Literature of the Girl – a suggested reading list

I have just finished reading The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, but rather than jump right into a review, I want to think of this novel’s place in my inner list of fiction dealing with what it is to be a girl. Literature of the Girl is, most generally speaking, fiction which deals with coming-of-age, particularly from a female perspective. The term ‘girl’ is rather billowy, so as to encompass more years of development than are normally considered to be part of the experience of girlhood. I try to steer towards complex and poetic narratives, or especially searing ones.


Here is the caveat: I am aware that I am not an authority, given how narrow my reading has been and the lack of theory I’ve managed to push through. I wrote a little on the topic last year after reading Green Girl (see below) and I don’t think my perspective has really matured much since then. A few more books added, and that’s about it. But at any rate, if I were to design a university course of Literature of the Girl, here is what it would look like today:


1. The Tale of Genji (thinking particularly of ch5, ‘Wakamurasaki’) by Murasaki Shikibu


2. Green Girl by Kate Zambreno + Another Country by Anjali Joseph


3. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark + The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson


4. The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan + How the Light Gets In by M.J. Hyland


5. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison


6. Humanimal: A Project for Future Children by Bhanu Kapil + Domestication Handbook by Kristen Stone


7. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys + Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte


8. I Await the Devil’s Coming by Mary MacLane


9. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf


10. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride + I Have Blinded Myself Writing This by Jess Stoner


I have tried to pair like or unlike books that might create good friction. Where I could not think of a pairing, I left the book out on its own, hoping that one day I will think of something. As I said, I am painfully aware of the limits of my reach. I haven’t read Mary MacLane’s book, and I’ve only just started A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing but they seem to fit.


What essentials of Literature of the Girl am I missing? Whole swaths from Oceania and Africa and Asia. I am learning as I go.  By the time I land a job as a lecturer, I hope I’ll have a more representative list in hand, with twenty or so titles on it. Who should I add?





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18 responses to “Literature of the Girl – a suggested reading list

  1. Good stuff – might snaffle a couple of these for If Women Ruled! Hope all’s well with you.

  2. joplingirl

    Edna O’Brien and Collette, maybe even Middlemarch—CJ

  3. Probably Duras’ The Lover. Three American greats are Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider. More currently, Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Evening is the Whole Day, by Preeta Samarasan.

    • I think THLH and To Kill a Mockingbird are more High School level – brilliant though they are, they probably don’t need to be on a university level list. The same is true of The God of Small things, and if it is not taught in high schools yet that it something that should be rectified. I was looking for a Banana Yoshimoto book to add, but I’d only read her Amrita, which wasn’t for me.

  4. Forgot the Aussie novels. Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. Currently, I am reading Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, which is marvellous, and half girl coming-of-age tale. The other half is a boy doing the same.

  5. I live in Melbourne, and I commonly under-represent Oz too 🙂 I just realised reading your comments that so much of how we experience a novel is based on our own age and maturity level, as well as the personal situation we were in when we read it. (Picnic at Hanging Rock, btw, probably also more high school). I associate Jane Eyre, and in fact all of the Bronte sisters’ works, with high school, but Jean Rhys’ Sargasso Sea with a more mature stage of development that is sexual and adult. I would argue that Jean Rhys themes in that one are more complex than those in JE too though. But that’s just my personal take on it.

    • You are right. Jane Eyre I really included so I could have Wide Sargasso Sea – because that is one of my favourites, but I think introducing it needs a bit of back reading. This is all on behalf of my hypothetical dream class.

      Wide Sargasso Sea gives and gives – I think it could be read on a more surface level at high school, but it would definitely be more appreciated by an older reader.

  6. I know this might be a bit odd (and perhaps fall into a high school category but I did read it for a college course) but how about Carrie? I took a college class about Women in Literature and we read all sorts of things including Carrie. Because it’s genre it might not fit with what you’re looking for but the class I read it in included a lot of genre books and even a graphic novel to boot.

    • I just received a reissue of Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman, and I started reading it last night (there’s an excellent introduction by Francine Prose). It captures Jackson’s magical ability to articulate very specific, interwoven, and complicated states of consciousness — in this case, of a seventeen-year-old girl during her first year of university. I’ve not read anything else quite like it.

      • Sorry, I tagged this on to the Carrie comment by mistake. Both are psychologically sinister and unnerving, though, so perhaps that’s appropriate.

      • I’ve only read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which would also count for literature of the girl. Unnerving is good.

  7. Alan Warner has always seemed (to me) uncannily credible in his attempts to write teenage girls in his novels. Start with The Sopranos, then its sequel The Stars in the Bright Sky,
    And I read Girl is a Half-Formed Thing just before Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing, which you could very fruitfully pair it with.

  8. 1streading

    What about Doris Lessing? It seems to me she covers everything from youth to old age.

    • I tried The Golden Notebook but it wasn’t to my taste – willing to ever be open minded though. One winter I must go on a spree of all of these suggestions.

  9. Mary MacLane will speak to you. She was a serious incarnation – of … ?

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