Nicholas Sparks Confirmed My Fears (Updated)

I’ve been meaning to write this post for awhile—ever since I attended the Nicholas Sparks event a week or two ago. To be honest, the author of “The Notebook” kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I wrote a relatively innocuous post about his writing tips for the The Write Practice (which were useful); however, he reignited, if not affirmed, my concerns regarding the issue of genre, pigeon-holing and gender issues in the publishing industry.  Here’s what happened.

I Asked Nicholas Sparks a Question

After his presentation, I stood at the mic and asked Nicholas Sparks, who writes about relationships, the following: “I noticed that when female writers write about relationships or an emotional journey, no matter how deep and well-written it is, it’s usually described as chick lit. Have your books ever been described as chick lit? And how do you think the response to your books or your career would have been different if your name had been Nicole Sparks instead of Nicholas Sparks?”

He Answered

To the first question he said, “No. My books have never been described as chick lit.” I didn’t think that was true, especially since he’s on lists like these: https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/chick-lit; however, I accepted the answer because I’m sure, like many women, he does not want to be associated with the genre (he definitely hated being described as a romance writer).

Sparks didn’t directly answer my next question about whether his books would have been received differently if he had been a woman. Rather, his response was essentially this: “for some reason, all the writers in my genre—“love tragedy”—happen to be men” and “for some reason, women just haven’t been able to successfully break into the market.” Then cited the authors of Casablanca, Love Story, and even the Bridges of Madison County. Ok.

My  Reaction:  He Confirmed My Greatest Fears

Actually, my initial reaction was to smile tightly and then return my seat. I didn’t bother to wait in line for the meet and greet because I didn’t feel like having my dreams further crushed. Let’s face it, he basically confirmed my fears. If a woman writes about relationships (like me), she will never be received with the same respect as a man who does so.

But I’m willing to give Sparks the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that he was simply making an observation and any unfair outcomes are the fault of the publishing industry. After all, it’s the publishers labeling books by women “women’s fiction” or “chick lit” and those by men as “love tragedy.”

Still, if that’s the case, then the answer to my question is this: if his name had been Nicole Sparks rather than Nicholas Sparks then his books would be in the women’s fiction and/or chick lit category.    It must be so because logic and reason indicates that it’s impossible that NO great female “love tragedy” writer exists–they’ve just been placed in a different genre–pigeonholed, if you will.  Nicole Sparks would have been subjected to all of the connotations that come with being a women’s fiction writer. For example, the audience at the event I attended would have been 90% women (like the signings for Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin and Terry McMillan), rather than 60% because men wouldn’t bother to pick up his books.  After all, they would be labeled women’s fiction.

What About Me?

Sparks’ answer to my question made me sad. I think he could have been a bit more uplifting, geez. Instead, I feel like he perpetuated the industry’s problems by suggesting women just don’t write love tragedy books. I wonder how many prospective female love tragedy writers he discouraged with his statement? At least one.

The more that I think about it, the more I believe my novel is NOT chick lit or women’s fiction or African American fiction. I’m going to make up my own genre like Nicholas Sparks did (I mean come on—wtf is “love tragedy”?) I’ll let you know when I figure out what it is.

UPDATE: And then this happened:

jptweet5

jwtweet2

About these ads

72 thoughts on “Nicholas Sparks Confirmed My Fears (Updated)

  1. I love that you posed him that question, and I, too, am disappointed he didn’t have a better answer ready. (Surely he’s gotten this question at some other point in the past and could have done subsequent research to develop an insightful reply!) I’m trying to think of female writers of “love tragedy,” but I don’t read many novels. I do, however, read memoir. And a lot of relationship memoirs by women are tragic. A LOT. Because, of course, they’re based on real life, which, let’s face it, is always at least a little bit tragic. I’m not sure whether these memoirs would be categorized as chick-lit or not.

    • So many relationship novels/memoirs written by women are tragic and have a similar tone to Sparks’ novels. To me, it was just a really weird response.

  2. I think the experiment then becomes to write “chick lit” under a male nom de plum and see if its pushed into the “love tragedy” or “chick lit” category. If it successfully breaches the “love tragedy” category, you have a serious indicator that forces are conspiring against women writers. After that you could reveal the true author and see whether her works from that point on are reduced to “chick lit.”

    • I would love that! I KNOW that the author would not be placed in the chick lit category (until someone found it she was a woman). Men are always commended for writing about their emotions–like it’s so much easier for women to do it.

  3. Hah! So he calls his books “love tragedies…”

    Come on, it’s not even a genre. He’s just spurning the idea of being labelled as a chick lit writer, given that 90% of his readers are female. And he’s male. Figures. Either that, or this entire sexist thing going on in the publishing industry has created a chasm between writers and readers who fail to comprehend what they are read.

    I’m a guy. Yes, I do read chick lit. In fact, I flipping love it. I even blog about chick lit. Why are people so afraid to be caught reading chick lit? I think we shouldn’t let society determine what we should read. CHICK LIT ALL THE WAY!

    By the way, your standing up with a mic and hard-hitting question reminded me of Becky Bloomwood in the Shopaholic film! Way to go!

    • I agree, I don’t have anything against chick lit–I read plenty of it!! It’s just that it seems to have a negative connotation now, which is frustrating. Yes, there are some bad chick lit books–but that’s true for every genre! And I haven’t seen Shopaholic but I will check it out!! :)

  4. Well, wouldn’t Gone With the Wind (the novel) be a love tragedy? Dead child, husband deserted her… When asked what happened to the characters after the ending of the book Margaret Mitchell said, “For all I know, Rhett may have found someone else who was less difficult.” Sounds like a tragic end to love to me. Although I suppose if we pointed that out to Mr. Sparks he would say that frankly he didn’t give a damn.

  5. I’m a guy who writes contemporary romance and I’m PROUD of it. I find it unfortunate he finds the need to create a new “sub-genre” for what he writes. If people don’t want to read my romances because I’m a guy, so be it. Romances are the stories in my head and I love them!

    • Yeah, he corrected the DC reporter interviewing him when she described it as such. I think the new genre is just funny–I’m going to try to do that too and see what happens.

      • Reminds me of how Danielle Steele constantly corrects reporters who categorize her writing as romance. She claims that she writes about “the human condition.” I think both are trying to buck the general urge to categorize and appeal to a broader audience. Thanks for this post and for your question to Sparks. I think you hit a nerve, with writers anyway. I wonder how categorizing his “love tragedy” books as such will affect his sales of housewares on Joss&Main (for his charitable Foundation). :)

  6. “Love tragedy”?! Oh come the ef on, Nick Sparks! That actually sounds more soap opera like than “chick lit.” He writes chick lit. Let’s just reclaim the name and make it smart, interesting, well-written and “cool” (in the literary sense).

  7. I’m a guy who writes romantic comedies for HarperCollins. Feel free to label my books anyway you like; chick lit, RomCom, contemporary romance. My top priority is to write something people enjoy. The only label that matters to me is “author.”

  8. Pingback: Nicholas Sparks Confirmed My Fears (Updated) | stupid me and stupid you

  9. I could care less what he calls it … you said it above, “as good book is a good book” and I do enjoy his books as much as I enjoy Jodi and others. For me, they are light, far from tragic, and an interlude from more serious stuff that I like to read. They ease the tension for me between more intense readings and I like them. But I am no critic, I just read for information and for pleasure, just about anything I can get my hands on. I do not, however, think he informs me, just entertains me, and that isn’t a bad thing.

    • I agree with you completely. For me books are relaxing/an escape in the same vein as television (except I feel like I’m getting smarter when I do it).

  10. Thank you so much for sharing this! As a writer it’s interesting and frustrating to know how much sexism there is in the writing world. I told someone I was working on my first novel and he said that my ‘romance’ novel idea was rubbish and no one would want to read that. So thanks for sharing things like this, it definitely gives me a lot to think about and serious goals to achieve to try and overcome this!

  11. Who calls an idea rubbish?! Goodness, that’s just rude. I’m hoping that as more and more authors (like Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult) discuss this issue, the industry will become more conscious and thoughtful about their marketing strategies.

  12. You go, girl! I’m glad you asked the question and I just might have to drop my middle name when/if I get into the published ranks. So many people think my first name is masculine…you should see my “Mr.” mail. ;-)

  13. He discouraged you? I’m sorry to hear that. Maybe instead of allowing something like what he said slow you down, or worse, stop you, you could see it as a challenge?

    I’d have a hard time being classified in a particular genre because I mix things up. I have elements of sci-fi, fantasy, new adult, occult and -yes- chick lit in each of my novels that I’m currently writing. Damn the genres & labels: Full writing steam ahead.

  14. That’s it! I give up. I don’t have the kind of energy all the people who fight prejudice do – so, when I’m ready to publish, I’m going to remove my internet presence, use a male pseudonym, and get in on the male privilege thing.

    And I’m not going to feel guilty about it I’m too tired writing the thing to feel guilty.

    Please continue the fight for people like me, but understand it a bit when we abandon the fight: I have been trying to categorize what I’m writing since I started – and I write for the same audience that likes his books.

    Not sure whether I’m kidding or not – ask me in a year when I can publish (long story – if curious, is’t on the About on my blog).

    • It’s so funny, I wasn’t even trying to necessarily “fight prejudice”–I was just at the event and wanted to as a question–one that I actually wanted the answer to, and that’s what came to mind lol. I figured he had been asked the question before or had thought about it–maybe he hadn’t!

    • I don’t blame him. I just think he hasn’t really thought about it because he hasn’t had to! It’s been a non-issue for him because he IS male. Personally, I think there’s just a bigger problem out there that Jennifer Weiner, for example, talks about a LOT. More men get reviewed in top publications and otherwise recognized and it’s just hard to believe that more women aren’t also deserving as there are so many female authors out there.

      • No. Your question, however….you read “support women authors” as “buy only women authors.” That’s a sexist assumption, a defensive response to even the mildest suggestion that women might support women authors. You then assume that “buying only women authors” could be the “height of sexism” but do not mention the fact that many men buy only male authors, have done so for decades and centuries, and in the process have ridiculed the very idea of women writers as producing anything worth reading. So if choosing one’s reading on the basis of the author’s sex…men have been at the height of sexism a long time, and any women (and I know few) who buy only women-written books are merely tipping the balance back a little.

        But a higher height of sexism is instructing women in what they should do–what they should be–and what they should buy. A higher height of sexism is looking for ways to make women supporting women’s aspirations more sexist than the male sexism aimed at limiting or eliminating women’s aspirations we’ve been subject to for centuries. And women see through that, these days.

  15. A good read is a good read … I rarely pay attention to who the author is unless I choose to read one of my favorite authors. I think it’s a bit too far to ban an author because of someone’s interpretation of how he responds to question. True, he could have been a bit more respectful but I don’t think it reflects on his stories. BTW, I never buy a book unless it’s classic … that’s what libraries are for.

  16. I’ve read a few of Sparks’ books but I never thought they were anything great. They tended to remind me Danielle Steel books, but I haven’t read any of hers for 20 years. Actually, a better comparison would be LaVyrle Spencer, one of my favorite authors. She’s always listed firmly as romance though, even though there was often some kind of tragedy from which the characters were trying to recover.

  17. I have to admit I am not a fan of his books, and his answer steers me even further from them. Chick lit does have a bad wrap and yet I have enjoyed quite a few of them. Each genre can give us an example of poor writing, and focusing on chick lit has me scratching my head. I’ve read so many more examples of books that simply didn’t work in the male dominated thriller genre.

  18. Appreciated this honest post today. The basic ol’ double standard for women is hardly gone, is it.
    Feel compelled to add . . . I tried to read a Nicholas Sparks’ novel once. I made it to page 33 and had to put it down. I guess some writers can get away with 33 pages of pure narrative that doesn’t take you very far. There is no way a newcomer would be allowed that, I best.

  19. Years ago, Norma Roberts started writing her mysteries as J.D. Robb because she was told women writers couldn’t make it writing in the mystery genre. We all know better of course. I’ve noticed many female mystery and crime writers still use initials. It’s a sad commentary that we have to mask ourselves as men to get well-deserved good reviews. The world is changing but apparently we aren’t there yet.

  20. Unfortunately, NS had (has) the opportunity to turn the whole thing on its head by stepping up and saying, “Hey, I’m a romance writer. I like doing it, my readers say I’m good at it. A little respect for my female counterparts would be nice, please.” He’d not only be speaking the truth, but he’d earn the respect and appreciation of female writers everywhere. Instead, he’s too afraid (arrogant, ignorant—fill in the blank) to admit the truth and use it to better the industry. Everyone, and I mean everyone, who reads his books knows he’s a romance writer. He’s either deluded himself into believing otherwise or hasn’t the chutzpah to stand up and admit it. Either way, it says a lot about him, and not in a positive way.

  21. Who decides whether it’s “chick lit” or “love tragedy” anyways?
    I posed the following questions on C. Hope Clark’s link to this blog:

    Would readers choose to NOT read something called a “love tragedy,” because they know it’ll be a downer? And…if a writer (ok…female writer) writes this type of book…would this label affect their bottom line as a result? What if they were an unknown author?

  22. Ahhh! I am totally going to make up my own genre, too. For now, I’m going with “Humorous Wisdom Fiction.” It’s a little clunky, so I’ll work on it. But you know what’s weird? For some reason, no men have managed to break into the Humorous Wisdom Fiction category yet. As of right now, it’s all women!

    It’s easy to get bogged down in all the noise. It’s soooo easy to get discouraged. What’s far more difficult – but far more rewarding – is to just keep writing. Don’t let the noise define you. Define yourself.

  23. Pingback: Dear Boys: No, YOU stop talking! | Tracie L. Martin

  24. I think it’s more accurate to describe Sparks’ novels as “crossover romance.” Maybe that’s what “love tragedy” is supposed to refer to. Romance as a genre has a very fixed formula that one has to follow, or risk disappointing the reader. Sparks didn’t want to be confined to those formulae, but instead to take the romance novel out of its genre, so that he could tap into a larger market. But not too far. His goal was to crossover into mainstream markets. He largely succeeded. And so he still resists being labelled as a romance writer, because he doesn’t want to lose out on the mainstream market.

    It’s important to remember that all these categories are all the product of marketing. It’s not designed to ghettoize women writers, it’s designed to sell more books, and to tell readers what they can expect from a particular book. Taking offense at the system as if it’s a sign of disrespect is inaccurate. 75% of all fiction is bought by women, so they have the power of the pocketbook to decide these things. And by and large, they do.

    As I recall from earlier interviews, Sparks made a conscious decision at the beginning of his career to write a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. He wanted to be a male crossover romance novelist, and the wrote his books very specifically to fill that “hole” in the marketplace. He didn’t see other writers in that category, and he thought he could take that spot, create a brand, and hold his own there. It worked. Bully for him. It’s not a sign of any misogyny on his part, or a put down to female writers. It was a very clever positioning plan. If he’d been a woman, he’d probably have done it a bit differently, but since he wasn’t, he probably didn’t bother trying to resolve that issue. Female romance writers who want to cross over have to figure out how to do that themselves. And they have to write with that goal in mind, and not just expect it to happen by magic.

  25. A great post highlighting again the constant challenging issues of genre classification which male and female writers need to grapple with in an increasingly complex reader marketplace.
    My take on the discussion is that Sparks emerged in a timely lucky break out of the slush pile with The Notebook in the mid 1990s, when book store chains were dominating the high street and traditional publishers focussed on piling them up high with sell and more sell. Their marketing gurus told them the bonanza trail for big profits was the new formulaic chicklit, pink, light-hearted, humorous, with a bit of romance but nothing too heavy or serious which was what the modern woman was devouring. Around that he was able to differentiate his niche, a bit deeper, some cross-genre, no necessarily guaranteed happy ever after, into a growing lucrative hybrid romance-chicklit bandwagon, with books a lot of readers still like and buy. In that sense his remark of writing a genre of love tragedies is facile and disingenuous; he is essentially a romance writer with a few steroids.
    Roll forward to digital 2013, where getting a book published and out to readers no longer depends on formulaic gatekeepers, demanding an editorial style and cover design to fill physical bookshelves in shops, so that a contemporary women’s fiction writer, female or male, can choose to creatively experiment with mixing genres, testing new concepts and breaking new writing ground. Male writers of women’s fiction, me included, are a rarer breed, I accept that, but I want to write and enjoy the stories which are in my head and women’s fiction is where they happen to generally fit for marketing purposes. I’m also having fun with new cross-genres. My books have tragedy, light-hearted, chicklit, romance and adventure all interlocking within a woman’s relationship journey, like much of real life, but underpinned with a contemporary science theme – which I call SciRom. No pseudonyms, no initials, just plain old me on the cover – a marketing anathema to traditional publishers but I don’t care as long as those who read them enjoy the stories and it makes them think a bit about science.

  26. A great post highlighting again the constant challenging issues of genre classification which male and female writers need to grapple with in an increasingly complex reader marketplace.
    My take on the discussion is that Sparks emerged in a timely lucky break out of the slush pile with The Notebook in the mid 1990s when book store chains were dominating the high street and traditional publishers focussed on piling them up high with sell and more sell. Their marketing gurus told them the bonanza trail for big profits was the new formulaic chicklit, pink, light-hearted, humorous, with a bit of romance but nothing too heavy or serious which was what the modern woman was devouring. Around that he was able to differentiate his niche, a bit deeper, some cross-genre, no necessarily guaranteed happy ever after, into a growing lucrative hybrid romance-chicklit bandwagon, with books a lot of readers still like and buy. In that sense his remark of writing a genre of love tragedies is facile and disingenuous; he is essentially a romance writer with a few steroids.
    Roll forward to digital 2013, where getting a book published and out to readers no longer depends on formulaic gatekeepers, demanding an editorial style and cover design to fill physical bookshelves in shops, so that a contemporary women’s fiction writer, female or male, can choose to creatively experiment with mixing genres, testing new concepts and breaking new writing ground. Male writers of women’s fiction, me included, are a rarer breed, I accept that, but I want to write and enjoy the stories which are in my head and women’s fiction is where they happen to generally fit for marketing purposes. I’m also having fun with new cross-genres. My books have tragedy, light-hearted, chicklit, romance and adventure all interlocking within a woman’s relationship journey, like much of real life, but underpinned with a contemporary science theme – which I call SciRom. No pseudonyms, no initials, just plain old me on the cover – a marketing anathema to traditional publishers but I don’t care as long as those who read them enjoy the stories and it makes them think a bit about science.

    • Love tragedy? How about Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights? Funnily enough ‘Pride and Prejudice’ has been dubbed ‘the original chicklit novel’ by some publications. Oh dear, oh dear.

  27. I just bought his new book, The Longest Ride, for our bestsellers section of the library. It is listed in WorldCat (the global catalog of library collections) as Love Stories under Genre. So I stuck a Romance sticker on it. It might be a tragic love story, but it’s still a romance novel. At this point, anyone reading Sparks knows it’s going to have a tragic ending (hey, his formula is selling books, he might as well stick to it). Though chick-lit is a genre listed in WorldCat, “love tragedy” currently isn’t, though that can change if this becomes an actual thing. We put anything labeled “chick lit” in the regular fiction section.

  28. Pingback: short and sweet. ok, long-ish and a little salty. - Zizzivivizz

  29. First, it’s sad that he hasn’t read more of the field. The aforementioned Jodi Piccoult certainly fits the bill and many other women writers of mainstream novels. Diana Gabaldon, while not tragic, has elevated the historical romance to mainstream. Certainly he’s in a collaborative relationship with other writers (if soap operas aren’t the teat of love tragedy I don’t know what is, or Greek myths the font) and not being able to know your roots oe your field is not completely unique or male driven, hurts everyone. I love being unique, but the more the merrier. I avoid Sparks because we already know it’s going to be a tragedy when we walk into his books, as Opposed to myths and soaps. He’s narrowed his plots so much, the only thing different are the careers of his protags and the DNA of the tears at the end. Saying that women aren’t doing what he’s doing is splitting hairs, and hiding under invented genre tents. He found a successful pattern. So can another writer. You go find your niche! Maybe you’ll invent your genre too! I think he was speaking from a myopic fog of success, not a tower with a clear POV.

  30. What?!? Nicholas Sparks doesn’t write chick lit? In what universe? Is there some rule chick lit isn’t chick lit if its author has a penis??? I’ve read a couple of his books — no more because I thought they were vapid examples of the genre — but *of course* they’re chick lit. This isn’t blindingly obvious? I’m astonished. Good heavens.

  31. Pingback: Chick Lit Roundup: Interesting Articles Last Month | Jennifer Gilby Roberts

  32. Pingback: Women and Writing | Lynley Stace

  33. Wow! Thanks for sharing your story! I came across this blog doing research for my class. It’s appalling that Sparks can keep his books away from “Chick-Lit” where fantastic solid writers (Picoult and Weiner) are pigeonholed.

    • Is your research related to categorization of fiction at all? Because if so, I’d love to hear what you’ve found! The way genres work is very strange…

      • So sorry! I was on vacation and just found the email saying there was a comment here! I’m in a Publishing class and had to write up a marketing plan. I wanted to include Sparks as a “chick lit” author in the plan and your blog came up up during the search results. I have been claiming in class that he escapes that title on his books because he’s a man.

      • I completely agree with this conclusion. There are a lot of articles out there about this and Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult have become sort of spokeswomen on the issue. It’s a really interesting topic!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s