Vancouver Sun

Anything but ‘women’s fiction’

Author Jodi Picoult a critic of pink ghetto


One might assume Jodi Picoult writes big, sweeping romance novels, guilty pleasures for hot beach holidays.

That would be wrong: The backdrop to Picture Perfect may be Hollywood, but only as the setting for a tale of horrific domestic violence. The Pact is billed as a teenage love story — but one that ends with a bullet in the girl’s head. My Sister’s Keeper, turned into a Cameron Diaz movie, is about childhood leukemia and stem-cell research. Second Glance: eugenics. The Storytelle­r: the Holocaust. Nineteen Minutes: a high-school shooting. Lone Wolf: assisted dying.

Her latest is Leaving Time. Its ending will likely not leave readers feeling particular­ly cheery.

Neverthele­ss, she is a bundle of allAmerica­n energy, ready to seize the day. She is to the point, no-nonsense. And with the kind of healthy glow that exudes from people who have sold more books this century than William Shakespear­e or Charles Dickens.

Yet despite this success — 23 novels in 22 years, eight of which have been No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list — she struggles to be taken seriously. “I write women’s fiction,” she says, an ‘apparently’ hanging in the air. “And women’s fiction doesn’t mean that’s your audience. Unfortunat­ely, it means you have lady parts.”

The 48-year-old author orders a pot of tea and says goodbye to her husband, who is accompanyi­ng her on this leg of her three-month book tour. Picoult does this every year with every new novel — she has a rock-star schedule matched only by her following, nicknamed the #jodiverse on Twitter.

Struggling writers might think this commercial success should negate any need for literary fanfare, but it sticks in her craw.

“If a woman had written One Day (by David Nicholls), it would have been airport fiction. Look at The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. If I had written that, it would have had a pink, fluffy cover on it. If Jenny Eugenides had written it, it would have had a pink fluffy cover on it. What is it about? It’s about a woman choosing between two men. What is The Correction­s about, by Jonathan Franzen? It’s about a family, right? And I’m attacking gun control and teen suicide and end-of-life care and the Holocaust, and I’m writing women’s fiction? I mean, I can’t tell you. When people call The Storytelle­r chick-lit, I actually break up laughing. Because that is the worst, most depressing chick-lit ever.”

Has she ever thought of writing under a pen name?

“I did once,” she says. “So let me tell you what happened: I wrote a book under a man’s name. It was years ago, my kids were really tiny. It was when The Bridges of Madison County (by Robert James Waller) had been published. Nicholas Sparks was becoming big (as a romantic novelist). Please don’t get me started on Nicholas Sparks,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I haven’t had enough caffeine yet.” But anyway.

“I was so angry about these men who had co-opted a genre that women had been slaving over for years. There are some really phenomenal romance writers who get no credit, who couldn’t even get a hardcover deal. And these men waltzed in and said, ‘Look what we can do. We can write about love. And we are so special.’ And that just made me crazy.” Her agent tried to sell her pseudonymo­us book, but was told it was too well written for the male romance genre.

“So there you go,” she says, angry, and yet ever-so-slightly pleased.

One of her most recent novels, Sing You Home, focused on gay rights. Her next will be about racism in the United States. She is no patriot patsy. She says she often despairs of her country.

She is a Democrat, no question. “There’s this image of America as the land of the free and the home of the brave, and there are so many wonderful things about it that we take for granted,” she says. “But on the other hand it is a country with a large, deep schism running through the middle of it, an ideologica­l schism, and it’s often a fault line that’s caused by religion.

“Whether it’s abortion or gun control or gay rights or the death penalty, where you fall on those issues tends to align with what your personal beliefs are in terms of religion,” Picoult says. “For a country that was founded on the separation of church and state, that sometimes is incredibly depressing.”

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