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 Novel is Not Chick Lit…I Don’t Think

I’m struggling with the genre of my novel. A lot of people think it’s chick lit. First, I thought it could be, but when I say that to other writers I get eye rolls. To illustrate, during my critique in my novel class people said things like “oh, I didn’t realize your characters were going to have substance because you said something about it being chick lit” and “oh, I didn’t think I was going to like your piece because I hate chick lit,” etc. From the very beginning, I knew that the phrase had a negative connotation, which is why I tried to call it Lady Lit. People– I wasn’t just renaming chick lit, I was actually trying to describe a different type of book!  I was basically trying to say I’m writing a book about a girl dating and figuring out life but with substance.  Apparently I didn’t do a good job explaining that.

The other day I actually looked up the definition of chick lit.   I came across a blog that posted about it. I thought it did a good job explaining both the genre and the debate surrounding it. To make things more confusing, it made me think that maybe my novel could be chick lit?! (Only if this blogger is right about the def.)

This is what the ChickLitBooks blog has to say about it:

On the general definition:

Chick lit is a genre comprised of books that are mainly written by women for women. There is usually a personal, light, and humorous tone to the books. Sometimes they are written in first-person narrative; other time they are written from multiple viewpoints. The plots usually consist of women experiencing usual life issues, such as love, marriage, dating, relationships, friendships, roommates, corporate environments, weight issues, addiction, and much more.

On chick lit v. women’s fiction:

It’s all in the tone. Chick lit is told in a more confiding, personal tone. It’s like having a best friend tell you about her life. Or watching various characters go through things that you have gone through yourself, or witnessed others going through. Humor is a strong point in chick lit, too.

On it’s reputation for being “trash” or “vapid”:

Just like in any genre, you have your good, your so-so, and your bad. However, it’s mostly the earlier novels that are excessively light, airy and frilly. As chick lit has evolved, the standard has gone up. Now you can find chick lit that is anywhere from light, frilly and glamorous to deep and meaningful.

On marketing:

Marketing departments at chick lit publishing companies often package chick lit as a lot lighter and more daring than it really is. Don’t be fooled. Some of the covers with embarrassing titles and pictures of legs or shoes or shopping bags are truly masking meaningful, touching, hilarious at times and wonderful chick lit stories.

If this blogger is right, then my novel MIGHT be chick lit. I think my original intention was, indeed, to write a book for women. But I literally spend 50% of the novel in the male point of view and while his relationship is important, that’s not the biggest thing he’s dealing with. For that reason, I don’t even know if I can call it 100% Lady Lit either. My novel teacher says to just write the book and figure out the genre later. I have a feeling that’s easier said than done!!

Embracing Publishing Trends (Fyi, Afropolitans—Now is Your Moment)

The publishing industry is a fickle thing.  The lawyer side of me likes to think that the creative world isn’t so market-driven, but it’s not quite so.  Of course the best thing I (or any other writer) can do is write the stories in my heart; however, it would be a mistake to pretend like trends don’t exist in the publishing world.  Vampires can be a trend.  So can black fiction (I’m not saying that’s appropriate, but I think it’s true).

Here’s the problem with publishing trends: a book comes out that is extremely popular (e.g., Twilight or Waiting to Exhale or the DaVinci Code or whatever the first Chick Lit book was).  Publishers get excited and order millions of other books in that genre (quality is secondary).  People buy these novels expecting to pick up another Waiting to Exhale or Something Borrowed but instead they get something that just sucks.  Again and again and again.  Finally, they decide the whole genre sucks.  Or publishers decide the whole genre no longer sells.  When really, the problem was that the publishers chose far too many sh*t*y books to begin with.  Then someone comes along with a story about a vampire, woman looking for love, or a symbologist that’s actually GOOD and they don’t stand a chance.  Or at least, the process is harder than it should be given the quality of their work. A vicious cycle.

So yeah, there are some problems in the way the publishing industry works.  But trends aren’t going away.  I accept that.  In fact, I embrace it.  The key for budding authors like myself may be to become aware of the trends and then try to jump in when we can.  My novel teacher said it’s a good time to write if you’re a minority—yes!  Want to write about China?  Probably a good move.  Personally, I’ve noticed that now seems to be the moment of the Afropolitan.  I’m talking about Africans educated in U.S. or Europe writing about their experiences.  This year alone you have Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo and those are just the few that I’ve come across in mainstream magazines like Glamour and Vogue (what you thought I was reading the NYT? Actually, they’re in there too).  So if you are an Afropolitan—fyi, now is your moment.

I’m not an Afropolitan, but I’m going to go ahead and say it’s my moment too.  Or, better yet—maybe I can START a trend.  My book will be so successful, publishers will buy millions more just like it!  The only problem is, I don’t know what my genre is.  Women’s contemporary fiction? But half of it is male POV.  African American fiction?  But my whole thing is that I’m trying to write for a wide audience.  When I figure it out, you’ll be the first to know!

Have you noticed any other publishing trends?  What do you think?