10 female writers who reinvented our bookshelves

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Grip-lit and feminism, dystopia and Insta-poetry – the last 10 years have seen female writers reinvent our bookshelves.

At the beginning of 2009 the bestseller list was all about Dan Brown but, in a move that would define the next decade, women started taking up some space: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall dominated the top 10. From JK Rowling and EL James to Rebel Girls, challenging poetry, #MeToo memoirs and the return of the handmaids, the power of female literature has changed the reading landscape completely. Here’s our pick from an extraordinary decade…    

2010: Room by Emma Donoghue (£8.99, Pan Macmillan) 

Room fuelled the rise of book clubs.

How a story influenced by the case of Josef Fritzl (who kept his daughter captive for 24 years) can inspire such tender devotion is entirely down to Donoghue’s writing and the voice of Room’s five-year-old narrator, Jack. Creating an entire world set in a windowless room, this compelling novel became a sleeper hit that also fuelled the rise of book clubs.

2011: How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran (£8.99, Ebury)  

Caitlin Moran's memoir was truly a game-changer.

The book that revolutionised feminist pop culture. Moran’s incisive, explosive and very funny take on topics from small pants to sexism articulated everything women were thinking but weren’t sure if they could say out loud. Writers such as Caroline Criado-Perez and Reni Eddo-Lodge picked up the baton and carried on fighting for change.

2012: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (£8.99, W&N) 

Gillian Flynn founded the grip-lit genre.

Gone Girl was devoured by every commuter, scooped up a Hollywood adaptation and sold 15 million copies. Its mid-plot twist (and Amy’s genius “cool girl” rant) launched the new genre of grip-lit and all of a sudden female-authored thrillers such as The Girl On The Train and Big Little Lies were injecting feminism into the bestseller lists.

2013: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (£8.99, Fourth Estate) 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is now a household name.

Making her a household name, Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is about school friends Ifemelu and Obinze who fall in love. It’s also so much more than that. Weaving together humour, ambition, the politics of living in America as a black woman and as a migrant, it’s refreshing that this Great American Novel was written by a Nigerian woman.

2014: Milk And Honey by Rupi Kaur (£9.99, Andrews McMeel) 

Rupi Kaur is one of the best known Insta-poets.

We’re not saying Rupi Kaur saved poetry – but in the two years after her self-published debut – poetry sales doubled. The 26-year-old Canadian arrived on social media in 2014 just as Insta-poetry went viral. But Kaur’s success is not all down to the zeitgeist: Milk And Honey is a comforting read that isn’t afraid of tackling abuse and loneliness as well as self-belief.

2015: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (£9.99, Pan Macmillan) 

At over 700 pages long, Yanagihara's book is an epic achievement.

In an early proof of A Little Life, the publicist placed Post-its on must-read passages gently noting that, yes, this book was 720 pages long and seriously harrowing. The story of four friends, it’s a descent into abuse, violence and love that either wins lifelong devotion or causes people to throw it against the wall. An epic feat.

2016: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (£6.99, Profile) 

The Essex Serpent:
The Essex Serpent: Claire Danes will now take the lead in the Apple TV+ series.

Strange rumblings from Essex, a community divided by propaganda, fact vs fiction… as the EU referendum reared its ugly head, Sarah Perry’s second novel became a word-of-mouth smash hit selling 40 times its initial sales target. With a spiky, formidable heroine, Perry’s lush writing won hearts and minds while its beautiful cover laid a trail across Instagram.

2017: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (£7.99, Walker) 

The Hate You Give has already hit the big screen.

From The Hunger Games to Holly Bourne, young adult fiction is the breakout story of the last decade. Thomas’s debut is the startling and moving story of Starr, a black teenage girl whose friend is shot by a white policeman. Encapsulating an era of #BlackLivesMatter and rising white nationalism, Thomas has given a voice to her generation.

2018: Normal People by Sally Rooney (£14.99, Faber) 

Normal People by Sally Rooney.
Normal People by Sally Rooney.

If they remake Back To The Future in 2018, you can guarantee Marty McFly’s granddaughter will be brandishing that recognisable green cover. Described as “the first great millennial author” by The New York Times, Rooney’s deceptively simple style hides a layered story of first love, hidden scars and a desperate desire to belong.

2019: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (£15.99, Vintage) 

What can we say about The Testaments? It sold 103,177 copies in its first week in the UK, landed on the Booker Prize shortlist (odds on to win) and its cover of four women (look closely) has already become iconic. Set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s latest has all the searing anger of her earlier work, but is also infused with rays of hope. 

The next chapter

What to read in 2020

Jeanine Cummins’ timely American Dirt about a desperate journey over the US-Mexico border; My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, a thriller tackling consent and complicity; Jacqueline Woodson’s African American family story, Red At The Bone, which has been compared to Toni Morrison; a memoir by Greta Thunberg and returns from Hilary Mantel, Emma Cline and Maggie O’Farrell. 

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Francesca Brown

Francesca Brown is books editor for Stylist magazine and Stylist Loves; she also compiles the Style List on a weekly basis. She is a self-confessed HBO abuser and has a wide selection of grey sweatshirts. Honestly, you just can’t have enough. @franabouttown

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