Welcome back to our ongoing-but-episodic series on the various species of censorship authors today face. While we’re going to be talking about formal, state-sponsored censorship later in this series, this month, I’ve asked a number of the most interesting authors I know to share their thoughts on ways in which writers are discouraged from writing what they want — and how they want.
Today, I am delighted to introduce the brilliantly incisive Mary Hutchings Reed, author of the startling COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN a Star’s “Hot Book of the Week.” Based on Mary’s personal knowledge of what goes on behind those beautifully venerred law firm doors, lawyer Kathleen Hannigan shrewdly plays the partnership game with her whole heart until she is called to testify in a sex discrimination suit and is forced to choose between her partners and her principles.
A prolific writer, Mary writes across a wide variety of categories, from novels to short stories (including one in the most recent issue of Ars Medica to, believe it or not, a well-received musical comedy about golf. But her first novel is why I blandished her into speaking to us today.
COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN is a book that flies in the face of prevailing notions of what goes on in law firms — including those behind-the-scenes thrillers written by authors who, like Mary, have spent years in the trenches. Unlike some of those glossier works, this reads like the real thing because it is.
Why might that have proven problematic for the book at the marketing stage? Well, remember our chat a few weeks ago about book categories, those conceptual containers into which a manuscript must fit in order to be marketable to a major US publisher? While the industry is always looking for fresh book concepts, as well as new spins on well-worn stories, it’s sometimes difficult to convince agents and editors that an audience exists for a kind of book that doesn’t fit comfortably into any of those boxes.
Why, you ask? By definition, the only way to demonstrate positively that there are readers already eager to buy a story would be the successful recent publication of a similar story, right? So how one prove that readers would want to buy a particular kind of book, but have not yet hat the chance.
COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN was not the kind of book agents and editors tend to expect people with Mary’s staggeringly impressive credentials to write — and this made it a rather problematic to market as well. But I’ll let Mary tell you all about that. (If after you read today’s post, you want to learn more about CKH’s very interesting road to publication, please see my interview series on the subject beginning here.)
I shall only add this: women writers (especially good literary ones like Mary) often get pigeonholed, as any agented mainstream or literary fiction writer who has been stunned to find her work summarily recategorized as women’s fiction can attest. If a writer is female and so is the author, yet the novel is not genre fiction, that category assignment tends to be automatic.
And that can be limiting, because within women’s fiction, a protagonist is expected first and foremost to be likable. Of course, depending upon genre, all protagonists are subject to the criticism of not being likable Which makes some sense, since the reader is going to need to feel positively enough about the protagonist in order to want to follow him or her as the plot unfolds, right? Yet as those of you who have been pitching, querying, or submitting a novel or memoir centered on a strong female protagonist may already know from personal experience, highly educated female characters — like, say, lawyers — or ones engaged in professions where aggressiveness is a positive trait — like, say, lawyers — are often, if not dismissed out of hand as not particularly likable, are at least under suspicion of soon becoming so. That can be very limiting for a writer trying to produce a convincing protagonist acting within a realistic present-day work situation.
I just mention.
Please join me in a big round of applause for today’s guest blogger, Mary Hutchings Reed. Take it away, Mary!
My first novel, Courting Kathleen Hannigan, was a disappointment to literary agents. I was a lawyer. I was female. I was from Chicago. Unread, they’d anointed me the next Scottie Turow or at least Scottoline.
But I let them down. I’d written a novel about the life of a woman lawyer in a powerful law firm—the life of any person, actually, who has to overcome the handicap of being different in order to succeed — I’d not written the novel they were looking for, a legal thriller by woman lawyer.
Adding insult to injury, more than one said how well-written CKH was, but lamented that it had a very limited audience. When I had the chance to speak with agents at literary conferences, I heard comments like, “Who wants to read about a woman lawyer in a law firm?”
My first defense of course was that there were more than 300,000 women lawyers in this country, and another couple hundred thousand paralegals, and they all had mothers and friends (check Facebook) and secretaries and husbands and brothers and fathers who might want to know what their little girl’s life was life, especially in the early years of women in law. (I also knew, from readers of the novel in manuscript form, to know that much of what was true in the seventies and eighties continues to plague women in the profession today, although perhaps in more insidious, less visible ways.)
My second response, of course, was just that Kathleen Hannigan happens to a strong and interesting woman character attempting to exercise some power over her own destiny—certainly a universal-enough theme. (It hadn’t occurred to me, until Anne asked to guest here, that “powerful woman character” was itself a no-no, but it may be.)
“Yes, but it’s not a thriller.”
One could draw several different conclusions from my first encounter with the gatekeepers. You could conclude that publishers and literary agents aren’t interested in strong female characters or women characters wielding power. You could conclude that lawyers should stick to lawyering, with the exception of Turow, Grisham, Scottoline and other former prosecutors (or criminal defense lawyers) who can translate their blood-and-guts experiences into suspenseful (and commercially viable) plots.
You could conclude, quite rightly that practicing law at that powerful law firm is a helluva lot more lucrative than writing novels.
On the other hand, you could conclude that if a novel is that limited in its appeal, it ought to be self-published, since the audience—only half a million, off the top!—is also easily targeted. You could also conclude that if you a writer, you write; you write about the things that interest you and worry later about the commercial viability of your work product.
Luckily for me, I drew these last two conclusions, publishing Courting Kathleen Hannigan in the fall of 2007, and going on to write six more novels, two of which are now placed with an agent, April Eberhardt of Reece Halsey North.
(OK, these new novels are not about lawyers, but they are about strong women characters — a street musician and a mother dealing with her daughter’s sex-change operation in a small town. My agent was intrigued with these stories, even though I warned her they were doomed to failure: How many street musicians are there? Surely, not even half a million. And small towns? Lots, of course, but people don’t read books there, do they? And they certainly don’t buy books–they go to the library!)
Self-publishing Courting Kathleen Hannigan was a wonderful experience—I get new sales every day and “fan” mail from women of my generation (Yale Law ’76) thanking me for telling their story, for validating their experiences, for writing the social history of women in law so that today’s young women might understand how hard fought were their maternity leaves and diversity committees and mentoring programs.
I also get letters from audiences I hadn’t considered: a thirtyish insurance broker who serves the legal industry, a sixty-year old gay partner at a big firm who identifies with the story because, he, too, felt he was living a “double life” in the seventies, trying to be himself and to be the person the law firm assumed him to be.
So, I’ve learned that I was right about the audience for the book, and I was wrong to give heed to the “censors.” Nurses, secretaries, boyfriends, fathers, women in corporations—all have found Kathleen Hannigan to be a character they could relate to, admire, cry with, root for. If I’ve made a mistake in marketing Courting Kathleen Hannigan, it was in listening to the literary agents/censors who dubbed the book “for women lawyers only.” (Most of the reviews on Amazon, for instance, are from attorneys.)
In marketing the book, I concentrated there; I have not reached out broadly to corporate women generally, and only recently sent out a mailing to book clubs, joined Facebook, etc. (Visit my website for the book club questions/fact sheet.)
The nice thing about self-publishing: nothing stops me from doing now what I maybe should’ve done before — having now glimpsed how my thinking about my own book was warped by other people’s characterizations of it, I can do something about it. I can reach out to non-lawyer readers and assure them that if they are looking for a book about a powerful woman character (and given that you read Anne Mini’s blog, you probably like such characters), they should rush off to Amazon and buy now — either paperback or Kindle!
The point is, I suppose, that when you are aware of censorship, you can respond to it. The more insidious is the censorship that seeps in to our consciousness, as with my marketing of my first novel.
As writers, we need to be on-guard against the censorship of the marketplace, the censorship that could prevent our strong women characters from making it to the page in the first place. It would’ve been easy to conclude that the only book the publishing world wanted from me was a legal thriller, and I suppose I could have learned enough and borrowed enough from the genre to have turned one out.
But that’s not who I am as a writer; crime stories, like criminal law, don’t interest me, except on TV when I’m too worn out to pay attention to anything else. Strong women, women who take charge of their lives, women who seek power and women who wield power—they do intrigue me, and I enjoy meeting them, both real and imagined.
So, in order to write my second novel, and the third, and each one up to the seventh, which is in progress as we blog, I’ve had to forget the market, forget that I’m a lawyer, ignore those expectations for what a woman lawyer from Chicago will write about, and write.
Ever since turning 40 a few years ago, Mary Hutchings Reed Mary has been trying to become harder to introduce, and, at 57, she finds she’s been succeeding. Her conventional resume includes both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Brown University (both completed within the same four years, and she still graduated Phi Beta Kappa), a law degree from Yale, and thirty-one years of practicing law, first with Sidley & Austin and then with Winston & Strawn, two of the largest firms in Chicago. She was a partner at both in the advertising, trademark, copyright, entertainment and sports law areas, and now is Of Counsel to Winston, which gives her time to write, do community service and pursue hobbies such as golf, sailing, tennis, and bridge.
For many years, she has served on the boards of various nonprofit organizations, including American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Off the Street Club and the Chicago Bar Foundation. She currently serves on the board of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (and chair of its fundraising committee); Steel Beam Theatre, and her longest-standing service involvement, Lawyers for the Creative Arts.