Danielle Steel recently set off a furor by posting a comment to her personal blog -- she complained that men often paint female fiction writers as unserious and frivolous -- and was particularly irked by some male comments that seemed to belittle her work. As one of the most successful writers in the world today, Danielle's ire over the put-down resonated with many people. Her website reportedly crashed from an overload of responses.
This is no surprise to me. The topic is relevant and interesting. Are female fiction writers belittled? Are their works dismissed as mere "chick lit"? Often, yes. Recent interviews with bestselling authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner reflect the same complaint -- that industry reviewers dismiss "lady authors" as unserious. Both writers argued that female novelists are not taken as seriously as male writers of mass-market fiction.
I have a personal insight to the entire debate. Three years ago I underwent a major career shift from being a senior broadcast correspondent and anchor at CNN -- covering everything from terrorism to the economy -- to writing a series of international mystery-thrillers. During the first year of my transition I was often met with gasps of astonishment and bewildered stares -- why would any serious journalist trivialize their existence by writing fiction? My response has always been the same. Through fiction, large social issues can be addressed, and reach an equal if not broader readership than a hard news article.
I have long been a reader of Danielle Steel books. Her novels are charming escapes from the stresses of the day, often involve international locations, and include highly-motivated female characters who seize the moment and determine their own path. In a wholesome way, Danielle creates role models, and tackles important issues faced by many women: family, parenting, relationships, aging, sickness, ambition, job stress and personal fulfillment. Those who criticize her novels as "fluff" should turn their ire to prurient Fifty Shades mega-sellers of recent years, which considerably degrade the status of women.
Many of the themes in commercial novels are the same as those that are praised in literary fiction. Last week I had the privilege of moderating on a panel at the Martha's Vineyard Book Festival with three outstanding female authors, all with strong voices -- J. Courtney Sullivan (Engagements), Maggie Shipstead (Seating Arrangements), and Indira Ganesan (As Sweet as Honey). While the topic of the panel was "Love and Marriage in Fiction" -- the discussion revolved around social issues: the evolution of marriage, and cultural mores in the institution of matrimony. Indira Ganesan writes from the perspective of a young Indian woman. Maggie Shipstead's main character is a 60-year-old male -- looking at marriage from the viewpoint of the family patriarch. J. Courtney Sullivan questions the commercialization of the institution by Madison Avenue.
Women are the major consumers of fiction in this day and age. In my book-tour discussions with readers I have listened to many heart-felt entreaties to keep telling positive, role-reinforcing narratives. I applaud Danielle Steel for setting the tone of this genre, and holding her standards high.
Kitty Pilgrim is a former CNN correspondent and award-winning journalist who recently launched a series of mass market international thrillers. Her latest book is The Stolen Chalice.