A long time ago, somebody told me that if you write regularly, you can call yourself a writer when people ask what you do. However, I always felt vaguely dishonest about that. A writer, I thought, meant you were Published, for money.
Once I sold my debut novel, it seemed like I should be able to call myself a novelist. But there’s something, I don’t know, immodest-seeming about the word. Saying I was a novelist felt pretentious. Like making everybody call you doctor, when you’re not a medical doctor (though I can’t say so for sure how I’d feel if I actually got a PhD). Who was I to go around calling myself a novelist? The title seemed to belong to the most upper echelons of award winning writers. You know, the ones who never have writer’s block. The ones who have the secret whistle for their Muses on a silver chain around their necks. The ones who have figured it all out. Not me. I never have it figured out.
Who do I think I am, calling myself a novelist?
Then I happened to be on Pandora and listening to a band I like. I read their bio. It said that the lead singer was a former novelist. Hmm. I guessed I’d like his work, so I tried to look up his novel. Turns out, he’d published a short story and had a novel in progress when his band took off. As far as I could tell, he’d never finished writing it.
If he can call himself a novelist, I thought, why shouldn’t I?
This came up in conversation with some other female writing friends, and most of them don’t like to use the word novelist, either. But why? Is this just a woman thing? Are we afraid that somebody will think we’re not modest, or be jealous? That they won’t like us? That we’ll threaten them? Men just don’t seem to have this problem for the most part. They tell people stuff and if that person doesn’t like it, they move on with their lives.
Besides, isn’t novelist merely a descriptive, specific term for what I do? If I say I’m a writer, people always ask what I write anyway. This would save a step. Journalists call themselves journalists. Technical writers call themselves technical writers. Playwrights call themselves playwrights.
I decided to try out my new occupational description on my new doctor, writing “novelist” under the “Job” category in my health history. I guess they ask your occupation, in case you’re a coal miner or work with other hazardous materials. She was an endocrinologist (another person, I thought, who wouldn’t describe herself generically. She’d say endocrinologist).
“What do you write?” she asked.
“Women’s fiction novels.” Or was I supposed to say, “upmarket women’s fiction?” Once I told somebody that I write women’s fiction, and he waggled his brows and said, “Women’s fiction, eh? Like Fifty Shades?” I waited in fear.
“Oh. How nice.” The endocrinologist sounded condescending.* Anyone can call themselves a novelist, I could hear her thinking. How cute of you, a housewife saying she’s a novelist because she Xeroxed ten copies of her work and gave them to people for Christmas. “Anything I would have heard of?”
I told her the titles.
“Haven’t heard of them. Would they be in Barnes and Noble?”
I nodded. “They’re published by Putnam Books.”
“You say that like it’s supposed to mean something to me.” Her voice went hard. “Is it? Why are you telling me that? Is it supposed to be important?”
Was I bragging? Who do I think I am, calling myself a novelist?
Five minutes into the appointment and she was pissed off. I figured she was some kind of frustrated writer and I shrugged. “It is kind of important. That’s how they’re in bookstores.”
It reminds me of an incident from a long time ago. I’d sold a nonfiction book called Bluetooth for Dummies. I arranged with the company I worked for as an administrative assistant to interview their engineers in return for putting their name on the book. I also had to put together a nonfiction proposal, an outline, and write a couple of sample chapters (the book ultimately got canceled because a different Bluetooth book had low sales—this was back in 2001).
One female engineer came up to me after the news got around. “Why do you get to write this book? You’re just in admin.”
I’ve noticed a lot of questions along those lines from people who want to be writers, have been trying to be writers, or are thinking they could be writers in the extra five minutes they have everyday. The meta-meaning is, Why were you chosen, and not me?
Who do you think you are?
It was like I personally attacked her by having modest success.
I find this kind of sentiment happening a lot on social media. Somebody says their kid’s on honor roll on Facebook, and somebody else says that post hurts their feelings because their kid wasn’t on honor roll. A woman says, “Breastfeeding’s good for your baby,” and those who aren’t breastfeeding accuse the first of being a La Leche League proselytizer.
People, oddly enough, usually are not attacking other people. They’re just living their lives. They are not thinking about you.
I told that engineer, “I thought of the idea, I got an agent, I did the proposal, and now I’m doing the work.”
As for the word novelist, with all its weight and connotations, I decided that I no longer cared if people thought I was being pretentious if I say I’m a novelist. I am for-reals serious about my writing. I am a novelist. It’s a fact. I’m sure that if I say the sky is blue today, somebody living with rain will be hurt that I’m bragging about it.
Somebody’s always going to be annoyed with you. Danielle Steel wrote about men who are annoyed with her success as a novelist and need to put her down for it (in her case it seems to be just men, but obviously I’ve experienced it both ways). And if it happens to Danielle Steel, it’s certainly going to happen to people all the way down the ladder.
I decided not to apologize for what I am. If it’s your calling to write novels, call yourself what you are, published or not. I’m a novelist. Deal with it. No more feeling afraid of somebody telling me, who do you think you are? No more novelist apologetics.
Recently, I tested my novelist moniker out again when Cadillac took me to one of his work events, and I met a colleague of his. The colleague asked what I did. I said I was a novelist, and he asked what the titles were. I told him. “That’s an amazing accomplishment,” he said. “That’s really hard to do. Do you know how many people try to do that and can’t? Wow.” Now that’s the kind of reaction I want. A little respect. I kind of wanted to yell, “That’s right!” but instead I said thanks. And then we talked about something else.
*I never went back to that doctor again, by the way, because she also read my blood sugar tests wrong. (The funny thing is, she was one of two endocrinologists I had to choose from; the doc who did the referral said he’d gotten bad reports about the other one for being kind of brusque.)