s present-day.
And women are the focus of many plays — including Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles and Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, to name just two.
What are your favorite female-centric works of fiction?
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.