By Matilda Cox
The role of women in the creation of literature has certainly come a long way in the last two centuries. From a time when women writers were never taken seriously, and risked being disowned by their families if they were to publish under their real name, in the twenty-first century we can often take for granted the fact that so many talented women writers take up space on our bookshelves.
You would struggle to find a list of the most influential women writers which did not contain Shelley’s name, but rightly so. Frankenstein was born when Lord Byron encouraged the teenage Shelley and a group of their friends to write horror stories, but Shelley decided to come up with a new kind of tale. So, despite being just eighteen years old and having little writing experience, Mary Shelley created Frankenstein and, thus, invented the science-fiction genre. As well as exploring key concerns of the age, like the conflict between religion and science and the dangers of human arrogance, Shelley also created a character and narrative which has now become completely embedded in popular culture. The issues Shelley raises in relation to man’s duty and ethics in science continues to be just as pertinent, if not more so, today.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Inspired by Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Adichie always sought to represent people like her in her fiction. For instance, her short story “My Mother, the Crazy African” was based on her experiences balancing traditional Nigerian culture with American culture and the novel liberation of gender roles. Her most well-received work is her most recent novel Americanah, which details the story of a young couple from Nigeria who search for new lives in the West. Adichie successfully raises pressing questions of race and belonging and has made a name for herself as a voice for previously marginalised groups.
Although Jackson has often been dismissed as a legitimate writer by critics – one referring to her as ‘Virginia Werewoolf’ – she probably remains my favourite writer and, in my view, deserves to be remembered as a key figure in the American Gothic tradition. Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, which tells the story of a group of paranormal investigators, is “one of the finest horror novels of the late twentieth century”, according to Stephen King, and interestingly intertwines the haunting of the house with the characters’ psyches. Though Jackson is certainly underrated, her keen ability to evoke sheer terror in any reader remains astounding.
Ursula K Le Guin
Le Guin’s ability to create a truly immersive world is rather unparalleled. When she started publishing in the sixties, sci-fi and fantasy literature had very few popular women writers, but with her Earthsea series, Le Guin legitimised women writers within the genre. Although the books themselves may revolve around wizards, Le Guin was renowned for exploring very real and pressing themes: she was an advocate for feminist thinking and rejected the notion that fantasy stories only revolved around white people, offering a diversity which can still be rare to find today. Famously, Le Guin was requested to write a blurb for a science fiction anthology but, upon realising the collection contained no female writers, bitingly responded “Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here”. Not only did Le Guin open the fantasy genre up for mainstream recognition, but she also created space for female writers that previously wasn’t there.
Granted, Jacqueline Wilson’s books may not be the most high-brow literature, but her influence on young girls (and boys) in the twenty-first century is remarkable. Unlike the majority of children’s books, Wilson depicts every kind of dysfunctional family dynamic and often tackles difficult subject matter. Despite this, her books are funny and warm, and the characters are likeable and dynamic. Perhaps her most famous work is The Story of Tracy Beaker, which became an iconic part of popular culture with its CBBC adaptation. I know, for me, each book completely immersed me when I was younger and it was Wilson who first sparked my love of reading.
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