When I set out to write a novel from the point of view of a 50-year-old woman, I expected a little bit of trouble. Not so much with the writing, mind you. I’ve written from the point of view of a woman numerous times. And when I finished writing “Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears,” I was pleased with the results, in particular the main character Katie-Lee Fontenot (when I wasn’t hating myself and the book and writing in general).
But when it comes to getting a book published, the writer’s opinion on his own writing isn’t exactly relevant, especially if said writer hasn’t been anywhere near a best-seller list. I knew this. I knew there’d be some worrying about a guy’s name at the bottom of a book that can be seen as, depending on your definitions of the genres, Southern women’s lit, commercial women’s fiction or even the much-denigrated but extremely lucrative chick lit.
When it comes to selling my books I’m somewhere between a pragmatist and a shameless pimp. If someone had asked me to drop my first name and go with K. Wheaton — or hell, Liz Wheaton (remember that?!) — I would have considered it. If someone suggested I have an arm-wrestling match with Jennifer Weiner, I’d definitely do it.
Here’s the thing about book publishing. Women buy most of the books. The publishing people — many of whom are women — are desperate to sell books to women and want to reach them. I am, too! And I even understand the painfully dull conversations about genre labels. Whether in a physical book store or in an online search engine, what you label a book matters, what shelf you put it on matters. Like it or not, this is how people shop for books. (The most frustrating thing about book-marketing people is how often they’re right.)
But there are a substantial number of publishing people who kinda sorta think women (and, to be fair, readers in general) are — what’s the expression — blithering fucking idiots who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Women like bright colors. They don’t switch genres. They’re scared of new things. Outside of thrillers, they can’t handle too much darkness in a plot (unless it’s wrapped up with a big happy ending). And, apparently, they’re so in denial about their own mortality that they can’t handle a protagonist over the age of 30.
And that’s how we arrived at: “What do you think about making her younger?” At some point in the process of trying to find a publisher, this question came up. And caught me off guard.
Let me be clear. This wasn’t a breaking point, I don’t think, in getting the book sold. It was rejected by a number of editors — so many, I couldn’t even tell you where the question trickled down from. Editors reject books all the time. The top two reasons any editor rejects a book are: 1) Didn’t like it. 2) Doesn’t think it’ll sell more than 20 copies.
Obviously, there is a lot that goes into No. 2 above, including “Ugh. Who wants to read about a 50-year-old woman?”
Let me also be clear about something else. I’m not some sort of champion of middle-aged and older women. I’m not the dude trying to be sensitive just to win points with the ladies. (Well, not at the moment.) I wasn’t taking a moral stand and putting my “career” (cough) at risk.
But, yes, it did annoy the hell out of me.
I could go on and on about editorial and marketing people in book publishing (read: young and middle age New York women) projecting their own needs and issues (read: absolute terror of getting older) onto readers. I’m not going to do that. Because that leads me to making a lot of generalizations about other people while talking out of my ass while also sounding bitter or put-upon. I read enough bitter ass-talking on Facebook all day, so I’d rather not contribute.
But I did shut down the suggestion immediately.
Because ultimately what mattered most was this: Katie-Lee Fontenot had to be 50 years old in the book. Hell, she should have been a little older. Because what I was getting at wasn’t some generic midlife crisis for a woman, but a very specific generation of woman from a very specific part of the country.
The general inspiration for the novel is my mom’s family. And while Mama and them are all now professional women — or retired — and travel the world and goof around on Facebook and play too much with their damn iPads and pin 600 recipes to Pinterest that they’ll never make, they started off life as sharecroppers in south Louisiana, an entire (big) family piled into a house probably not much bigger than my current apartment. They were pulled out of school during the sweet-potato harvest (or at least that’s what I was told when I found one of Mama’s report cards and demanded to know why I was expected to make A’s if she had pulled C’s and a few D’s). This wasn’t in the 1920s or 1930s. This was in 1950s and the kids in that family were, to a large extent, the bridge from one America to a completely different one.
And that mental divide was a lot harder to write than a gender divide. So hell no I wasn’t going to make her younger.
Besides, if the majority of book buyers are women, middle aged and older, maybe they’d like to read about someone like themselves! Maybe — just maybe — the answer to the question “Who wants to read about a 50-year-old woman?” is, as one woman shouted out at one of my recent readings: “A 60-year-old woman!” Even if she was joking, there are a lot of 60-year-old women out there. And they have money and time to spend on books.
Of course another good answer to that question could just as well be another question, “Who wants to read about a 60-year-old man?” But I’m thinking Philip Roth and his crew never get asked that particular question, and neither does it come up when considering the general male reading audience.
Or I could just be talking out of my ass.
P.S. Are you impressed that I wrote this entire post without referencing Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets”?