Stung by gender bias, author Tawni O'Dell stings back


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Tawni O'Dell grew up in Indiana, Pa., After graduation from Northwestern University, she became a newspaper journalist, then a novelist. Her first book, "Back Roads," published in 2000, became an Oprah Winfrey Book Club choice. She's published three subsequent novels "Coal Run," Sister Mine" and "Fragile Beasts," and lives in State College with her husband and two children.

I'm a novelist and I'm a woman and I'm considered to be a serious author whether I like it or not. I write literary, not commercial fiction, or so I've been told by my publishers who are proud I write literary fiction but secretly wish I wrote commercial. I've been well-reviewed throughout my career, even by The New York Times. (Granted, it was a decade ago, but my agent says it still counts.) I've been compared to such writing luminaries as John Steinbeck, Clifford Odets, J.D. Salinger, and Emile Zola. To my knowledge I've never been compared to a female writer. Probably because none of the reviewers could come up with one he took seriously.

Along with these credentials, I also briefly belonged to the world of bestsellerdom that Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner inhabit after I was visited by Oprah's magic touch, the same one Jonathan Franzen so famously rejected because he didn't want to be lumped in with all those "nonserious" Oprah authors.

The publication of Mr. Franzen's latest novel, "Freedom," and the extensive attention it has received by reviewers and the literary community has reopened the debate over whether male authors are taken more seriously than female ones. It's an old argument, one that's been going on ever since women were finally allowed by men to publish books and eventually even to do it without being forced to use male pen names.

Jodi and Jen are the latest female authors to pick up the gauntlet and defend our gender, and they've done it intelligently and honestly. I feel no need to enter the fray since I see it not so much as a topic for discussion as it is a rehashing of facts that reflect society in general as much as they do literature or any art form. Are male authors better reviewed, given more awards and taken more seriously than female writers? Yes. When I was a kid and my dad decided to grill a few burgers on the weekend was the act greeted with lavish praise and awe while the meals my mom put on the table every day were never met with any fanfare? Yes.

My experience growing up in a rough and tumble town in the blue-collar world of Western Pennsylvania in the 1970s was that anything a man did was always more important than anything a woman did. I never consciously questioned the injustice of this at the time, choosing instead to adopt the code: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. I was an avid tomboy, and as long as I could ride my bike just as fast, hit the ball just as hard, and catch just as many garter snakes, I was accepted as one of the boys and enjoyed all the perks of superiority.

It wasn't until many years later, after I had traded in my Pirates ball cap and my pocket knife for mascara and motherhood, that I would feel the sting of gender bias in an area of my life where I least expected it: the publication of my first novel.

"Back Roads" was set in the coal-mining area where I grew up and was a dark, gritty portrayal of a family in crisis told entirely in the male first-person voice of 19-year-old Harley Altmyer. My publishing house was over the moon about the book, proclaiming me brilliant and tossing around phrases like "formidable talent" and "pitch-perfect prose." The book was so good, as a matter of fact, that they thought it would be best to conceal the fact that it had been written by a woman.

I was informed over the phone one morning that Tawni was a "biker chick name" and no one would take the novel seriously if we used it.

I was stunned, not only because I had naively thought art was one area where sexism didn't exist but because standing in my coffee-stained bathrobe in my suburban Chicago kitchen handing out juice boxes to my kids, I could hardly imagine anyone mistaking me for a biker chick.

My editor went on to inform me that they had decided to publish the book using my initials. That way they wouldn't actually be lying and claiming I was a man but since the book was written in the male first person, everyone would assume it had been written by a man. Pretty sneaky.

There was only one problem with their reasoning: The book hadn't been written by a man. Not to mention one of the things everyone found so amazing about my novel was that it was so convincingly written from a male perspective by a woman. Wouldn't that be ruined if we pretended I was a man?

I was heartsick for the next few days as I numbly passed the time waiting to hear from my female agent who was negotiating valiantly with my female editor for my right to remain a female writer. Little did we know that my gender problem was about to be solved but in a way that would be equally offensive to me as both a writer and a woman.

All publishers ask new authors to fill out a biographical information form. In the section that asked about writing workshops, MFA's, literary awards, fellowships and previous publications, I had nothing to put down. My credentials consisted of being a voracious reader all my life and obsessively writing since I was a kid. When I put that on the form, there was a lot of blank space left to mock me so I decided to fill it with tidbits about my life experience that might make me seem like an interesting person since I couldn't make myself seem like a serious writer.

During my sophomore year at Northwestern University, I worked for a semester for a company that provided live party entertainment -- everything from superheroes and clowns to belly dancers and guys in gorilla suits -- and one of my jobs had been to jump out of cakes at stag parties. I innocently mentioned this fact buried among many other facts. Big mistake.

Unbeknownst to me, in one fell swoop of the marketing axe, T.L. O'Dell ceased to exist. Overnight I went from being a male literary genius to being an ex-stripper with a thesaurus.

I was devastated again. And really confused. And starting to get angry. Then just when I thought I couldn't possibly be further degraded and misrepresented as an artist, along came Entertainment Weekly.

Don't get me wrong; they loved my book. They loved it so much that merely reviewing it wasn't good enough. They wanted to do an interview, too, complete with photos. They even insisted on sending their own photographer.

Their request coincided with the end of my book tour, which happened to be in Pittsburgh. My publisher had planned it this way so I could also do a signing in my nearby hometown. I assumed EW would wait and do the shoot once I got back to Chicago. It seemed to me to be a more hospitable environment for an L.A.-based celebrity photographer than the wilds of Western PA, but they thought otherwise.

I was busily signing books at a table set up in the middle of the mall when I happened to look up and saw an anxious, overcaffeinated little troupe of petite Ray-Banned androgyny and ethnic ambiguity all dressed entirely in black and all clutching cups of Dunkin' Donuts coffee coming toward me. (We didn't have a Starbucks.) As they did so the wide-eyed, whispering herd of extra-large Steelers sweatshirts and camouflage hunting jackets milling around me split decisively in two to let them pass. The parting of the Red Sea couldn't have been any more dramatic.

They turned out to be my photographer, Nathan (pronounced the French way, Nat-on,) his assistant, his other assistant, a makeup artist and a stylist.

One of the assistants informed me that Nathan would like to shoot me outside in some authentic Pennsylvania woods because his favorite scenes in my book had taken place in the woods and he envisioned me there. I told the assistant to tell Nathan, who was standing right beside us but apparently didn't like to participate in his own conversations, that it was January and it was snowing. The assistant then told me not to worry, they would keep Nathan warm.

They then loaded me into their van like I was a kidnapping victim and off we drove in search of some authentic Pennsylvania woods. We didn't have to go far. We found some behind the mall. A bunch of my family and friends that had been in attendance at the signing also came along. Nothing in the world was going to keep them from seeing this.

Nathan was thrilled with the woods. He found his voice and began barking orders in an accent I was never able to place. It was sort of a cross between Desi Arnaz and Kazu, the meddlesome martian on the Flintstone's.

I stood by blowing on my hands and stomping my feet to keep warm when suddenly he turned to me, eyed me up and down, and proclaimed, "We need to tease her hair. I want glitter. Lots of glitter, and the clothes will have to go."

"You want me to be naked?" I spluttered.

"Do we have some fabric?" he went on, ignoring my question and my obvious distress. "I see swaths of tulle billowing out behind her and hanging in the tree branches like a morning mist."

"You want me to be naked?" I repeated.

Before I could do or say anything else, I was ushered back into the van where I was stripped down to my underwear and sprayed in glitter.

When I re-emerged, my chattering entourage became deathly silent. Jaws dropped open and I heard a few gasps as I crunched barefoot through the snow, wrapped in yards of sparkling gauze, with my butt hanging out, and wondering to myself, Did John Irving ever have to do this?

Nathan positioned me and began snapping away with his camera.

"You're a wood nymph!" he cried. "Yes, you're a wood nymph! You're an ethereal spirit. You're an incarnation of the sky. You're real yet you're not real at all."

I don't know how long we were out there. Eventually Nathan wrapped it up when my lips turned an unphotogenic shade of blue.

I came down with a bad chest cold afterward. It took me three days to get warm again. But worst of all, I never even got to see the pictures.

Before the article ran, I got the call from Oprah. After she announced on her show that "Back Roads" was her latest book club pick, EW apparently lost all interest in my ethereal spirit and axed the piece.

Oprah changed my life and the path of my career, and I am forever in her debt. Without her, there was very little chance "Back Roads" would have made the bestseller list no matter how much praise it received from the NYT or if I had agreed to jump out of cakes at my book signings.

I enjoyed my wild ride as a bestselling author. Since then, I've returned to being a serious author. I have the great reviews and the not so great sales figures to prove it.

Would I trade one of those rave reviews for one more best-seller? Sure. Would I trade all of them? Hmm.

Writers are people, too. Like everyone else, we want to be loved and respected. We want to be one of the popular kids, but we want to be the valedictorian, too. It's a tough combination to achieve for a man or a woman.

The novelist's motivation has a lot to do with whether or not he or she will ever be satisfied with what they've accomplished. Some write to make money. Some write for attention. Some write because they're so impressed with their own thoughts they feel they owe it to the world to put them down on paper.

Most novelists write because they have a story to tell and it's that story and the way it touches and impacts the individual reader that determines, in the end, if a writer should be taken seriously or not. It's a decision made in the privacy of the reader's own heart and mind, and it has nothing to do with sales figures or reviews.

Who creates compelling, believable characters you can't stop thinking about? Who tells a story that haunts you even after you put the book down? Who do you quote to your friends? Who teaches you something new about life by pointing out things you already know?

Is it the mega-bestselling titan of women's fiction or the oft-reviewed, literary genius with a Pulitzer and a pedigree?

My money's on the wood nymph.

Tawni O'Dell:


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