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:

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My Evening with “Waiting to Exhale” Author Terry McMillan SUPER UPDATE AT THE END!

TM1I remember when I first learned about Terry McMillan. I must have been 8 or 9 years old, and my Mom was so excited about this book called “Waiting to Exhale.” It was summer, and apparently all the “mothers” were reading it.  It truly felt like a must-read–I mean like, you better read this book or you can’t come to my party type of the thing.  Anyway, years later, I picked it up and read it myself.  Then I found another Terry McMillan book my mom’s shelf, so I read that. Then I found another one and another one–my mom must have just bought all of them! After that, every time I heard Terry had a book coming out I just bought it. Most recently that was “Getting to Happy” the sequel to “Waiting to Exhale.”  Given my initial introduction to Terry’s books, the book signing I attended on Saturday at Sixth & I felt very different the ones I attended for Jennifer Weiner and Emily Giffin. It had a familial vibe even though I didn’t actually know anyone. Many of the audience members reminded me of my Mom and her friends and I can’t help but think that if the event had been in New York I would have, at the very least, run into a couple of them.

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But back to the signing. I have to say Terry McMillan was an interesting character. She had a huge red fro and thick white glasses, and didn’t just read from her upcoming book—she basically acted it out. Afterwards, this GW professor sat and asked her some questions. Terry was funny and frank, although not the best speaker I’ve heard (Jennifer Weiner still wins that contest). Terry seemed like someone who preferred to express herself on paper, which I liked because I get that. It was like whenever someone asked a question, she had so much to say but had trouble getting it all out correctly. But she didn’t try to placate us, she gave authentic, genuine, funny answers.

I, of course, asked a question. Terry had said her latest book had 15 points of view, including one from an 8 year old boy, so I asked her how she got in the minds of people so unlike herself.  She basically said that it requires a certain degree of compassion and empathy. You have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. To further make her point she said, “I’ve never been a crackhead, but now I know what it’s like to be one” (because she’s written about one and presumably put herself in one’s shoes) and “I’ve never been in jail, but I know what it’s like now.” Basically you have to listen to how people talk around you and then just imagine. It’s important to get lost when you write. Words of wisdom from Terry Mcmillan people. Awesome.

Other interesting tidbits: Terry knows everything about her characters before she starts writing– their birthdays, their views on abortion, whether they pay their bills on time–and most of it never makes it the story. She also discussed her views on the publishing world.  She thinks it’s pretty messed up right now because of the economy, sexism and racism. Still, she told us writers not to be discouraged, but not to quit our day jobs. Word.

In the end, Terry McMillan signed my book. She remembered that I was the “girl with the low voice” (I just wasn’t speaking into the microphone!) and seemed to enjoy being around her fans. Overall, I would describe it as an inspiring night with one of my favorite authors. Time to get back to writing (and my day job!)

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UPDATE: I tweeted this blog post to Terry McMillan and she replied!!!  She said “Thank you. Very thoughtful. I’ll try to be more eloquent. Not really! I call it the way it comes out. Best to you & your Mom!”  Lol.  I said “No, don’t be. I loved it! Thanks for coming to D.C.!” 🙂  Omg, I love Twitter!!

This Woman is Everywhere: Taiye Selasi

taiye selasiThere is a name I have come across several times in the past couple of weeks.  Taiye Selasi.  She first caught my attention when I caught a glimpse of her on Melissa Harris Perry’s show.  She started talking about how she had to breakup with her ex-boyfriend because the relationship was actually hindering her ability to finish her novel. She had fallen “absolutely in love with absolutely the wrong person.” I was like, Taiye!  You should read my book!  It’s not published yet or even written—but you’re my target audience! The segment ended and I turned back to whatever I was doing.

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/46979745/vp/51114570#51114570  <– MHP interview

A couple of days later, I was looking at my blog stats and discovered someone had landed on illegalwriting by googling “Taiye Selasi NPR.”  I was like, what?  It turns out Ebony had already told me I need to know about this girl, and I had blogged about it (and forgot about it!) Sad, but true.  Finally last weekend, I found myself reading about her in Vogue.  At that point,  I was like—who is this woman, and how did she find such a great publicist?

My friends, Taiye Selasi is a Yale grad and author of the book “Ghana Must Go.”  I’m thinking part of the reason her first novel is getting SO much attention is that she’s buddies with Toni Morrison, who endorsed her writing.  I’m sure I’ll end up purchasing this book at some point, but I honestly have mixed feelings about the endorsement.  On the one hand, it’s Toni Morrison. We can all probably be confident that Taiye is a brilliant writer, and I’m sure the connection helped get her book published in 15 COUNTRIES.  On the other hand, Toni Morrison, it is my belief, writes to be studied.  I think even more so than to be enjoyed.  So it makes me wonder—what kind of book is Taiye’s?  I’d like to know because honestly, I’m trying to relax when I read novels—not work!

It turns out I could have asked Taiye myself last Friday at her book signing here in D.C.  If only I had decided to look into this a few days earlier!! New York peeps, she’s coming your way next week (details here).  If you’ve read “Ghana Must Go” please let me know how it is.  Holllerr.