Publishing Talk: Women's Writing Today

Today, I'm interviewing Carole DeSanti (vice president, editor-at-large at Viking Penguin and a longtime champion of strong and original voices in fiction) about women and writing and publishing as part of my new HuffPost Publishing series.

I've known Carole since we started out in our respective professions. Carole DeSanti was the acquiring editor of my first trade book, They Used To Call Me Snow White, But I Drifted, published by Viking in 1991 (UPNE will publish a new edition in 2013).

Recently, I introduced Carole -- whose first novel The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. received wonderful reviews -- at a reading at RJ Julia's Booksellers in Madison, Conn.

Talking late into the night with Carole, reviewing our professional and personal lives while discussing the future of books, publishing, writing, and narrative itself, inspired me to start an ongoing discussion about the relationships between authors and editors, the thorny territory of women's writing in today's competitive environment, and the friendships transforming, informing, and supporting us over decades.

Let's talk about how we first connected. What do you remember from that time, now almost 25 years ago?

Gina: It was the summer after my first year of teaching. My un-air-conditioned office at the top of a flat-roof building at the University of Connecticut was simply too hot to work in one August afternoon so I went to the basement of the university library where I knew it would be cool to hang out (literally not figuratively) and read a copy of The Women's Review of Books. I was enthralled by an essay written by a woman's whose work I had never seen: her name was Carole DeSanti.

I was so impressed that I sent her a note; this was in 1988 and in those days we sent actual paper notes to other people, especially if we didn't know them. I never expected an answer. I was sending a basic "Wow: I'm grateful to know I'm not alone" message, which I could have sent in a glass bottle and tossed into the ocean for all I expected to hear anything back. To my stunned surprise, this woman wrote back. She asked me what I was working on. It turns out that she was an assistant editor at a New York publishing house. I explained that I was interested in women's uses of humor, but also at the same time said that I couldn't write a book for a trade press because I had to write a scholarly book in order to make sure I got tenure.

I had already had secured a contract for a revised version of my dissertation with Wayne State University Press. I think it was like falling in love when you're already in a relationship: I suspect I might have become more attractive to this young editor because I said "I'm out of reach" rather than "PLEASE GIVE ME A CONTRACT." Or maybe she was simply relieved that another press had already offered me a contract for something.

Anyway, Carole did a few magical things right away: you have to remember I'd only just come out of graduate school where nobody had ever paid for my lunch. It occurred to me if I wrote books people might actually buy, I might be able to get a lot of nice lunches out of the deal as well as quite a few glasses of champagne. Carole convinced me that if I could write a book about humor in Jane Austen and George Eliot, I could also write a book (and at the same time, yet) about Patty Duke and Lucille Ball. She then did something truly amazing: she paid for my lunch. I was 30 years old and no other 30-year-old woman (she might have been only 29 at the time...) had ever whipped out a credit card and said "It's on me."

I wrote those two books simultaneously while teaching a full-course load. If you need to do, you do it.

Carole: I think that article in the Women's Review of Books was called something like "Selling, or Selling Out?" I argued that these were not one and the same (doesn't that old argument sound quaint and old-fashioned now?) ... None other than Ursula LeGuin wrote a dissenting "letter to the editor," taking me to task. As a young person starting out in publishing, this gave me a few qualms -- GREAT! I've already offended one of the most famous women authors alive! So, when Gina sent her note, she didn't realize how delighted I'd be to receive it -- and to find a kindred spirit who had the feeling, as I did, that the next generation of women writers was going to need to be pretty scrappy and pretty creative in order to survive.

Did Carole's role as an editor prepare her for her role as a novelist?

Gina: As an editor, Carole was as much in love with language as any writer; she was hungry for a good story with an edge, whether that was at dinner, on the page, in a proposal, or in the final manuscript.Carole commissioned my first book -- They Used to Call Me Snow White, But I Drifted -- when we were both 30 years old, meaning that we were barely old enough to cross the street when you think about it...but that doesn't mean she wasn't both tough and demanding. She kept insisting that I illustrate rather than explain my points about women's voices and women's humor. She didn't want me to tell the reader that women were funny; she wanted me to prove it. When I opened The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R., I was sort of waiting a little bit to see whether I'd be able to accuse her of not doing what she insisted her authors do -- but I couldn't. On every page of the novel, Carole shows us Paris. She opens for us the doors to brothels and art studios, letting us feel, smell and immerse ourselves in the nineteenth-century. She lived up to her own expectations and let me tell you: that was nearly impossible.

Carole: Thank you, Gina.

What else do we share in terms of our perspectives on women and the world and the business of writing?

Gina: I haven't asked Carole this directly, but I've always been grateful for the fact that I know I can trust Carole to be happy for my success: she's loyal as a friend and as a colleague. She celebrates the achievements of others without envy; she knows there is enough to go around. And I like to believe we're alike in both fostering and mentoring younger women in the worlds we inhabit as professionals -- she in publishing and me in academia -- and in terms of finding their way in the world of writing. It isn't easy. Women still, I believe, tend to look for the imprimatur of the male authority figure; too often we dismiss or overlook the encouragement of other women as too easily won or too expansively provided. I don't believe that's the case and, frankly, I think looking for "Dad's" signature on every permission slip (or looking for "Dad" to award every gold star, contract, or prize) will become increasing problematic. When women realize we can rely on one another, trust one another entirely, and look to each other for validation, support, and -- let's face it -- companionship when we reach the top, then we can celebrate the fact that we've done what we set out to do all those years ago: we've built a community of women who rely on our strengths, talents, and resilience to make our voices heard and our presence known. It's no small accomplishment and it's always been a struggle. But you know what? It's also always been a hoot and it's always been worth the trouble.

Carole, wouldn't you agree?

Sure. But to take it a step further, our mentorship, and also our mutual support as colleagues and peers, needs to expand to have more payoff in the real world. It's all very well (for example) to point out that women authors receive a lower number overall of prize nominations and serious, critical reviews; but it's time to stop arguing, once and for all, over who gets a piece of the pie, and make a bigger pie. We've done this in the marketplace, but we need to do it in other ways too. Now, we need to reinvest marketplace success into the kinds of structures that will take women's literary efforts to the next level.

A lot of what women writers experience as rejection is simply a dearth of opportunity. Not enough sleeves are rolled up to make chances happen. We need -- just for one example -- a high-profile award in the U.S. like the Orange Prize for Fiction in the UK. Celebrating "excellence, originality and accessibility in women's writing," the Orange (founded in 1996) has an infrastructure of events that support upcoming and established women writers, inspiring writers to write to a higher standard -- and take readers with them. In so many other ways, too, we need to become the kind of old-girls network that creates opportunities and places for us to go, ourselves -- and for those coming up behind us. Established writers need more opportunities to grow in their careers, as well as new authors. My ideal world would be one in which we all worry a lot less about selling out or dumbing down in order to get published or to survive. And one where we can build whole careers -- not one-book wonders, the "great debut" that for some inexplicable reason ends a career. Where fewer talented women are looking back, wishing for more, and wondering what happened.

Gina: Thank you, Carole -- once again, you clarify, enlighten, and illuminate. Your insights continue to make you one of our generation's great editors, just as your first book shows that you'll be one of its great writers as well.

My next installment in the Publishing series will address how authors and marketing teams promote books written on the same topic (and published at the same time).

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