“It goes like this, I run into a man I know or meet at a dinner party for the first time in a long time. After hello, they open with, 'So, are you still writing?' Hmmm…..this immediately suggests to me that they have not read the New York Times in many years, the Wall Street Journal, or maybe they don’t read at all.”
Earlier this month, the prolific author Danielle Steel published a piece on her blog entitled “Are you still a Brain Surgeon,” in which she describes her experiences with men who go out of their way to dismiss her career as a writer. Both irritating and hurtful, the attempts by these men to belittle Steel’s accomplishments point, in her view, to an entrenched hostility on the part of many men towards successful and outspoken women. In this thoughtful piece, Steel also responds to critics of her work itself who think she is a hack or that what she is writing is unimportant. Believe that if you will, but the truth is that writing consistently and successfully is really, really difficult, no matter what you’re writing about. Steel’s staggering number of published novels and her massive readership prove that she is talented and that her writing is a full-time job. She can handle criticism of the content of her work but don’t belittle her professionalism or her commitment to her craft.
Danielle Steel has written 129 books, published in 69 countries, and been translated into 43 languages. She has sold over 600 million copies of her books and every single one of her books is a bestseller. She has even been included in the Guinness Book of World Records for having at least one of her books on the New York Times Bestseller List for 381 consecutive weeks. She is the very embodiment of success in publishing.
However, you might be thinking: Danielle Steel isn’t a real writer. She writes pulp fiction for mass consumption. One of her most popular novels, Sisters (Bantam Dell, 2007), revolves around the story of four improbable siblings: Candy (a supermodel), Tammy (a TV producer), Sabrina (an ambitious young lawyer), and Annie (an artist living in Italy) who reunite after a family tragedy. I think this quotation by Harold Bloom on the decision to give Stephen King the National Book Foundation’s annual award for “distinguished contribution,” in which he mentions Steel, says all you need to know about the literary establishment's feelings on Steel’s work: “By awarding it to King they recognize nothing but the commercial value of his books, which sell in the millions but do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat. If this is going to be the criterion in the future, then perhaps next year the committee should give its award for distinguished contribution to Danielle Steel, and surely the Nobel Prize for literature should go to J.K. Rowling.”
Harold Broom can be dismissive of Steel’s literary contributions if he likes. After all, he is arguably the preeminent American man of letters, and partly because he is a well-educated and successful man, he has likely never doubted his own ability or right to pontificate on intellectual or creative matters. Steel has contended with men who capitalize on this critique of her canon. She says, “The other comment men like to make is another winner, ‘My maid just loves your books’. Really, well thank God for her. There are LOTS of men who DON’T have an issue with women who work, do it well, and do well at it. It’s a pleasure to talk to them. But the ones with a chip on their shoulder really are a bore and not much fun.”
Steel can handle the fact that ivory-tower literary critics think her writing is silly. Her grievance is with a deeper, more insidious dismissal than an attack on the artistic merit of her writing. She is pointing to the inability of some men to handle the success of women and its basis in insecurities about their own power and prestige, or lack thereof. Her case is not unique. The description she gives of her treatment could also be applied to the widespread glee with which many greeted the news of Martha Stewart’s insider trading downfall or the many attacks on Hillary Clinton, in which she is accused of aggressive or man-like tendencies. Danielle Steel gracefully sheds light on a sexist double standard, in which the same assertiveness and productivity praised in men is still a cause for derision in successful women.