A Woman of Letters

When I was a young lawyer fresh out of law school, I was one of ten women in a class of forty incoming associates at a large law firm. On weekends, the male associates got invited for golf outings with the partners at their private clubs. Naturally, they were also assigned to the “best” partner mentors — the ones who represented the most lucrative clients and worked on the highest-profile cases. I was assigned to an older maritime lawyer. He was a gentleman of great kindness and keen intellect, but he was the last of a dying breed — a man who practiced a type of law the large firm, originally a maritime firm, had long since shed in favor of lucrative corporate lawsuits. The other women had similarly low-status assignments. The firm talked a great equal-opportunity game, but the message was clear: we’ll hire you, but we won’t promote you.

I got out of that cul-de-sac thanks to my writing. My first assignment from the maritime partner was to research the complicated laws of the sea that governed who would reimburse Toyota for 500 cars that sank to bottom of the Straits of Gibraltar when two tankers crashed into each other in a right-of-way dispute. I wrote a 50-page treatise that so impressed my mentor that he showed it around the office, and within months I was reassigned to one of the best litigators in the firm, someone who recognized a good brief-writer no matter what kind of shoes they wore.

The lesson I took from this experience was that writing is one of the great equalizers; that good writing will out whether a man or a woman wields the pen. In law, this was undeniably true. I never did get invited to play golf with the boys, but when somebody needed a brief written, they didn’t care what a male associate’s handicap was if he couldn’t write as well as I could.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find that gender matters very much in novel writing.

When I finished THE LOST GIRLS and began looking for an agent, two words popped up over and over in the databases I scoured: “women’s fiction.” I was puzzled; I hadn’t realized there was a category of fiction that specifically targeted women readers. If pressed, I would have conceded that romance was such a category, but I hadn’t written a romance, and besides, romance was its own thing, with its own name. What was this thing called “women’s fiction”?

To the internet I returned, where I found a bunch of overlapping definitions. Women’s fiction had rich characters. It delved deeply into the minutia of life, mining it for emotional resonance. It often explored the complex bonds among families, and was told from the perspective of a female protagonist. Plots and climaxes were generally quiet, although you could have an explosion or stabbing here and there so long as the other criteria were met. This sounded good to me; it sounded like the kind of literature I enjoy reading, and the kind of story I’d tried to write. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood that none of these definitions sought to define what women’s fiction was so much as they tended to define, tautologically, the fiction women write.

Meg Wolitzer, in her New York Times essay, “On the Rules of Literary Fiction,” calls women’s fiction “that close-quartered lower shelf where books [written by women] emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated” while the loftier top shelf of “literary fiction” is reserved for books — sometimes on the same subjects — written by men. It is true that the publishing industry segregates many genres along gender lines. Spy novels are written primarily by men. So are thrillers. Science fiction and fantasy, too, to the point where if a woman wants to write in these genres — especially if her protagonist is male — she’s encouraged to go by her initials. Even J.K. Rowling was told this when she tried to sell a middle grade fantasy novel, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE.

Meanwhile, as Wolitzer notes, books by men that could be sorted as women’s fiction — like Jonathan Franzen’s PURITY and Nicholas Sparks’ THE NOTEBOOK — aren’t called women’s fiction at all, but literary fiction, and books by women that could be called literary fiction are called women’s fiction simply because they’re written by women. This is problematic, because literary fiction gets the bulk of reviewer attention, a more prominent place in our cultural discourse, and all the shiny awards. Jennifer Weiner, in an interview with Bustle, put it this way: “It’s always, always, always been the case that women’s fiction has been seen as less important, less relevant, less canonical, less lasting than the books that men write.” This raised all the same hackles my old law firm raised when it decided the male associates were partnership-track while the women were just grist for the mill, feeding billable hours into the bank until they were encouraged to take their talents elsewhere.

Still, I had written a book that pretty much nailed all the beats of so-called “women’s fiction”. And every third agent was looking for women’s fiction. Editors were hungry for it, too. (Sometimes they called it “book club fiction,” but I saw through that: most book clubs are comprised of women, after all.) Why was this, I wondered, if women’s fiction was such a second-class literary form? More research: it turns out women buy way more books than men. Women buy thrillers and spy novels and science fiction, but they also buy a lot of women’s fiction, which by some measures constitutes 40% of the adult book market. I attended a lecture once where the speaker recalled giving out books for free at a local park. He stood there all day offering free books to passersby, and the only people who took his books were women. “When women stop reading,” he observed, “literature will be dead.”

Apparently, I gathered, if you want to sell a lot of books, it’s a good idea to write a book that women will like. In THE LOST GIRLS I thought I had such a book. So when I wrote my query letter I described it, with a weird mix of pride and guilt, as “women’s/book club fiction.” I found an agent quickly, who sold it to William Morrow almost as quickly.

Ironically, Morrow lists my book in their catalog as literary fiction. Not once in their publicity and marketing materials have they described it as women’s fiction, even as they plan a campaign heavily targeting women’s book clubs and women’s fiction bloggers. Even more ironically, after all that research and soul searching, I find I don’t really care what they label it. I know its audience will be mostly women, and that makes me happy, because I wrote it with women in mind. I know it won’t be reviewed by any of the lofty publications who consider themselves the tastemakers of American letters, and that makes me sad, because I also wrote it with them in mind. Other than that, I care about selling a ton of copies to people who will enjoy them, and in this at least, I am exactly like Jonathan Franzen.

Author: Heather Young

After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

2 Replies to “A Woman of Letters”

  1. Heather, this is fantastic – you explained what it is so well! Yes, I do believe it to be true. I am a reader that enjoys different genre’s and its very interesting that you found success by using the query – ” women’s/book club fiction” and that worked so quickly!

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