When I was in the sixth grade, one of the girls in our class, Rachel, brought in a copy of Judy Blume’s Forever and passed it around to the rest of us. Forever contains a scene where a girl loses her virginity. That’s pretty much the controversial bit of it. Rachel of course got caught and harshly punished – too harshly in my opinion, because, as far as I was concerned, the book was laughably tame compared to my reading history.
When I talk with friends or other writers or readers about the books they read in their childhood, what I usually hear are the classics: Roald Dahl, Anne of Green Gables, Beverly Cleary, The Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time. While I did read a few Beverly Cleary books, I rarely read any of the other classics.
My sister is nine years older than me. The two of us have always been avid readers. Her taste in books has shifted, but for a long time, if you asked her what her favourite book was, she’d say A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford. She also read a lot of Maeve Binchy and Danielle Steel. Her bookshelf was never forbidden to me. I could read what I wanted, even at nine years old, so – Danielle Steel it was. I tore through every book on her shelf. Maybe it was because I felt like I was doing something forbidden, like the books were my secret and I had to read as fast as I could before I was caught. But, to give the writers credit, they knew how to hook a reader and keep the story moving. And, without realising it, I can say it’s something that has influenced my own writing, how to keep a reader intrigued, or just interested enough, coaxing her one bit at a time, to keep reading.
My book, A Place Remote, is not a romance novel. It’s a short story collection. And while the first story in the collection, “Winnie,” could be classified as a love/lust story, women’s sexuality is not the focus of the collection. When I think about why, I realise my interests shifted in college from stories about women’s sexuality to the struggles of women writers themselves. How so many had to write under male pen names to get their stories out. George Eliot, Isak Dinesen, George Sand, E. Annie Proulx, who started writing as E.A. Proulx.
For a long time, I considered sending out my stories under an androgynous pen name – I even created a fake e mail account, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger. Because I knew. The stories would be accepted, I’d be treated with more respect, and it bothered me. I was going to publish as a woman, however long it took. Here’s an article written by a woman about the differences querying agents as a woman vs a man. Check out another woman’s experience, this time submitting poetry as a man vs a woman (be sure to read the entire thread). Even in poetry, it seems, women’s sex sells.
Whether we’re writing about women’s sexuality or not, whether our books are secrets, either because of the subject matter or our hidden identities as writers, all of us, every single woman writer who publishes a book must embrace the boldness of the act. Because we have all been told, at some point or other, to stay in our lanes. Or even, to quit writing. To go gentle into that good night.
Even when we do stay in our lanes, our work is pigeonholed, dismissed, made to be a secret. And the lanes? The lanes are narrow and restrictive. What are men’s lanes? All of them. And women’s? Motherhood, domesticity, women’s sexuality, women’s work. To that I say no. Claim your space, women. Never let our books or our identities be hidden. Show yourselves. Be proud of your work. Be bold with your words.
About the author of this post
Gwen Goodkin writes fiction, non-fiction, screenplays, teleplays and stage plays. Her short story collection, “A Place Remote,” will be published by West Virginia University Press in 2020. Her essay collection “Mass for the Shut Ins” was named a finalist for Eyewear Publishing’s Beverly Prize. She has won the Folio Editor’s Prize for Fiction as well as the John Steinbeck Award for Fiction. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Gwen’s novel, “The Plant,” was named a finalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom Novel-in-Progress competition. Her TV pilot script, “The Plant,” based on her own novel-in-progress was named a quarterfinalist for Cinestory’s TV/Digital retreat. She won the Silver Prize (Short Script) for her screenplay “Winnie” in the Beverly Hills Screenplay Contest. She has a B.A. from Ohio Wesleyan University, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and has also studied at the Universität Heidelberg. Gwen was born and raised in Ohio and now lives in Encinitas, California with her husband and daughters.