BOOKS Girls just want to have lit­er­ary grav­i­tas

Au­thor laments lack of re­spect for women’s fic­tion

Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - MARK MED­LEY

Marissa Sta­p­ley, whose de­but novel, Mat­ing for Life, ar­rived in book­stores in July, seems re­signed to her fate. You can al­most hear it in the au­thor and jour­nal­ist’s voice when she talks about the re­sponses she’s re­ceived so far for her novel, about three sis­ters nav­i­gat­ing re­la­tion­ships — ro­man­tic and fa­mil­ial — as they ap­proach mid­dle age.

“I haven’t writ­ten a light book (but) it cer­tainly is be­ing re­ceived as such. There’s a lot of ‘This is a great beach read.’” She shrugs. “I think it just so hap­pens that when you write about re­la­tion­ships, and you write fe­male char­ac­ters as a woman, it’s just go­ing to be women’s fic­tion.”

The cover cer­tainly sug­gests the genre: a play­ful cur­sive script; the sil­hou­ettes of two young women, div­ing into a lake as the sun descends below the tree line; a blurb from Girls in White Dresses au­thor Jennifer Close.

“There’s this rush to la­bel a book writ­ten by a woman, that has women in it, as women’s fic­tion,” says the 35-year-old Sta­p­ley, sit­ting in the kitchen of the Toronto home she shares with her hus­band and two young chil­dren. “And I don’t like that. That doesn’t sit es­pe­cially well with me.

“I’m not ashamed of the fact that this is a book that women will be in­ter­ested in,” she says. “I’m cer­tainly not ashamed to be la­belled women’s fic­tion, although I have a deep con­cern for the shame that seems to be as­so­ci­ated with the genre.”

There are myr­iad sub­cat­e­gories that or­bit the genre, from ro­mance to up­mar­ket com­mer­cial women’s fic­tion to erot­ica to chick lit — all of which “tend to get lumped into the same pile,” she says. For Sta­p­ley, the de­scrip­tors may be dif­fer­ent but the con­no­ta­tion is the same: Lit­er­a­ture this ain’t.

Sta­p­ley de­scribes Mat­ing for Life as “a pretty heavy book,” and the novel does in­deed tackle such sub­jects as di­vorce, adul­tery, sib­ling ri­valry, sui­cide, child aban­don­ment and de­pres­sion. As some­one who comes from a fam­ily where di­vorce is un­com­monly com­mon — par­ents, aunts and un­cles, grand­par­ents — Sta­p­ley wanted to write a book “about what it takes to love another person for the rest of your life, whether that’s your sis­ter, or your child, or your hus­band, or any­one.”

Although this one is a rather se­ri­ous af­fair, Sta­p­ley’s pre­vi­ous, un­pub­lished novel was “slap­stick chick lit.”

While it never saw the light of day, Sav­ing The World (In Sen­si­ble Shoes), which she de­scribes as Bridget Jones goes to the Arc­tic, was ac­tu­ally sold to Key Porter Books in 2010. It was one of the many ca­su­al­ties when its par­ent com­pany, H.B. Fenn, went bank­rupt the fol­low­ing year.

“I just felt (like) this huge fail­ure,” she says. She took a job edit­ing a plas­tic surgery magazine, and, af­ter aban­don­ing a sec­ond novel, be­gan writ­ing a se­ries of sto­ries re­volv­ing around a group of friends. She showed them to her agent, who en­cour­aged Sta­p­ley to turn them into a novel, the friends trans­form­ing into sis­ters along the way. Last June, she sold Mat­ing for Life to Si­mon & Schus­ter Canada and Atria Books, which has or­dered a first print­ing of 50,000 copies.

Sta­p­ley is but one in a group of Cana­dian writ­ers who are now forc­ing this coun­try’s pub­lish­ing in­dus­try to pay at­ten­tion to a genre that, even a decade ago, was lit­tle more than an af­ter­thought. While au­thors such as Jennifer Weiner, He­len Field­ing, Can­dace Bush­nell, So­phie Kin­sella, Emily Gif­fin and Mar­ian Keyes were sell­ing mil­lions of copies around the world — Canada in­cluded — these writ­ers had few, if any, Cana­dian coun­ter­parts.

But that’s chang­ing, says Sta­p­ley’s lit­er­ary agent, Sa­man­tha Hay­wood: “I feel that Cana­dian pub­lish­ers are look­ing for women’s fic­tion much more than they ever have be­fore.” In the past, she says, au­thors in the genre had to achieve suc­cess in a for­eign mar­ket be­fore Cana­dian pub­lish­ers would take a chance. Now, “the Cana­dian mar­ket­place has be­come slightly more com­mer­cial. And I feel there’s a greater hunger for gen­res be­yond lit­er­ary fic­tion.” Marissa Sta­p­ley Si­mon & Schus­ter Canada

In re­cent years au­thors such as Kim Izzo, Kate Hil­ton, Tish Cohen and Cather­ine McKen­zie have turned Canada into, if not a hot­bed for women’s fic­tion, at least an emerg­ing power.

Still, in Canada at least, lit­er­ary fic­tion cap­tures the lion’s share of the at­ten­tion, cer­tainly in terms of the big awards.

Most re­views fo­cus on non­fic­tion ti­tles, short story col­lec­tions, high­brow nov­els and mem­oirs. But the fact that nei­ther the prizes nor the me­dia pay much at­ten­tion to these books sends an in­dis­putable mes­sage: Your books, and your sto­ries, don’t mat­ter.

“Women’s fic­tion, I think, is still ghet­toized,” says the Toronto agent Amy Moore-Ben­son, a for­mer edi­tor at Har­lequin’s main­stream im­print, MIRA, and the owner of AMB Lit­er­ary Man­age­ment. “But if you look at the best­seller list in Canada … peo­ple are read­ing Emily Gif­fin. They’re read­ing (Jennifer) Weiner. They’re read­ing re­ally big, com­mer­cial women’s fic­tion. But we don’t grow it. So there’s an ap­petite for it, but I don’t think we’re pro­vid­ing it.”

In a way, Canada has al­ways pro­duced “women’s fic­tion,” even if the work of Alice Munro, Mar­garet Lau­rence, and some­times Mar­garet At­wood (what is The Rob­ber Bride if not a sub­ver­sive take on the genre?) has never been iden­ti­fied as such. Even Bon­nie Burnard’s A Good House, which won the Giller Prize in 1999, might be mar­keted as women’s fic­tion if it were pub­lished to­day.

For her part Sta­p­ley, now work­ing on the fol­lowup to Mat­ing for Life, says she isn’t chang­ing course.

“I don’t want to strive to get out of women’s fic­tion, be­cause I’m not ashamed,” she says. “I just want there to be less shame as­so­ci­ated with it.”

Postmedia News/Files

“I haven’t writ­ten a light book,” Marissa Sta­p­ley says, “(but) it cer­tainly is be­ing re­ceived as such.”

Mat­ing for Life

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