Is My Vagina the Most Important Thing About My Writing?

Recently a literary festival asked me to appear on a panel of regional "women writers." I'm early enough in my career as a novelist that I'm damned grateful to be invited anywhere, but the panel title gave me pause. It reminded me of last year's Wikipedia controversy over categorizing "American women novelists" separately from "American novelists" -- who were, of course, men. The whole thing has been cleaned up by now, after some embarrassing publicity for Wikipedia in the New York Times, but the ghettoization of women writers is not new. The Guardian hosted an entertaining exchange on the topic in 2010, or you can go back as far as Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1855 lament:

America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash -- and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. Worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the hundred thousand.

These lines, written only three years after Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin, reflect the threshold assumption, which endures to this day, that women writers are lightweights. If we do sell, it's only from catering to the least sophisticated tastes.

Novelist Jennifer Weiner, whose highly successful, relationship-driven books regularly get tagged "chick lit," has challenged the way many books by women writers get dressed up in pink covers with beach chairs -- the sort of covers only women would be caught dead holding -- even when their story lines are no fluffier or more feminine than many books by men. Weiner is hardly paranoid or unique. A friend who writes bestselling literary fiction has described to me how she had to put her foot down when her publisher presented her with a pink-tinged cover for a book whose only "feminine" quality was strong female characters. According to Weiner,

(W)ith fiction there's still such a double standard about what constitutes literature and who's writing it. (I)f a man wants to write a book and have it received as literary fiction, he publishes the book. And if a woman wants to write a book and have it perceived as literary fiction, she has to publish the book, and then she has to say at least half a dozen times in interviews, 'This isn't chick-lit.'

The Women's Fiction Writers Association defines women's fiction by its "focus on a woman's emotional journey," as distinct from writing by women, which may have little to do with a woman's inner life. The rest of the world seems less clear on the distinction. I could name half a dozen books by men published around the same time (July 2014) as my debut novel, The Home Place, that either are written from a woman's first-person perspective or chronicle a woman's "emotional journey." I've never seen any of them described as women's fiction. Although there are strong elements of romance in most of them, I've also never seen anyone claim that they're romance novels pretending to be something else.

Now, I have no problem with romance novels. I enjoy a good romance novel myself now and then. I also understand an insult when I see one. The two most popular Goodreads reviews of The Home Place came from people who got advance review copies, including someone with a connection to my publisher, William Morrow. Both reviewers began by saying some nice things and quoting lines they liked. Then the first (a woman) announced:

(T)his should have had a fence slapped on the cover and been marketed as a romance novel. There's not a lot of intercourse-having in it, but it seems to fulfill all of the other expectations of a romance novel. We have a love triangle: Which just reduces them from characters to archetypes, and is definitely a convention for male characters within the romance genre.

To make sure we got the point, she pasted a Nora Roberts cover into the review. The second reviewer said: "While there is not nearly the volume of romance here that one might find in an actual specimen of the genre, there was enough to trigger my gag reflex." These reviews got dozens of likes, from people whose comments made clear they hadn't read the book. It was as if they were relieved to have their suspicions confirmed that a woman's book was in fact women's fiction and could be dismissed. Convenient.

Everyone's entitled to their opinion, but what's interesting to me about these reviews is not only how popular they were but that their critique of The Home Place could be legitimately applied to many books by men, and in my reading of those other authors' reviews, that never seems to happen. With a few notable exceptions (Nicholas Sparks laughs all the way to the bank), men get a free pass for creating love triangles, exploring narrative arcs that are much more about personal development than action, and throwing in more intercourse-having -- often painfully described, at least from a woman's perspective -- than most people are really looking for in literary fiction. When men rattle on for 600 pages about musical-chair relationships and mid-life crises, that's literature. Let a woman do it, and it's somehow smarmy and middlebrow.

So when I got the program for this book festival that had lined me up with the "women writers," I asked myself, what is that about? Was it as innocent as the organizers needing some sort of tag to put on unknown writers, to give participants a reason to show up? If so, I could've been tagged in several sessions, including first book (two women, one man) and fiction (all male). Were our books particularly womanish, or was this a way to get the women off the main fiction stage, where the real writers belong? Then I noticed that there are actually two "women writer" panels in this two-day festival. I couldn't help but wonder, Carrie Bradshaw-style: Is genitalia really the most important commonality all these writers share? Somehow I doubt it. Maybe we women writers can have a good public chat about that come festival time.