On the Double Standard in Writing

On the Double Standard in Writing

May 22, 2021

If you follow me on Twitter (or happen to know me in real life), you already know that along with my blogging ventures, I'm a fiction writer. I dabble in poetry and short stories, and I've recently completed my first novel. 

As with most writers, I'm also an avid reader. I try to read at least 2-3 books a month, which is actually less than it used to be. Occasionally, I'll pick up a non-fiction book, but for the most part, I tend to read fiction. I absolutely adore domestic and psychological thrillers and if it's a book-club pick, chances are I'm all over it, but if it's well-written, I'll read any genre. 

I also tend to gravitate more towards female writers, and that got me thinking about a particular female author that I love and the double standard that exists in the world of writing. 

The Author: 

The woman in question is Stephanie Danler , author of the phenomenal novel Sweetbitter. The book, released in 2016, was her debut. Nothing too spectacular about that, right? Wrong. 

Ms. Danler, a waitress at the time, secured herself a six-figure book deal based on said debut. The deal was for two books, but still, that kind of money for a first-time author is relatively unheard of. As you can imagine, this caused quite the stir in the literary world. (You can read more about that in this 2016 article.) 

Now, you might be thinking that the reason it caused such a stir was because of the book itself. After all, it landed a completely unknown writer six-fucking-figures. Your first thought (or at least, mine) would be, "This must be an immensely wonderful book." 

It would be understandable, then, for people to be losing their shit  thinking about what a talent this newcomer must be. And if that were the case, that would be the end of the story (and, thus, there'd be no need for this type of thought-based post.) 

Alas, that's not what happened. 

You see, what I forgot to mention (really, what I shouldn't even need to mention) is that Stephanie Danler just so happens to be gorgeous. Blonde and thin with perfectly symmetrical facial features, she's the epitome of the American girl-next-door. (I'd put in a photo here, but since I don't have permission, I'll just tell you to google her for yourself.) 

I'm sure, then, that you can guess what happened next. People started to wonder whether or not her good looks had anything to do with her landing the book-deal. They wondered if it was deserved or not. Was the book actually any good or was the author just hot? 

I heard the buzz about the book and, of course, wanted to read it for myself. However, I hadn't heard about the controversy surrounding the book deal. I knew nothing about the author, her rags-to-riches story, or the gossip plaguing her work. The first time I saw a photo, it was on the book-jacket.

As a huge reader, I'm constantly looking at and taking notice of bestseller lists and articles about highly anticipated debuts (I really have a tender spot for debuts.) So, one day while I was at my local library, I saw the book and recognized the title from various book lists, and swiftly scooped it up. 

The Book: 

Sweetbitter is a coming-of-age story about a young woman who moves to New York City in search of a more exciting life than the small-town one she left behind. Genre wise, I would classify it as upmarket fiction - it's a perfect mix of literary and commercial writing.

Personally, I LOVED this book. I devoured it, I absolutely couldn't get enough. Writers who can really write - you know, the ones who can churn out eloquent pieces of prose regardless of the subject matter, whose stories don't depend on plot, whose words you want to bathe yourself in - those are my favorite kind of writers. And I would say Ms. Danler fits into that classification quite nicely. 

Five years later, I can scarcely recall the actual details or events of the novel, but what I do remember is how I felt when reading it: fully engaged, lost in a different world, and simultaneously eager to finish the book and hesitant for it to end. 

After reading it, I went ahead and googled it (as I always do) to read the reviews. (I'm one of those people who prefers to read movie and book reviews after I've already read or watched the material rather than before). It was at that point that I read about the controversy. Like I said, the first time I saw a photo of her, it was on the jacket cover of the book. And, yes, she's a very pretty woman, but not once while reading the book did I stop and think, "She only got this published because of how pretty is." 

The controversy surprised me at first, and then, it just made me sad. 

It was sad to me to think that this woman, who'd apparently spent seven-years crafting this debut novel, who'd worked as a waitress while trying to pursue publishing (no easy feat, by the way), and whose finished product was genuinely one of the better books I'd ever read, was being reduced to a stereotype. A beautiful woman, toiling away in a working-class job, pitches her book to a regular customer who happens to be a big-time editor and secures a huge deal. 

It is an amazing story, I'll admit - it's the kind of "big-break" story that seems so unlikely that it must've been written in the stars. But, still, it made me sad that her story didn't stop there, that it wasn't just an inspirational anecdote, that instead, it was viewed with suspicion.

And then it made me mad. I wondered who the hell these "critics" were. Did these misogynistic assholes write beautiful novels, or did they just write bullshit think-pieces about the subjective appearance of various authors? 

What about all the other female authors whose work wasn't subject to this type of scrutiny? I can think of a great number of other women who've written immensely popular debuts and who are also good looking but who, for whatever reason, weren't picked apart in this way. Were they not deemed good looking enough for their work to be questioned? 

So, was it just because Stephanie Danler was a beautiful woman? Or was it because she was a waitress? Was the fact that hers was a modern Cinderella story a motive for publishing critics to try and discredit her?

In the end, I don't have the answers. I don't know why it was that this particular female author was criticized so heavily.

What I do know, is that Sweetbitter was (and still is) a fantastic debut novel. The fact that it was questioned so heavily, then, just goes to show that there's a big double standard when it comes to writing and publishing. (I don't think I've ever heard of a male author whose merit was thrown into question based on his handsomeness.) 

-Dating B. 

(Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts on this issue!)

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