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Narrative Nonfiction 5: Women Writers

nonfiction five buttonSince March is Women’s History Month, I decided to do my second Narrative Nonfiction 5 list on female writers that use this form. When the New Journalism of the 1960s stared, there weren’t many women writing as part of the moment but in the years since it’s opened up and you can find women writing really amazing narrative nonfiction on a host of subjects.

I gathered this list from scouring the index of True Stories by Norman Sims. I haven’t read books by all of the authors, but (predictably) researching for this list has made me really want to try them!

1. Joan Didion

Joan Didion is one of the first writers of New Journalism (narrative nonfiction), and the first female to do so with a national profile. She’s a prolific writer who’s published five works of fiction, 11 nonfiction books, one play, and five screenplays, plus numerous essays and other news stories. In interviews, Didion credits Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, and George Eliot and influences on her writing. If you enjoy those styles, I think you’d enjoy Didion.

The first Joan Didion book I read was Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her second book of nonfiction, and I loved it. It’s hard not to admire her as a writer and reporter for the way she gets subjects to open up to her. She’s also a little ruthless in the way she isn’t afraid of making those same people look foolish in order to push forward her themes about disillusionment and counter-culture.

She recently came out with a memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the year after her husband of forty years, John, passed away unexpectedly from a “massive coronary event.” I found the memoir totally beautiful and, despite the topic, not depressing. I highly recommend this book too.

2. Patsy Sims

Patsy Sims is am American author who grew up in Texas and Louisiana. She has written three books: The Klan, Cleveland Benjamin’s Dead: A Struggle for Dignity in Louisiana’s Cane Country, and Can Somebody Shout Amen!: Inside the Tents and Tabernacles of American Revivalists. The last book on the list was a noteworthy book of 1988. Currently, Sims is the Director of the Nonfiction program at Goucher College.

3. Susan Sheehan

Susan Sheehan is a journalist from the United States, but was born in Vienna, Austria. She won the Pulitzer for nonfiction in 1983 for her book Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, a story about a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia and her experiences in different treatment facilities. More recently, she explored the child welfare system in her 1993 book Life For Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair, which takes it’s title from Langson Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son.”

4. Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean is an author that I’ve read and enjoyed pretty frequently. Last year Nicole (Linus’s Blanket) and I did a co-review of The Orchid Thief, Orlean’s book about the world of orchid hunting and obsession. I also read one collection of Orlean’s essays, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, while on vacation last year.

I actually like what I wrote about Orlean in my review of The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, so I’m going to quote it here:

After reading the entire collection straight through I don’t think Orlean’s writing style is spectacular. Her prose is clean and lyrical, but after 290 pages of profiles meant to be read separately you can start to see the writing patterns and techniques that Orlean utilizes. However, whatever criticisms I have about Orlean as a writer (which aren’t many, I’m just uber-critical), are blow away by how great Orlean is as a profiler. In each of the essays, Orlean writes details about her character and scene in the first paragraph, then goes on to tell that person’s story without seeming to over-dramatize or minimize the experience. This is the reason I recommend the book, but suggest reading it in small doses instead of straight through.

If you want to read more, some of Orlean’s other famous books include: My Kind of Place, Throw Me a Bone, and Saturday Night.

5. Rebecca West

rebecca westRebecca West (1892-1983) is the pen name if Cicely Isabel Fairfield, an English writer and journalist who write extensively about feminist and liberal principles as well as reviewed books during her long career. She published 16 works of nonfiction, which included books of essays, journalism, biography, and travel writing.

Some fun facts about West include that she carried on an affair and had a child with H.G. Wells, was a vocal advocate of the feminist movement and gave lectures on the subject during the 1920s, and was quite wealthy due to her writing career. West was famous for a number of works of nonfiction and fiction.

Some of her nonfiction that seems most interesting to me includes Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), a “classic of travel literature” that uses a 1937 trip to Yugoslavia to explain the history of the Balkans; The Meaning of Treason (1949), a look at WWII and Communist traitors; and The Young Rebecca (1982), an edited collection of her early journalism.

Bonuses: There are a lot of great female narrative nonfiction writers that I didn’t get the chance to write about in this particular list. Below are some others I found, plus a link to their most famous, most recent, or most interesting book.

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  • Elise March 31, 2010, 2:59 am

    I recently saw The Year Of Magical Thinking with Robyn Nevin as Joan Didion. Though I haven’t actually read the book I was so moved by the show and would love to read it someday.


    • Kim April 1, 2010, 6:23 am

      Elise: I would love to see the play version of that book — I’m sure it was awesome. You should read the book if you get the chance.

  • Kinna Reads March 31, 2010, 3:47 am

    I’ve keep meaning to read Joan Didion. Great lists. Will add one or two to my wishlist. Thank you!

    • Kim April 1, 2010, 6:24 am

      Kinna Reads: I love adding to wishlists. I think Didion is a must-read, if only because she was such a force as a woman writer when there weren’t as many of them to speak of.

  • Jeanne March 31, 2010, 6:30 am

    What I like about these writers is that they were journalists first and so learned to write in a way that’s entertaining and accessible. Didion, Orlean and Pollit are my favorites; I’ll have to check out some of these other names that are less familiar. I’ve liked reading Fran Leibowitz, too, in kind of the same way.

    • Kim April 1, 2010, 6:25 am

      Jeanne: I do think it takes a special journalist to be able to move from writing “just the facts” into the narrative style these women use, but as a journalism I tend to agree with you. Learning to write clean and simple is a huge help when taking on the topics these books try to cover.

  • Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog March 31, 2010, 6:48 am

    I couldn’t agree more with the Joan Didion and Anne Fadiman recommendations, and I’ll be checking out the other authors you’ve listed here. Love this series, Kim!

    • Kim April 1, 2010, 6:25 am

      Rebecca: Fadiman’s book The Year of Magical Thinking was the best book I read last year. I haven’t read anything else she’s written, but I’m looking forward to it when I get the chance.

  • Jenny March 31, 2010, 9:53 am

    Oh, hooray, more books for my TBR list. I am in a nonfiction kind of mood these days. Patsy Sims’ books and Sheehan’s Is There No Place on Earth for Me? look particularly interesting. Thanks for highlighting these writers!

    • Kim April 1, 2010, 6:26 am

      Jenny: I agree. I haven’t read Sims or Sheehan, but both of those books caught my attention.

  • Nymeth April 2, 2010, 12:52 pm

    Thank you for this post! Even though I read it seldom, I really enjoy narrative non-fiction. I absolutely loved The Orchid Thief and need to try the remaining authors you mentioned.

    • Kim April 3, 2010, 3:27 pm

      Nymeth: Awesome, I hope you get a chance to read some of them 🙂

  • Kathleen June 4, 2011, 6:01 am

    I’m trying to find a female nonfiction author that passed away around 1995. My daugter is in the box. She interviewed children about tragic events in their lives. One was on divorce-her last book. Don’t know the name, her name. I believe she also wrote about belemia. She thought that children wouldl learn more about problems if they came from children…Can any one please help me if you can. I would appreciate it.
    Thank you

    • Kim June 4, 2011, 8:42 am

      Hi Kathleen — I’m afraid a book like that doesn’t ring any bells, but I will keep thinking about it.