Who gets to be called a Writer?

The contemporary writing out of Danielle Steel

Danielle Steel books for sale! image via Etsy here.

Danielle Steel is one of the world’s greatest bestsellers. She has sold a combined 800 million copies of her 174 books. That’s a number far beyond the definition of prolific: it’s so many books, that just thinking about writing all of them made me nauseous even before I realized that she types them all on a typewriter.

Every single one of Steel’s novels are still in print. She is literally the most bestselling author alive. Buckle up, because this next fact is WILD. She is the fourth bestselling fiction writer of all time. Who is beating her? You ask. Oh just some nobodies: William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, and Barbara Cartland.

I started thinking about Danielle Steel last week while I was doing my data harvesting for the first subscriber issue. I pulled all the data for the Publisher’s Weekly Top 10 novels of the year and the New York Times’ #1 bestseller since the beginning of their recorded history, and then figured out what the gender balance of them was. I’d show you the charts, but their only for my honies* (*subscribers*).

Anyway, okay onward!

So here is a one bonus observation from that data collection:

Danielle Steel’s romance novels have been so popular that she has topped the New York Times Bestseller List THIRTY-TWO times. The only writer even in her league is Stephen King with 38. (We will ignore James “team of co-writers” Patterson because I don’t want to talk about him right now). There are one million possible tangents from this: Why romance is an ignored genre(*coughs* because it is written and read by women), for example . But what is most staggering and jarring to me is that such a popular female novelist could exist, DOES exist, without the narrative of dominance that so many of her male colleagues enjoy.

I am woefully under-read in romance (taking recommendations!). I knew Steel’s name because her books were on every shelf in every house in the exurb I grew up in. But when I think about bestselling writers, I don’t think about Danielle Steel. I think about this (rather small) venn diagram of writers who are both critically acclaimed and massively popular: Writers like Stephen King.

That’s because we don’t treat women writers like they are writers. Despite the fact that Hemingway was literally an old cat lady and Fitzgerald’s wife edited all of his work, we don’t give women the same respect. Women writers, we’re told, probably don’t drink whiskey and have depression, and that of course is what writers have. Women writers don’t get to be writers, they only get to have written.

If you want to read something truly infuriating, try on this 1992 article in The New York Times, which dismisses Steele’s work entirely as simply the mark of good marketing and somehow also says that it sells itself just because it’s commercial fiction.

When you search for interviews with Danielle Steel, you get some, but none from the literary media. Stephen King has an The Art of Fiction interview in The Paris Review. Why doesn’t Danielle Steel? Why doesn’t J.K. Rowling?

There’s obviously a lot here, and my brain is a little frantic today, but it is frankly embarrassing that Danielle Steel hasn’t gotten to do The Art of Fiction. In case anyone doesn’t know, The Art of Fiction is The Paris Review’s seminal interview format. (They also have The Art of Biography, Poetry, and Non-fiction.) The Art of Fiction, in a way, christens a writer as something more special than a content creator; it makes them an artist. It asks them about their process, about their childhood, about how their mind works. There is a very valid question on whether treating writing this way is useful and important, but again, we are going to ignore this because I don’t want to talk about it today.

What I’m wrestling with, what I guess this whole newsletter is about, is that it isn’t the act of writing that makes someone “a Writer.” To be a Writer is to be baptized as one, to be dunked into a bath of praise by someone and raised up afterward a new person, more worthy than everyone else.

Okay, that’s enough of this. On FRIDAY for *SUBSCRIBERS ONLY*, we are going to be talking about some ladies in history who not only wrote some excellent books but also had the best group name I have ever heard: THE FAIR TRIUMVIRATE OF WIT.

Want something else to read? I recommend: A.N. Devers’ profile of Sally Rooney in Elle Magazine