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The Golden Handcuffs of Bestsellerdom

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Although the ostensible topic of the first Brooklyn Book Festival panel we sat in on yesterday was real-life people showing up in fictional narratives, we were interested in the turn the conversation took when somebody suggested, in reference to Amy Sohn‘s new novel, Prospect Park West, that when male authors populate their fiction with real people, reviewers say they’re tapping into the zeitgeist, but women novelists who do the same thing are name-dropping. (This is not a universal law, of course; witness the critical response to Bret Easton Ellis‘s Glamorama back in the day.) That comment, and some observations about persona and masks by Laura Albert, eventually led panel moderator Alisa-Valdes-Rodriguez to discuss how she takes on a persona every time she appears in public to promote an “Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez” book—it’s just that this persona has the same name as her private identity. However, she continued, as her public image in the book world has been calibrated by her publishers to be a literary spokeswoman for Latinas across America, Valdes-Rodriguez also finds herself painted into a literary corner.

She’d written a novel about an Irish-American jazz saxophonist, for example, which she says was rejected by publishers because nobody would ever believe she could write about authentically, even though her mother was Irish-American and she studied saxophone at Berklee. “Once you’re published & somewhat successful as an author,” she observed, “you become branded like a cow.” There were five other novels she’d written but didn’t expect to sell anytime soon, she added, just because they weren’t what other people had decided an “Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez” novel should be.

Not that toeing the line will do you any better: We remember last year, when Jennifer Weiner published Certain Girls, the sequel to her debut novel Good in Bed, how Jane Smiley criticized her for spending too much time with “her nice Jewish characters.” (Not that the pan did anything to undermine Weiner’s popularity or sales.)

Do other authors—or agents trying to present their fiction to publishers—experience frustrations similar to Valdes-Rodriguez’s in trying to branch out artistically? We welcome your comments…

(Disclosure: Valdes-Rodriguez and senior editor Ron Hogan share a literary agent.)

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