Arts & Culture, Books

Feminist literature: What’s worth reading?

Written by Georgia Hilton-Buckley 

It seems in recent years we have been inundated with books that are supposedly essential for being a feminist. The popularisation of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margret Atwood after the 2016 election, and the madness of the sexist nature of Trump’s Presidency, saw a slew of copycat literature emerge. As someone who identifies as a feminist and a bibliophile, I have of course read a lot of these, whether I’ve picked them up myself or had them recommended to me.

Which books are worth reading and which ones aren’t worth your time? Well, I’m here to tell you!

Books that made me single handily want to crush the patriarchy

The Handmaids tale by Margaret Atwood

This has been a staple of feminist literature since it was published. Atwood is one of the great voices of our generation and ‘The Handmaid’s tale’ made ripples for a reason. Offred is a handmaid living in a dystopian  totalitarian society called Gilead where she raped in the hope of conceiving a child with the various powerful Commanders as, in her previous life, she was not considered worthy to be a wife. Offred struggles with remembering her past and coping with the everyday battle of being an oppressed minority. Atwood’s writing is beautiful and very engaging during the whole novel. It isn’t written in a linear structure, so questions are continuously raised in the plot and Atwood’s strong command over voice and imagery makes this a real challenging but rewarding read. The popular tv show deviates from the plot but the original novel is a great place to start for any aspiring feminist.  

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evariso

This book won the Booker prize for a reason. I was meant to read it a chapter a week for a book club with a friend but ended up finishing it in two days. The plot follows twelve women’s lives who all intersect with each other and span generations. Think ‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith (It’s not included in this list but I highly recommend it!). The novel looks at women from all walks of life but has a particular focus on women of colour living in modern Britain. My personal favourite chapters were LaTisha and Amma as I felt the characters really come alive on the page and I was so invested in their individual voices. After I’d finished, I reflected on my own background and I ended up researching the 6 degrees theory and all the people I could have possibly affected in my life. The language is accessible, which can sometimes be an issue for Booker Prize books, but still has a fascinating ability to change tone and voice effectively.  I feel like I have met twelve different women now who have all impacted my life but never actually existed. This book shared the 2019 Booker Prize but I think, after reading the other winner, this should have won hands down.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neil

As an aspiring activist  this was the first book I read with feminist themes that stuck with me long term, and I still can’t place the reason why. Frieda is manufactured to be beautiful and her only aim in life is to compete with the other manufactured girls for a husband. Those who aren’t chosen to face a life as a concubine or an Aunt. Frieda struggles with her own body image, the decline of her friend Isabel and competition from Meghan. Things start to get intense when graduation approaches and the boys are introduced. As someone who struggles with body image this book hit really close to home and I felt really close to Frieda, I wanted to be her and feel what she felt. Her anxiety about her looks, even though she is made to be perfect resonated with me. Even in this crazy sexist, dystopian world she is still human. Even when I re-read it as I got older It still felt so real to me. The inspirations from Brave New world are clear but it still feels fresh and more relatable for a young modern audience. It may be young adult fiction, but it has strong adult themes and isn’t for the faint hearted.

Avoid

Of course, you may choose to read the books listed below and love them, but for me they are problematic when it comes to feminism. A bad feminist book doesn’t create a conversation, it doesn’t make you analyse our current world. Bad feminist literature I’ve read also tends to heavily play on the problematic ‘I’m not like other girls’ trope. A book can’t just claim the patriarchy is bad and be feminist, it has to challenge what the patriarchy is and ask to see the faults in our own society.

Vox by Christina Dalcher

As my family’s token feminist, I was gifted this book for Christmas one year because the blurb had a flurry of praise about this being the revolution for women. Spoiler alert, it isn’t. My issues with this book lie in both plot and the narrative voice. In a quick summary its set in a world very similar to the Handmaid’s tale, but instead of forced reproduction, women are reduced to housewives and only have 100 words a day. Very interesting concept but poorly executed. The dialogue is clunky and unrealistic, the characters are flat and the main character who is supposed to be this fiery icon comes across as annoying and ultimately sacrifices everything for a man. The plot is rushed and tries to create meaningful scenes that honestly just feel cringey and awkward. There is barely any motivations for the main character apart from stopping the men in government, and even that motive seems weak willed. When I say this book made me angry reading it is not an exaggeration, I refuse to leave any book half read so I plodded all the way to the end only to hide it at the back of my bookshelf, so I didn’t have to look at it anymore.

The Testaments By Margaret Atwood

How does the sequel to the book I initially recommended end up in the avoid section? Simple. It feels like it was written because feminist fiction got popular. It is by no means a bad book, the plot is engaging, Atwood uses multiple voices to advance the story and she moves away from the character of Offred however it wasn’t needed. It feels too much like it’s trying to relate to the modern world and isn’t effortless like its predecessor, I wouldn’t say avoid this altogether but perhaps expect to be disappointed.

The Truants by Kate Weinberg

This isn’t strictly feminist fiction, but the main character is heavily portrayed as a feminist, and here is where I find issue with the novel. Aside from the poor dialogue and shaky plot the main downfall of this book is Jess, the main character. She has no personality, and the author tries to convince us she is the most dynamic character ever, despite her actively screwing over her female friend and taking no initiative to solve hero problems. This probably fits more into the Thriller category but reading this felt like a feminist hero with no redeeming qualities was being thrust on me.

Feminist literature is a massive genre, and there are many great books I haven’t included, the first three books are a great jumping off point and will help you develop your feminist thought, the last three will probably make you see red.


Georgia is a Third-year Politics student at The University of Leicester with an infatuation for books, particularly the classics. She is interested in feminism, philosophy, and music.

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