When author Paula Fox died in March, we wondered why we hadn’t heard more about her. Fox wrote dark, brilliant novels for adults, and Newbery Medal and National Book Award-winning books for children, but her work was largely forgotten for many years — in part because it had gone out of print. Eventually, Fox’s books experienced a resurgence, thanks in part to other novelists’ praise of her work.
It made us wonder: What other terrific female writers were we failing to notice? Writers whose work was dazzling or influential, but had been mostly forgotten or overlooked, either because of their gender, the language in which they wrote, or other reasons we had not imagined.
To find an answer, we reached out to several of the top female authors and editors working today. Here are the writers they told us we are missing out on:
“American readers, unfortunately, have an allergy to reading work in translation, so a good many excellent writers get overlooked or forgotten or never recognized here simply for not writing in English. Agota Kristof, who was born in Hungary and wrote in French, was one. I just read her first novel, ‘The Notebook,’ a brutal and terrifying and gorgeous story that re-introduced me to narrative possibilities that I’d somehow forgotten. Only three of her nine novels have been translated.”
— Catherine Lacey, author of the novel “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” which won the 2016 Whiting Award, and the upcoming novel, “The Answers,” which is out in June
“It’s hard not to read ‘Parable of the Sower‘ today and get a chill. Like Orwell’s ‘1984,’ ‘Parable’ feels like it could have been titled ‘2017’ even though it was published in 1993. I think Butler didn’t get the widespread attention she deserved because she was considered a genre writer or a science fiction author, but she was actually a social scientist. Her books deal with American history from the point of view of women of color — and, as is the case in ‘Parable,’ young women. She has tackled everything in her literature from men giving birth to this moment in time we’re living in. Her work is eloquent and thoughtful and I have no idea why people aren’t running for her books to understand this moment in time.”
— Jacqueline Woodson, author of books for children and adolescents, including “Miracle Boys” and the Newbery Honor-winning “Brown Girl Dreaming”
“Benson was an English suffragette, poet, novelist, and travel writer. I discovered her in a Rebecca West letter, who was baffled that when a new novel by Benson came out, it didn’t get the attention it deserved. When I asked around nobody seemed to have heard of her name.
The day after the election, I was reading Benson’s work and sent this passage to a friend: ‘Poor man measures all things by the size of his own foot. He looks complacently at the print of his boot in the mud and notices that the ant which he crushed was not nearly as big as his foot, therefore the ant does not matter to him. He also notices that those same feet of his would not be able to walk to the moon within a reasonable time, therefore the moon does not matter for him.’ Fortunately, the moon and the ant both matter to Benson. It was not a wonder that when Benson died (at age 41), Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: ‘A curious feeling: when a writer like Stella Benson dies, that one’s response is diminished; Here and Now won’t be lit up by her: it’s life lessened.’
— From Yiyun Li, author of short stories and the new memoir, “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You in Your Life,” and also the editor of the New York-based literary magazine “A Public Space.”
“I often say Meriweather’s ‘Daddy Was A Number Runner‘ is the African American ‘A Tree Grows In Brooklyn’ — set in Harlem during the depression, the character, Francie, takes us right into the world of Harlem during that period of time. It’s a stunning work of fiction that I return to often.”
— From Jacqueline Woodson
“John Ashbery famously called Elizabeth Bishop a ‘poet’s poet’s poet.” That makes Marianne Moore (1887-1972), Bishop’s mentor and lifelong friend, the poet’s poet’s poet’s poet … In her day and in ours, poets who agree on little else agree on her. Moore was an original. She invented stanzas patterned on syllable counts rather than traditional meters and forms; she wrote about steam rollers and pangolins and Yul Brynner and faith; she stitched together poems out of quotations from newspapers and field guides and advertisements and circus programs and conversations. She frequently altered her poems, revising, cutting, and rearranging them, sometimes over the course of decades.
It is for all these qualities, of technical precision, wide-ranging curiosity, and thoroughly modern iconoclasm, that poets love her. But such fierce individualism also makes it taxing to keep up with her. Had she been a man (who knows?) general readers might more easily call the challenges she presents the hallmarks of genius and be readier to, as Gertrude Stein recommended we do in her own case, ‘learn to read the way she writes.’ Her poet peers have always done so, and modern poetry is richer for it. As Jorie Graham notes, Moore still ‘feel[s] like our future.’ We who care about poetry should go back to her work to find our way forward.”
— From Heather Cass White, a professor of English at the University of Alabama who’s spent the last decade editing the poetry of Marianne Moore.
“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Joyce Hansen’s books for young people centered on the everyday lives of children of color and were some of the first books I read to do so. She tackled issues of race, class and even learning differences through the gaze of middle graders. Later on, her historical fiction paved the way for many of us writing in this genre now. She is revered in the community of young people’s literature but still, her books are often hard to find or long out of print.”
— Jacqueline Woodson
“Szabo was also born in Hungary and has gotten more attention here in recent years but I suggest it’s not enough. I read ‘The Door‘ and ‘Iza’s Ballad‘ last year and both were stunners.”
— Catherine Lacey