Categories of female writers

A couple years ago, we attended a company dinner/Christmas party held by my husband’s then employer. It was my first time meeting most of his coworkers, and the place they picked to host the party was at a restaurant that was well outside the range of what we could normally afford. The food was great but I was a little out of my element, surrounded by strangers in a restaurant I was a little under-dressed for. And then, of course, there was the small talk.

“So what do you do?” was the first question directed toward me, posed casually across the table by one of the executives whose name I’d be doomed to never remember. But I’d been expecting the question and had recently finished one book and had already started outlining the next, so I gleefully announced that I was a writer.

“Oh,” he said, smiling and nodding. “What kind of romances do you write?”

Awkward.

Such is the plight of the female writer.

It’s strange to be pigeonholed by people assuming that if I write, I must be writing for Harlequin. I could be wrong, but I don’t think they’d be interested in my epic fantasies. Sure, there are tales of love threaded through them, but that doesn’t make them romances. Love and romance appear in any number of books without categorizing them as romances.

And yet since the romance genre is the only female-dominated genre in literature, obviously that means women only write romance. The rest of the publishing world is ruled by men–to the point that only around one third of professionally reviewed authors are female.

You get occasional breakouts, but even then they can suffer for being female. J.K. Rowling was famously advised to publish Harry Potter under her initials instead of her name, because the writing would sell better if people didn’t know she was a woman.

And just in case women getting the short end of the publishing stick isn’t enough, consider that V.C. Andrews, one of the most prolific female authors of all time, has been ghostwritten by a man for years.

So what does it take to be successful as a female writer? Probably the same thing it takes to be a successful writer at all: writing well and writing often. Having a good book is obviously the first step. If there are other secrets, though, even VIDA doesn’t seem to know. One thing that should be simple to understand, though, is that there are no categories for female writers.

You are a writer, or you’re not. And if you write mystery, science fiction, fantasy, or non-fiction, then you are a mystery, science fiction, fantasy, or non-fiction author, regardless of your gender. Should be easy to remember, right?

As for the awkward moment at the business dinner, it passed. The guy looked sheepish but quickly lost interest in speaking to me, while the women flanking him shifted uncomfortably, understanding exactly what had transpired in the past twenty seconds. It wasn’t the first time I’d been categorized that way and certainly not the last. I’m sure I have just as many more assumptions like it waiting ahead for me.

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