BOOKS Girls just want to have literary gravitas
Author laments lack of respect for women’s fiction
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Although this one is a rather serious affair, Stapley’s previous, unpublished novel was “slapstick chick lit.”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.”
“I haven’t written a light book,” Marissa Stapley says, “(but) it certainly is being received as such.”
Mating for Life