Literary Divas We Can’t Help But Love


There are divas and there are their lesser-known male counterparts, divos; the thing that unites them is their willingness to make demands and to do whatever it takes to stay in the spotlight. You cannot wrestle their trophies away from them; they will never give you the opportunity. A diva is a prima donna; the ego is there for all to see. There’s a vulnerability to that which can be touching, but most of the time you’ll never see it because the show they put on often obscures any real sense of themselves; they create and become spectacles — especially in the book world.

Terry McMillan

After the best-selling author of Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back appeared on Oprah with her gay ex-husband, Jonathan, she attempted to sue her ex for $40 million, citing “emotional distress and ruining her reputation.” (She withdrew her case before it went to trial.) Just take a look at her re-enactment of his confession here and tell us she’s not all about the drama.

Amy Chua

Her book is called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, for goodness sakes! How could she be anything but a diva? Her methods are questionable, but her results are enviable to many parents who are also trying to get their progeny into the Ivy Leagues. No sleepovers! No wire hangers!

Salman Rushdie

His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, brought Rushdie a massive amount of attention and death threats. The leader of Iran even issued a fatwa against him in the late ’80s when the book was published. Rushdie reveled in the drama like a good divo. But his dream was to act, and he was able to do so through some key cameos in films such as Bridget Jones’s Diary and Then She Found Me. What’s a better deal than to have to perform as an elevated version of yourself? Keep those cameos coming, Rushdie!

Joan Acocella

Acocella is the long-time dance critic for The New Yorker, but was angered by the rise in multicultural, contemporary choreographers like Pina Bausch and Bill T. Jones and let this be known in her reviews. She does not hold back just so that she can be liked. She’s also been writing a book about the choreographer George Balachine for years, and occasionally offers The New Yorker excerpts from it when she’s feeling generous.

Margaret Atwood

Atwood is Canada’s literary diva. Can you talk about Canadian literature without her? No, you can’t. (Though we doubt you would talk about Canadian literature at all, unless you absolutely had to.) In a poem from the ’70s she wrote, “I am the horizon / you ride towards, the thing you can never lasso.”

James Baldwin

Baldwin once said, “I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.” He left the country so he could work in peace, and he wrote eloquently about hot-button issues like racism and sexuality without ever appearing didactic. Baldwin took on America and won.

Jamaica Kincaid

The statuesque author of a number of novels set in the West Indies decided to quit from the New Yorker after Tina Brown took the helm. In an interview with Dwight Garner in Salon, Kincaid said about the recent editor: “She can’t help but be attracted to the coarse and vulgar. I wish there was a vaccine — I would sneak it up on her.” She is also known to take off her shoes at bookstore readings, or wherever else she feels like it. Kincaid takes up space and makes it her own. What more can one ask of a diva?

Joyce Carol Oates

Oates is one of the most prolific authors of our time, and the sheer amount of her work is overwhelming. Where can one begin? After her husband died, she wrote, “My love for my husband — seems to have come first in my life, rather than my writing.” Which sounds a little off the mark for someone with over fifty novels to her name. She continues, “Set beside his death, the future of my writing scarcely interests me at the moment.” And yet, what was one of the first things she did after his death (besides getting remarried)? She wrote a memoir about her grief called A Widow’s Story. Listen: she just can’t help herself. She’s a diva, after all.

Bernard Henri Levy

This public intellectual is above all else a diva. We included him in our “manly manes” post last month because of his supercilious hair, but the hair is only part of it. The French littérateur is truly bombastic, and thus requires an incredible amount of attention in order to feed his ego, which, to this point, seems insatiable. And yet, we love him because he is a source of constant amusement. Keep puffing up those feathers, BHL!

Zora Neale Hurston

Fritzroy Austin Sterling (we did not make up his name) had this to say about Hurston in Mary, a queer literary quarterly: “At a 1921 literary awards dinner, Hurston strolled in late, and upon entering, yelled the name of her nominated piece. That piece, a play titled Color Struck, won second place that night, but, the story goes, because of that entrance, she was the buzz of the literary world.”