Nicholas Sparks, Sexism in Publishing, and Love Tragedies
Updated: Jun 5, 2020
I feel like I rag on Nicholas Sparks a lot, and I feel kind of bad about it. He’s a person, and he has a passion for writing, and he has managed to make a very successful career out of his passion/hobby, which is no small feat. He’s not a bad writer, and I want that to be very clear, right up front.
He’s just kind of a douche bag jerk face.
This blog post started making the rounds, in which a writer describes her encounter with Nicholas Sparks at an event. In a nutshell, she asked him if he’d ever been described as a “chick lit” writer and if he thought his career would have gone differently if he was a woman. And he, of course, responded with compassion and understanding, bemoaning the presence of sexism in his industry.
He didn’t do any of that. Instead, he insisted he didn’t write “romance” or “chick lit” and that instead his genre was “love tragedy” (more on that in a second) and that women have “for some reason” been unable to break into his genre.
Here are the problems with this situation and how Sparks is a contributing factor:
1. He balks at the idea of writing “chick lit” or “romance” The fact that he is so offended by the idea of writing for women is a huge deal. “What? Me? Write books for women? ICK.” is basically what he says here. Notice that he doesn’t deny the existence of chick-lit, or women’s fiction, and therefore propagates the idea that these categories are completely legitimate.
I want to be clear: There is nothing wrong with chick-lit or women’s fiction or romance. I don’t love it, it’s not my thing (neither is love-tragedy, but I digress), but it’s certainly not inferior in any way to any other genre. If you think it is, you can stop reading now because there’s very little you and I can agree on.
However. Chick-lit and New Adult are the exact same thing. Except one has been cast as “For Girls Only.” The same is true with Women’s Fiction and plain ol’ Fiction. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these categories, per se, but the problem comes in when we start to think of the “girl” books as inferior books, which Sparks obviously does. And a lot of other people feel the same way; Fiction is for men, who like to think, you see. Women’s Fiction is for those pesky females who enjoy their feelings and junk.
It’s a marketing thing, and I get that. But the more we are okay with people sneering at Women’s Fiction, the more we assist in spreading the message that “girl” books are inferior.
2. He insinuates women are incapable of breaking into his invented genre
I don’t know what “love tragedy” is and I’ve never heard the term before. Based on my experience with the English language, however, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it’s a love story in which at least one person dies or is otherwise traumatized. Based on my (admittedly limited) experience with Sparks’ writing, that feels accurate.
But that leaves me wondering. Has no successful female author ever written a book that featured people who love each other, but something went horribly wrong for them? I mean, I know about Margaret Mitchell and Daphne Demaurier and Jodi Piccoult, but surely they don’t count. After all, that’s all Women’s Fiction and not at all the same.
3. He invents his own genre
And this is probably the biggest problem of all. By inventing this genre to distance himself from the distasteful reputation of “girl” books, he draws yet another line in the sand of “us” and “them”. Just in case any females were to be taken seriously as literary writers instead of girl writers, he’s drawn another box to keep them out.
Look, I don’t hate Sparks. I don’t hate his writing, I can even say I enjoyed the two books of his that I read. They are not bad, and I won’t pretend otherwise. Yes, he’s formulaic, but there are a lot of writers of both genders and in all genres who are and I don’t really care that much.
The problem I have with Sparks’ comments is that they are indicative of a pervasive problem in the public’s consumption of literature. I don’t think it’s wholly the fault of publishers or marketers or writers or consumers or distributors or anybody, but rather a lot of people making a lot of decisions based on a lot of things that they perceive other people are thinking or doing. But a lot of women who write literary fiction are shelved with women’s fiction, and a lot of women who write fantasy are shelved with paranormal romance because there’s a kiss between a knight and a queen and that makes it girly.
And make no mistake about it, Sparks writes Women’s Fiction, and you can tell that based on who his fans are. I don’t know a lot of men who ooh and aah over The Notebook or A Walk to Remember or Dear John or whatever other romantic cry fest he’s churned out. He writes books for women and he makes gobs of money at it and I hate that he pretends women and women writers are somehow beneath him for it.