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I Am a Woman. And I Write Fiction. (Uh Oh?)

women writers

I don't know where to begin, but begin I will... I am a woman. I am a writer. I am interested in telling stories about existential grays. About life and love and relationships and philosophy and pain. I have high hopes. With but one book under my writerly belt, I am still a rookie, but I do hope my stories will, over time, reach oodles of people. I also hope that they will receive critical acclaim should they deserve that acclaim. It would also be nice if, by doing what I love (and, man, this is it right here), I am able to contribute mightily to the financial integrity of the family I cherish. That's right, here I am, at the starting gates of this literary race, hoping humbly and boldly for commercial and literary success down the road.

(Per New York law, dreaming big is perfectly legal.)

Late last night, friend and fellow blogger Kristen of Motherese sent me a link to a Huffington Post article by Jason Pinter wherein Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, two vanguards of women's fiction whose talents and careers I respect deeply, discuss a recent online controversy about "the alleged shoddy treatment of commercial writers, in particular writers of what is commonly referred to as 'women's fiction'" that arose after the New York Times and other publications extensively covered Jonathan Franzen's most recent novel Freedom. In this Huff Po piece, Weiner and Picoult offer "their thoughts on what role gender plays in literary criticism, the importance of popular fiction in our culture, and whether progress is being made."

I implore you to click over and read the entire article now because it is stuffed with insights and angles and I can only scratch the surface of it here. Picoult and Weiner argue, each wielding her own compelling arguments and anecdotes, that the literary establishment, and the Times in particular, tends to overwhelmingly review male authors over female authors and "literary fiction" over popular or "commercial fiction."

Something Weiner said really struck me, and concerned me: "I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book - in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention."

When asked why she deems it important that commercial fiction receive critical attention, Picoult responds, "Because historically the books that have persevered in our culture and in our memories and our hearts were not the literary fiction of the day, but the popular fiction of the day. Think about Jane Austen. Think about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular authors. They were writing for the masses."

Is there this double standard? I don't know, but maybe so. Why might there be this critical rejection of tales that appeal to the masses? Again, I don't pretend to know, but these things worry me and make me wonder about the literary world into which I tiptoe at this very moment. Here's the thing. I have tremendous respect for Picoult and Weiner. Both of these women are immensely gifted; their writing is good and resonates with so many of us. I also love the Times. I grew up watching my parents flip through this paper at the breakfast table and I'd be lying if I said I didn't dream of one day seeing a book of mine reviewed in its pages.

So what now? Should I duck behind my decidedly male name and allow some readers or reviewers to think I am a man? Of course not. Should I whip up some tales of espionage or murder? I don't think so. I am a woman and I will write the stories I want to write.

What more is there to say? A whole lot. This thicket of questions and concerns is far too complicated for me to understand or address fully on this Friday morning. But what I can and will say is thank you. To Kristen for sending this article my way. To Jennifer and Jodi for standing up and speaking up on behalf of all of us. To Jason for bringing this article to life.

And thank you to you guys, my readers - writers and people - for allowing me to dream big here. And doubt big, too.

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  • Have you followed this controversy? Have you read the article? Thoughts?
  • Do you agree that there is a double standard in the writing world (and maybe in other professional worlds)?
  • Do literary and commercial success need to be mutually exclusive?
  • Why do we insist on a distinction between literary and commercial fiction? Can't a book have literary heart and soul and pack a commercial punch?
  • Do you think I should keep my unwieldy dreams to myself?
  • Have you read books by Picoult and/or Weiner? Have you enjoyed them like I have?

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