Looking at Literary Ladies

The Smith

As a Literary Lady, I like alliteration . . . and ellipses. Thank you. Today we will be looking at lady writers with style. Because writing is such a solitary sport involving wearing pajamas well into the day, obliviousness to breakfast crumbs crumbling down your hoodie, coffee breath / sweat, wild Einstein-y hair, despair, self-doubt and dips into a general Why-Are-We-Here / What-Am-I-Doing existential crisis – because of all this, it is important for writers of all genders to dress it up a little when they leave the house. Being a writer isn’t a free pass into slovenly alcoholism, in spite of what so many slovenly, alcoholic writers will tell you. Good writing is about style so let’s peek at some women who’ve let that style leak out of their brains and onto their bods.

Zadie Smith, above, likes to pop a turban on her head, and I like it, too, in particular its heft and brightness. I greatly admire a woman who can sport a turban.

Edwige Danticat: A great look for a great writer. I love her voluminous button-up (I love voluminous button-ups, they feel very Alexander Wang to me and are easily thrifted!) I don’t know if her skirt is leather or satin but I like it. Her shoes are classic, as is HtT black. I like monotone! This look is sort of Comme de Garcon, or am I reaching?  Her short story collection Krik? Krak! was so good it hurt my stomach.

Who is this smoking hot fox with the wild hair, extravagant eyeliner and a sweatshirt? It’s Jan Kerouac. Jack Kerouac’s daughter. OMG, you say, I didn’t know Jack Kerouac had a daughter! How did I not know that? It’s called SEXISM. Also known as misogyny. Seriously – how else to explain the many lousy male writers we all know about, like it or not, and yet the really talented daughter of the United State’s biggest literary hero is totally unknown, in spite of her excellent book Baby Driver, in which she goes to New Mexico to sort of squat an adobe, shoot heroin and turn tricks? This is an excellent moment to mention the great article in The New Republic that crunches numbers to reveal what we already knew: women are getting published way less than men, and once published, the mostly male book review guard reviews only a small portion.

YES. Thank you, Ntozake Shange, for the wild cornrow sculpture, the dramatic black hood, and that rad bagel-esque bangle. Gorgeous.

Believer editor Heidi Julavits has great style. I once cracked open one of my many fashion magazines to find an article she wrote about a wonderful Marni purse and it made me so happy to read a piece of fashion writing by a writer I could believe in!

Lynda Barry: Icon. The red bandana, the glasses, the red lipstick. Perfect. In Googling images of her I found someone with a tattoo of one of her cartoon self-portraits, and another of a lady dressed just like her at one of her readings. Cute! I also dig her men’s watch. You either are obsessed with Lynda Barry’s work or you don’t know her. Cruddy is one of the best novels ever about a little genderfucking knife-wielding girl kidnapped by her psychopath father. It is great for reading aloud on road trips. I teach 100 Demons to teenaged writers whenever I get the chance, and her Ernie Pook’s Comeek is perfect, and now compiled into many collections such as The Best of Marlys.

Mary! It’s Anne Rice, drinking Tab in high Egyptian-goth costume, perhaps channeling a distant being while autographing her novels. Jesus Christ. I met Anne Rice at a book signing in Boston when I was a young goth, and had her sign the satin interior of my black velvet cape. She did not look like this. I looked like this. She was very mild-mannered, and wasn’t in the throes of being touched by a spirit. In fact, she expressed fear that my gothling freidns and I would be disappointed by her plain-Jane looks, and thought she might purchase a pair of skull earrings or something, to look more in the spirit of her vampire novels which, by the way, are AMAZING. Seriously. From the brilliant Interview with the Vampire to that one about the statue vampire elders living in a cave in Egypt – what was that one called? So good. After that, meh. But clearly her book signings are always worth checking out.

Heather O’Neill is a classic beauty in a can’t go wrong striped sweater. She wrote a really fantastic book called Lullabies for Little Criminals, about a spirited little girl growing up in Canada with her junkie dad who gets mixed up in drugs and prostitution. Listen, I can’t help it if my favorite books are about girls and women making terrible life choices as the result of horrid circumstances. If that’s your bag too, you will love this writer.

Yo, this is Kate Braverman’s author photo for her breakout book Lithium for Medea, which came out in the 70s when she was in her 20s and total crazed bad ass. Who has an author photo like this? Let us all be inspired. Lithium for Medea is about – guess what? – a cat-killing lady drug addict in a sexed-up abusive relationship. Is there a link between these women’s wild style, wild imaginations and wild lives? I bet there is.

Would I kill to be wearing this outfit right now? Just some skinny capris, a crisp button-up and the best pair of gladiator sandals in the world? This is Diane di Prima, San Francisco’s current poet laureate, lifelong revolutionary poet heroine. She looks so pretty with her hair pulled back and I bet that is some red lipstick on her smile. I like her poise on the bar – I feel like this photo is begging to be ripped off in a longer fashion editorial. Hmmmmm . . . .

Hells YEAH! Tama Janowitz! In the 80s she was as big as her hair! It was so inspiring for me to see this girl writer with amazing style (for me, in the 80s, big hair = amazing style) trotting around on like David Letterman and generally getting the kind of attention reserved for starlets and rock stars. Her book Slaves of New York was turned into a movie starring Bernadette Peters, another big-haired woman I adore, and if I recall it was a pretty good book. I at least loved it in the 80s, when I tried to tease and Aqua-Net my hair into a storm cloud like this every day, and dreamed of running away and being enslaved by New York City.

Virginie Despentes writes hard assed feminist manifestos. She wrote the cult classic rape revenge novel Baise Moi, which was turned into the super violent movie of the same name – and she got to direct it! Unheard of! Listen, she’s French, and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, things are better there. They just are. Her exuberant, pissed and pop-culture heavy third wave theory tome King Kong Theory, was put out in the US by the wonderful Feminist Press. Also – she’s so hot. Women by styling products to make their hair look as effortlessly mussed as this, but you know Virginie styled it by, like, gripping her hair in anger at the fucking stupidity of the world. Toss on a simple gold pendant and a red blouse, and Voila. It helps if you’re French.

Eileen Myles is not a lady. But she is an Icon. Seriously. Her classic butch fashion is always totally relevant and super cute. A perfect choppy haircut, some nice plaid, traditional smart guy glasses that span time. If you stick to the classics you always look great. A hand-held recorder also makes a smart accessory.

Uh-huh, this is poet Nikki Giovanni, who was spitting slam poems before anyone ever knew what they were. And yes she is wearing menswear and sporting a Thug Life tattoo in honor of Tupac. And yes, she is a professor. And we are schooled.

Man, Susan Sontag is striking. That intense face with the eyes and the lips, her sort of flowing hair, and then a simple black turtleneck and an elegant necklace. Classy.

Speaking of elegant, here is ZZ Packer. I like her trademark side ponytail with the little knot at the base, and again with the simple sweater and a strand of classy pearls. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s fucking gorgeous. And a great writer. Her short story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is like Guns and Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle – not a bad song on the album.

Joan Didion makes me excited to get older – I want to wear giant sunglasses all the time, with an Anna Wintour bob and a no-nonsense houndstooth blazer. Don’t ask me to smile for your silly picture. I am Joan Didion.

I live in San Francisco so I get to see Jewelle Gomez a lot, and I am always marveling at her spectacular and iconic style – especially her trademark hairdo, her illuminated twists. Plus she’s been blessed by a coveted gap between her two front teeth, like Georgia May Jagger. Remember on cycle 15 of America’s Next Top Model when Tyra sent Chelsea to the dentist to get a gap drilled into her grill? I wish someone would do that to me! 2011 is the 20 year anniversary of Jewelle’s lesbian vampire classic The Gilda Stories. It’s as fresh as it was in 1991! Because vampires don’t age!

Remember adorable Banana Yoshimoto? First off, her name is Banana. Lucky! Second, she is so the face of the 90s here with her cute hair do, intelligent glasses and pin stripes.

Zoe Valdes is an exiled Cuban writer living in France, as we all should be, exiled or not, and she is worth noting for consistently bringing a lotta look, generally by sticking a feather in her cap or some other such flamboyant chapeau, and here, as we see, by adding some fuchsia leather gloves and sniffing a gilded rose. Her novel Dear First Love is surreal and queer and perverse and beautiful. Just like you.

Mian Mian is a Chinese writer whose book Candy is so good. Guess what it’s about? A young girl tossed down the rabbit hole of sex and drugs and prostitution! Sorry! It’s like I never stopped playing Barbies, you know what I mean? Anyway. it’s translated and you can read it and it’s fucking great, especially when you understand that for a girl to write a book like this in China is sort of a big whoop, and she’s a huge controversy. Let’s hear it for provocative literary superstars.

Let’s hear it for the 70s, when outspoken lesbian writers wound up shooting the shit on the Dick Cavett show. Really, though. This is Jill Johnston, author of the classic Lesbian Nation, which grew out of her Village Voice column back in the day. What is she wearing? Like, an ascot, a prep school blazer, boyfriend jeans (I’m sorry – girlfriend jeans!) and a pair of combat boots. And some medallions, as it was the 70s. We could and should all be wearing this right now.

I’m also a strong believer (har!) in the work and style of the fantastic novelist Vendela Vida, who lives in the bay area and is always seen looking cute. She ‘s also editor of the Believer. Get it? Get it?

Is this a shot for Marc by Marc Jacob’s Spring/Summer 2011 collection? No, it is the legendary poetess Anne Waldman rocking what is perhaps an asymmetrical bob while wearing my dream dress. For real, those sleeves? It’s very YSL. The stripes! That other pattern! The bare feet, because she is a poet and must be in touch with the earth! Love her!

And I will end with this amazing shot of a teenaged S.E. Hinton, taken right around the publication of her first novel, The Outsiders. That is such a cute hair cut, and her eyeliner looks great, and she looks all sensitive and smart and tough, the way the girl who conjured Ponyboy Curtis and Dallas Winston should look. If you watch Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of the book, which rules, you can see Ms. Hinton in a cameo as the nurse that Matt Dillon is being a dick to.

So, in summary. buy books by females. And, I’m out.


About Michelle Tea

I chanted "I am a fashion magnet" in the shower and subsequently found a Gianni Versace - era Versace skirt at Buffalo Exchange for $17. Once I got a beyond-my-means Fendi purse for free and sat staring at it, crying. Also cried at Olivier Theyskens' last show for Nina Ricci in Paris. Other things that make me cry: a good lip synch; my emotions. I have stolen two Jeremy Scott swag items from two Jeremy Scott events I was not quite invited to. Sometimes I want to age into Patti Smith, sometimes Baby Jane Hudson. I frequently dream I am in a magic thrift store where I can have whatever I want. I regret not buying the Alexander Wang purse when it was half price at Barney's. Like a delusional guy at a strip club, I feel special when the people who work at Barney's remember me. Having a Leo rising gives me big hair and a need for attention. My favorite designers right now are Alexander Wang, Philip Lim, Proenza Schouler, Vivienne Westwood, Viktor Rolf, Rick Owens, Rodarte, Helmut Lang and Surface to Air. I was once shamed by an employee of a high-end department store for pronouncing 'Rodarte' incorrectly.


  1. Love it! I would also nominate Kim Addonizio for more SF style, haven’t seen her in a while but she was such a cool jeans and tshit and Converse girl

  2. carrieleilamlove

    EDITORIAL: Lady writers dressed as their favorite lady writers. Let’s DOOO IIIIIIIT!!!

  3. Michael

    Some good pictures of Joyce Carol Oates here, here, here, and here.

  4. This is an awesome list! But I just want to add that things aren’t better here in France. They aren’t. They aren’t in music and they aren’t in gynecology, but literature is sometimes an exception.

    My contribution to this list will have to be Benoîte Groult. Great feminist essayist from the 70s who started writing about feminism in her 50s. Also recently wrote about euthanasia. She’s awesome.

  5. You forgot Sandra Cisneros. She’s styling.

  6. Pingback: One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » Procrastination Station #86

  7. Pingback: Beware the Broet: Looking at Literary Dudes (a Sad Story with a Happy Ending) « Ironing Board Collective

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