The writers I’ve chosen have very little in common in terms of theme, subject matter, and writing style. But the beauty that binds them is this: They are bold and graceful; deeply compassionate and uncompromising; unapologetic and open-minded; and they analyze, question, and—when necessary—destroy the status quo with some of the most nuanced, stunning prose you’ll ever read.
1. Ann Pancake
A review of Ann Pancake’s latest collection of short stories, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, says that “in a just world,” we’d be reading Pancake’s work in the New Yorker. Agreed. But Pancake, who writes both fiction and essays, also deserves a wider, edgier demographic than the New Yorker alone can offer. There’s a tired question about whether or not writing can be taught. I don’t know the answer. But I’m certain that writing like Ann Pancake’s can’t be taught. She wheedles her way in, out, around, and through sentences with a grace and power that would seem magical if it weren’t so gritty, gorgeous—and human. Her characters rise up from the earth itself, and so when her stories explore things like fracking and mountaintop removal, the topics never seem like “issues.” They have everything to do with how her characters live and die. Her collections read like hymnals of secular prayer.
Badass Bonus Points: No Facebook, Twitter, Instagram account, or agent. Pancake’s “networking” takes place with real people struggling with many of the challenges her characters face.
2. Rachel Cantor
You know that movie, Being John Malkovich, where the characters in the story literally drop into John Malkovich’s brain and hang out for a while? Well, if I were given a ticket like that, I’d drop into Rachel Cantor’s brain. I’d love to witness the Rube-Goldberg machines clinking around in there. Cantor’s debut novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, is a genre-bending, mind-bending, historical, sci-fi adventure written in vivid literary prose that takes the reader on an intellectual romp alongside thirteenth-century Kabbalists, medieval explorers and warrior-librarians—to name a few. So Cantor must be a fabulist, right? Nope. She is uncategorizable. Her forthcoming novel, Good on Paper, takes place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and stays firmly planted in the known world. One rule Cantor does seem to adhere to is something I often find missing in contemporary fiction: She has fun writing, and it shows. Reading Cantor is one heckuva a fun—and wickedly intelligent—ride.
Badass Bonus Points: Cantor is a widely published and highly acclaimed author—and she sold her first two novels without an agent.
3. Erika Krouse
Quick, name all the female anti-heroes you know in contemporary literature. Stumped? Then please let me introduce you to the main character of Erika Krouse’s new novel, Contenders. Nina, the highly adept mixed martial artist who stars in Contenders, has a passion for fighting and a penchant for stealing. “The way [Nina] saw it, if you stole a wallet, people called you a thief. If you stole an election, they called you president.” Okay, then. I’m in! This is not a novel for the aromatherapy crowd. It’s mean and smart and philosophical and funny—and it’s deeply compassionate, not in an easy, warm and fuzzy way, but in a way that constantly asks questions about how we define things like good and bad, mean and nice, theft and ownership, loss and gain. Contenders also redefines “chicklit,” transforming it from something that sounds like gum into something you can actually bite into and chew on for a while. It’s nutritional stuff. I devoured it in one sitting.
Badass Bonus Points: Krouse’s day job? Private Investigator. Nuff said.
4. Kathleen Dean Moore
If everyone read Kathleen Dean Moore on a regular basis, the world would be a better place. On days when I’m running low on hope, I pick up anything Moore has written, and the world begins to make sense in ways it hadn’t before. The sense-making in her writing is not saccharine or shallow. It is complex—but she makes it lucid and accessible. It is studied—but the sheer lyricism of her voice turns it musical. Take Emmylou Harris’s angelic/haunting voice and merge it with Bill McKibben’s edgy, intelligent activism, and you have some idea of what Moore is doing on the page. Moore’s work is the antidote to any notion that “nature writing” is preachy. Her words seep into your cells as gently as seasons change. If, when I pick up a Moore essay, I’m on the verge of despair, I set it down filled with gratitude. Simply put, she’s good medicine, and we can all use a regular dose of that.
Badass Bonus Points: Moore has made a commitment that all her writing will increase awareness and action regarding climate change. Words are powerful.
5. Debra Monroe
My nightstand is stacked with books. But come October 2015, one book will trump everything and go straight to the top. That’s how excited I am about Debra Monroe’s new memoir, My Unsentimental Education. Monroe is one of those confounding writers (of novels and nonfiction) who should be a household name, but isn’t—yet. Maybe that’s because she is fearless, and fearlessness can sometimes elicit fear in others. She writes boldly, lyrically and intelligently about everything that people with “good manners” speak about only in whispers: race, religion, gender, and—in her forthcoming memoir—she speaks about that huge unspeakable: social class. Monroe has a gift for writing frankly and poetically in the same breath. Few writers walk this line as gracefully as she does. For me, October can’t come soon enough. I’m recommending a book I’ve not read yet, but that’s how much faith I have in Monroe’s five previous books, all highly acclaimed, all riding unjustly under the radar.
Badass Bonus Points: Monroe is like an earthquake: her words are capable of inciting a tectonic shift in existing conditions.