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From Michelle Obama to E.L. James, women ruled the decade in books

They dominated bestseller lists and scooped up literary awards with gripping fiction, searing memoirs and more.

There are many lenses through which to look at books in the decade just past. But one thing is certain: Women writers were a powerful force.

Early in the decade, bestseller lists were dominated (sorry) by E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which sold 35 million copies in the United States — making the novels the three bestselling books of the decade in any genre.

The books of E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy were the three top sellers of the decade.
The books of E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy were the three top sellers of the decade. [ Nino Munoz/CPi Syndication ]

As the decade ends, the current book-selling champ is Michelle Obama with her memoir, Becoming. With more than 10 million copies sold worldwide (fueled by an unprecedented rock-star book tour), it was the bestselling book of 2018 and might take the 2019 title. Another contender is Delia Owens, a 70-year-old wildlife biologist whose first novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, is an unlikely phenomenon, selling more than 4.5 million copies and spending 30 weeks at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

What these books have in common, and what they share with many other notable books of the decade, is that they were written by women. According to the NPD Group, a market research company that analyzes fields including book-selling data, women wrote eight of the 10 bestselling books between 2010 and 2019. (The only men on the list are John Green with The Fault in Our Stars and Stieg Larsson with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — both, by the way, books about female characters.)

Oprah Winfrey, left, interviews former first lady Michelle Obama during a kickoff event for Obama's memoir, "Becoming," in November 2018.
Oprah Winfrey, left, interviews former first lady Michelle Obama during a kickoff event for Obama's memoir, "Becoming," in November 2018. [ ASHLEE REZIN | AP ]

It’s not just a matter of copies sold, either. Many of the decade’s major book prizes were won by women. Take fiction awards: Five of the 10 National Book Awards went to women — Jesmyn Ward won two, for Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing — as well as seven of nine National Book Critics Circle awards (but only two of nine Pulitzer Prizes).

The decade has seen an extraordinary run of literary fiction by women, starting in 2010 with Jennifer Egan’s amazing A Visit From the Goon Squad. It was followed by such standout books as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton and many, many more.

And, of course, there is the comeback novel of the decade, Margaret Atwood’s darkly stellar The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985 but suddenly relevant. Atwood followed it up this year with a timely sequel, The Testaments.

Popular fiction by women included juggernauts like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was published in 2008, but it ranks as the No. 4 bestseller of this decade with 8.7 million copies.

Women wrote major works of nonfiction as well. The decade had barely begun when Rebecca Skloot published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; the same year saw publication of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. Other nonfiction standouts include Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money.

There have been a number of stunning memoirs by women since 2010, including Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends and Tara Westover’s Educated. The true crime genre is exploding in popularity, and much of it is written by women, such as I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, Furious Hours by Casey Cep and American Fire by Monica Hesse.

Women aren’t just writing more; they read more. According to the Pew Research Center, 78 percent of women report having read one or more books in the last year, while only 68 percent of men have.

The surge of women’s writing shows no sign of slowing. Among the most anticipated books of 2020: Zora Neale Hurston’s Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick, Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman and Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel. And that’s just between January and March. Looks like a promising decade.