It’s been a good year for female authors. Lena Dunham (yep, her again) and Vagenda Magazine founders Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett have all recently signed six-figure book deals.
Girls creator Dunham sold her ‘advice’ book Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's Learned for $3.7m, whilst Baxter and Cosslett’s (wo)manifesto pitch found its home at Square Peg. A direct line can be drawn from the much-discussed success of Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, which unequivocally proved that contemporary feminist literature is relevant, and crucially, can sell. Moran reasserted the voice of feminism in a fresh and funny way, opening the floodgates
Considering the beleaguered state of the publishing industry, the Dunham/Vagenda book deals are surprising. Yes, Moran’s book has been selling by the bucket load, but across it’s a poor show compared to 2012 literary success story – the return of ‘erotic’ literature.
This weekend E.L James (author of The 50 Shades trilogy) and Sylvia Day (author of Reflected In You) both ranked in the top five bestseller list (year to date), and the latter sold more 82,759 copies in the UK last week, according to Nielsen BookScan. James and Day’s novels hardly demonstrate progressive feminist thinking, and in this context Dunham’s advance seems a little strange. Of course, Dunham is backed up by the hype of her TV show, and the publishers obviously hope that momentum and appeal will translate to successful literary sales.
Just how well will Dunham and the Vagenda fare against the prescience of erotica? The truth is that they’ll be just fine. There’s always been room for more than one opinion on the bookshelf. Feminist-led literature has always had an audience, and some books do crossover to the mainstream – The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism are just two examples. The theory-heavy texts of the ‘60s and ‘70s have been replaced by more engaging and reads that – although accused of ‘lightweight’ feminism – serve as an introduction to ideas and concepts that would otherwise remain unsaid.
Dunham’s book is heavy with the weight of expectation, initiated by publishers Random House who have described the book as a collection of personal essays “in the tradition of Helen Gurley Brown, David Sedaris, and Nora Ephron.” High company indeed – and fitting considering that my own introduction to Dunham came through Ephron – specifically a YouTube clip discussing the troublesome label of “woman director”.
But back to the haters. Media commentary pointed to the ‘absurdities’ of Dunham’s pay deal, questioned her ‘worth’ and made much to-do about the narrow social appeal of Girls. But like her or loathe her, Dunham’s book deal represents something big for female writers. Firstly, that in instant information age, there is still a place for paid literature. Secondly, that publishers are willing to take a chance on a still fairly unknown writer – despite all the online chatter, Girls is only in its first season, and ratings remain modest. But thirdly, and most importantly of all, that publishers are thinking about what women want to read, considering what there’s a demand for and giving it to them. They’re bucking the erotica trend, banking on the success of Moran and looking to Dunham to provide ‘a voice of a generation’.
Moran’s book is so successful because it has reclaimed something that was unknowingly absent, and is a refreshing antidote to celebrity-saturated culture. Of course the success and quality of Dunham’s book remains to be seen, but I suspect that it will be in the same vein – smart, witty, insightful and hyped to the max – and it will have mainstream appeal. And that’s what feminist literature needs right now – something to counteract James and Day and reassert a positive female voice.
Image via David_Shankbone's Flickr