Why Aren't More Women Novelists Celebrities?

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Sean Penn writes bad novels, which, according to Slate, means Reese Witherspoon should too.

In a recent piece that asks “Why Aren’t Female Celebrities Writing More Novels,” Slate focuses on Sean Penn’s vanity second career as a novelist (along with other famous dudes like Ethan Hawke and B.J. Novak) in contrast to Reese Witherspoon’s and Emma Watson’s book clubs to make the case for gender parity in shitty celebrity novels:

“In these cases, female celebrities are seen as readers, not writers, consumers, not creators,” the article notes. “Women fill the slot in which they’ve historically been placed: supporting and encouraging, rather than competing.”

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But perhaps the preponderance of women movie stars leading book clubs is because these celebrities realize something Slate has missed—we already have women writing books that tens of thousands of people enjoy reading. Instead of asking actors to also produce our novels, we should make celebrities out of women writers.

There was a time when Truman Capote could swagger onto Johnny Carson’s stage in a pair of lilac-tinted sunglasses and crow about his latest Esquire cover with all the self-absorption of Sean Penn made compelling by the addition of wit. Even when I was a teenager, I can remember Sarah Vowell deadpanning to David Letterman and Jon Stewart. She was so quick and charming in those appearances that I put Take the Cannoli on my Christmas list, making it the first essay collection I ever owned.

But these days, only Seth Meyers seems interested in interviewing writers, though Reese Witherspoon and Oprah are regularly invited on Ellen and other talk shows with huge audiences to promote their book clubs. Meanwhile, the authors whose books are featured in those clubs, along with all the hilarious and talented women authors whose books aren’t featured, are busting their asses promoting their work mostly to other writers on social media, praying for a retweet by someone with a blue checkmark. The age of writers as celebrities seems to have passed, and what Slate suggests in its place are celebrities as writers, suggesting that Jennifer Lawrence should try to replace Carmen Maria Machado since she already has a platform:

“Perhaps we should look to the book industry, though I find it hard to believe that publishers would turn down, say, Jennifer Lawrence’s lyrical short stories because they were already committed to Pete Wentz’s roman à clef about mental illness (which is real).”

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Slate asks if maybe the reason Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t published that short story collection is because she’s already too busy championing equal pay, and if we simply gave the highest-paid entertainers in the world more money, they could focus on their side projects:

“Maybe women in Hollywood are fighting first for equal pay and increased creative space in their own industry as writers, directors, and producers. Maybe male celebrities are less bashful—or less self-aware—about their vanity projects, conditioned to take their art more seriously.”

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A third option is that maybe women in Hollywood prefer to be readers, leading book clubs that elevate actual women writers, instead of publishing embarrassing, poorly written books best left as diary entries. If talk shows, news outlets, and the rest of the entertainment industry followed suit and gave the same attention to women writers that they gave women actors, perhaps a whole new generation of young readers would include Alice Bolin in their letters to Santa.

The solution to Sean Penn’s bad books is not throwing more books by hobbyist writers at the problem, even if those writers happen to be women. It is elevating the voices of women who are already writers, something that very few media outlets are doing.

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