Joanne Rendell has been a friend of the Debs for a long time–and several of the 2008 Debs got to spend time with her in San Francisco at a conference last summer. Her much-anticipated debut novel, “The Professors’ Wives’ Club,” recently launched to wonderful reviews. We’re delighted to have her as a guest this week, and happy to have her write on our theme this week–banned books.
Banned books never go quietly into the night. Indeed, if your book gets banned for any reason, your future sales record will probably look very rosy (I hear Salman Rushdie has a very nice New York pad, thank very much). I’m secretly hoping my debut novel The Professors’ Wives’ Club might be banned for inciting groups of women to rise up and fight mean deans who threaten to bulldoze beloved faculty gardens!
Even the mere mention of banning books is enough to whip up a storm. When it was recently rumored that vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin wanted a list of books banned from her local library in Alaska, a media whirlwind ensued and now when you google “Palin and banned books” you find hundreds, if not thousands, of posts on the matter.
It’s completely understandable to me that banning a book, and thus banning our freedom to read what we wish and write what we wish, causes so much furor. But what really interests me – and enrages me – is the way so many books, while not banned, continue to be shunned, demeaned, and denigrated by the book-reviewing establishment. These books may not be barred from the shelves, but they are brushed under the rug like an unsightly dust bunny by the media literati.
I’m thinking particularly of popular fiction by women, for women, and about women which, in my opinion, is too often the butt of jokes, the butt of critique, or is flat out ignored by those with reviewing powers.
Women love books. We always have, probably always will. Of all the books that are currently bought and read, we do most of the buying and the reading. It’s a fact: we are the reading sex.
We are the writing sex too. Our foremothers, like Jane Austen and the Brontës, wrote novels which would be read by millions and live on for centuries. Today, books by JK Rowling, Nora Roberts, and Danielle Steele prop up the entire publishing industry. Women are prolific writers and we are the all time bestsellers.
Yet, in spite of this, our books are often ridiculed, demeaned, or ignored.
“America is now given over to a damned mob of scribbling women,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in the mid-nineteenth century just at the moment when many women like Austen had taken up their quills and were writing novels (and were finding a big hungry audience for their work).
Not much has changed since Hawthorne. Although Austen and the Brontës now get the respect they deserve, women’s fiction today still struggles to be taken seriously. Romance novels continually get stereotyped as “soft porn for desperate housewives.” Chick lit has been dismissed by the literati as throwaway “fluff” obsessed with shopping and shoes. And even women writers like Jodi Picoult who tackle more serious issues are often labeled “hysterical” and “melodramatic” by snooty reviewers. The book reviewing world even criticizes books for “pandering to female audiences,” as if that is such a terrible thing (yes, Publisher’s Weekly said this about the short story collection, This is Chick Lit).
Perhaps we shouldn’t care what the reviewers say. After all, women’s fiction is immensely popular, in spite of what the New York Times Book Review or Publisher’s Weekly says or, more often, doesn’t say about it. From Harlequins to the novels of Picoult, books by women keep on selling.
But I can’t help caring. My own novel The Professors’ Wives’ Club is popular women’s fiction and one of the book’s central themes is about standing up for what you believe in – and the power of groups of women, acting together, to stand up for what they believe.
Our books may not be banned, but they are unfairly maligned and looked over. It’s time to whip up a storm of our own. It’s time for us “damned scribbling women” – and “damned reading women,” for that matter – to fight back against the reviewing elite and stand up for the books we write and love!
Joanne Rendell was born and raised in the UK. She has a Ph.D. in literature and is married to an NYU professor. She lives in faculty housing in New York City with her family.