Shouldn’t women authors write whatever they want?

Pen writingBack in September, I was attending the Matera Women’s Fiction Festival and I was at a lecture on self-publishing by romance writers Bella Andre and Tina Folsom.

The talk was informative and inspiring, and the writers shared their experiences controlling their writing careers and their passion for their writing.

When the question and answer session arrived, one woman asked a question I’ve heard variations of over the years of attending writing talks with women authors.

The question, essentially, boils down to: How can you, as a woman author, write silly books like romances that make the rest of us look bad?

I should preface this by saying that I am no fan of the romance genre. However, I have worked with great critique partners who are excellent writers and write romance. I’ve always been honest in telling them I‘m no expert on romance novels, and they’ve always told me they appreciate my feedback as a writer, even one who generally does not read their genre. I’ve also benefitted greatly from their critiques, suggestions and advice.

Romance is not the only genre I don’t generally read. I also tend to avoid fantasy, thrillers, and science fiction.

But I feel that romance novels (and, perhaps, more broadly women’s fiction/commercial fiction) written by women tend to serve as a battle cry for female authors and aspiring female authors who feel that literary fiction is the only way to be taken seriously.

What if the author in question doesn’t wish to write literary fiction?

I can’t help but wonder if successful male authors are asked the same questions. Do writers get up at conferences and ask Stephen King or James Patterson why they don’t write literary fiction? Are those commercial writers held up as examples of authors who ‘make male authors look less intelligent’?

Authors write in the genres that interest them. They write the stories they’re passionate about. We, as readers, should be pleased about their success, even if they write in genres that aren’t what we prefer to read.

As women authors, we would do far better to applaud the success of other women writers rather than grumbling that they’re not writing what “we” deem worthy.

Bella Andre summed it up best at the conference. As an extremely bright and well-spoken woman, with an economics degree from Stanford and a successful writing career she shaped on her own, outside of the traditional world of literary agents and publishing houses, she told the audience she’s writing what she loves and she feels empowered to write anything she wants, and won’t be told what to do by others.

How can you top that?

So applause to all those successful female authors who are writing in genres they’re passionate about, and attracting enthusiastic readers.

Because women authors should be able to write whatever they want.


  1. Kim Talks Books on November 28, 2014 at 7:28 am

    Reblogged this on Kim Golden: women's fiction author and commented:
    Another insightful post by fellow writer and Matera devotee, Kimberly Sullivan. Kimberly’s examination of people’s opinions about what women should write reminds me of something that happened when I was still working on my MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University. So often I was told that, as a black woman, I should be writing about “black issues” or that my characters didn’t feel “black enough”–whatever that means. I usually scoffed at this notion that I was only supposed to write about “serious” or “black” issues. My reply was generally: “I write what I want to write.” And I think the same is true for all writers. We write the stories within us. We write what we want to write and no one else should think they can demand that we write anything else. 🙂 Thanks for another great post, Kimberly! Happy Thanksgiving!

    • kimberlysullivan on November 28, 2014 at 10:36 pm

      Thanks so much for reblogging, Kim! Great insight here. I love that you were told your characters didn’t feel “black enough”. I loved your ‘Melanie Chronicles’, and I love the subtlety of the scene when Melanie stands up to her family and decides an elite prep school isn’t right for her biracial daughter. It was a small scene, but it stayed with me because it was powerful in its quiet nature. You touched on important issues without necessarily beating it into us (I always prefer subtlety to literature that seems the author has an axe to grind). It’s a big world, and there are an awful lot of ways to see it – our job as authors is to bring our unique take to our stories. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving, too!

  2. Catherine on November 28, 2014 at 9:31 am

    I agree with both Kimberly and Kim, we shouldn’t be labelled by our gender, background or race. The important thing is that the writing rings true and is valid, no matter what genre. I understand however that there is a tendency to give more weight to literary than commercial writing, and more than once I have felt literary authors raise eyebrows at my erotic comedy, published before my short story collection, when I became a ‘serious’ author.

    But guess which book has earned more money?

    I think it’s important to ignore what other people think and go with your own voice and truth, even if that means being a black pregnant Ghanaian woman ! (as in my short story Pelt)

    • kimberlysullivan on November 28, 2014 at 10:39 pm

      Great points, Catherine. And why shouldn’t authors switch between several genres? Luckily, I believe this is becoming easier today. And yes, it’s our job to get in the minds of many different people. If we’re writing carbon copies of ourselves, what’s the point?

  3. Nicola Layouni on November 28, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    Great post and comments, Kimberly. 🙂

    I think what’s been said also applies to male authors. I know several men who write romances under a pseudonym because readers just weren’t buying their books when it had their real name on the cover. Changing gender, so to speak, made a big difference.

    Human beings make rash judgments all the time. We all do it to some extent– even if we won’t admit it out loud. 🙂 We can’t help it. It’s hard-wired into our DNA, an echo of an ancient survival mechanism.

    My two cents? Don’t worry what people might think, we should write the story anyway. And if snarky comments and snooty aren’t your thing, you can always use a pen name. 🙂 (Btw, when I say ‘you’, I don’t actually mean ‘YOU’. It’s more of a Royal ‘WE’, okay? Splendid! ) 🙂

    • kimberlysullivan on November 28, 2014 at 10:44 pm

      Haha. I’ll always assume people are using the ‘royal we’ if it sounds suspiciously like an insult. Call it a survival instinct. : )

      Yes, true that men often resort to pseudonyms.

      And what about JK Rowling to ensure boys would read her books?

      Lots of interesting issues here. Will we one day get beyond this? I can see how your fantasy/romance/time travel novels could easily appeal to both male and female readers. Have you been getting intersting reader feedback on that?

  4. Nicola Layouni on November 29, 2014 at 12:41 am

    hey Kimberly. I am beginning to attract some male readers–which is just FAB!! So far, the feedback has been really encouraging.

    I’m not one of those writers who can firmly pinpoint their target audience. Rather than pitch my tent slap-bang center of the ‘romance’ camp, I decided to set up my shop on a busy intersection of genres to see what happened.

    I’ve just passed the six month mark of my self-pubbing journey. Verdict? No worlds have been set on fire, but so far so good.

    Watch this space!


    ps: Any news on Janet?

  5. 4blogssake on December 10, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Hear hear. Let people write what brings them joy! We are each unique, beholden to no one and no thing but our own dreams.

    • kimberlysullivan on December 10, 2014 at 8:39 pm

      So true, Terianne. Thank goodness for lots of different ways of looking at the world. Writing should be a joy, and that only comes through when the author is interested in his/her topic.

  6. evelyneholingue on December 13, 2014 at 12:44 am

    I missed this great post, Kimberly, It’s always enraging when women writers are cornered into specific genres. Men never face this issue. I’m not a huge fan of romance novels either but it doesn’t mean that this genre shouldn’t exist. As long as the story makes a reader dream and escape her daily routine, I think it’s great. Men write about the military, war, spies, and all kind of topics that nobody frowns upon. So, yes, women who write can write anything they want. Go!

    • kimberlysullivan on December 13, 2014 at 11:31 am

      Yes, Evelyne. I agree that there seems to be a double standard about men’s commercial fiction vs women’s. I don’t read spy novels, or miltary or horror, but I’m not ready to take issue with their authors. If they’re successful, more power to them. It’s a shame to see female authors criticized for writing books they love, even if they sell really well. Vive la différence!

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