Writer Tawni O’Dell Comes Out Swinging Against Sexist Publishing Industry

A few months ago the author Jonathan Franzen published his novel, Freedom, and among bookworms, it was like a new “Star Wars” movie being released or Angelina Jolie popping out another baby. Not only did President Obama make headlines for snagging an advanced copy to read on vacation, but Franzen made the prestigious New York Times book review not once, but twice, in a single week. That was all too much for author Jodi Picoult. “Is anyone shocked?” she tweeted, no doubt rolling her eyes. “Would love to see the Times write about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” Everyone weighed in with their opinion — sexism? sour grapes? — including here on The Frisky. The matter was settled, at least for moi, when the blog Slate.com did an old-fashioned author byline count of The New York Times Book Review. That publication does, in fact, review more books written by men than women.

For us lady writers at The Frisky, it was all pretty disheartening. (Kate may be the only one who has published a book thus far, but there are several of us on staff who go home and peck on our laptops some more.) Now there’s more “ugh”-ness to “ugh!” deep in our bellies: Author Tawni O’Dell penned an essay for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about her experiences navigating the publishing industry and book-reviewing culture as a female writer and they’re utterly fascinating.

I just have four words for you: “wood nymph” and “biker chick.” First, a little background on Tawni O’Dell. I am ashamed to admit that I have never heard of her. But O’Dell is the critically acclaimed author of four books. Back Roads was a New York Times bestseller and selected for Oprah’s Book Club. (More on that in a second.) She also wrote Coal Run, Fragile Beasts and Sister Mine, which was the number one pick by the “Book Sense” newsletter. According to her essay in the Post-Gazette, she has been compared to authors like J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck, and Emile Zola. So yeah, she’s a “serious” author.

Tawni O’Dell grew up in blue-collar Western Pennsylvania and said she was certainly aware of sexism growing up, but it was not until she published her first novel that she first felt “the sting of gender bias.” Tawni’s publishing house used words to describe her writing like “formidable talent” and “pitch-perfect prose”; the problem was in her name. She was told “Tawni O’Dell” sounded like a “biker chick name” and her novel wouldn’t be taken seriously if she published anything under it. Instead, she was told the publishing house had chosen to publish her first novel under her initials, she wrote, so “everyone would assume it had been written by a man.” (Reportedly, this was Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling’s reason for publishing with her initials.) Tawni felt “heartsick” by their decision to publish her as T.L. O’Dell, but little did she know it was going to get worse.

Tawni had filled out some sort of questionnaire for her publishing house on which authors were supposed to list their various literary awards and other publications. Seeing as she had not actually won anything yet, Tawni wrote, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, that she “decided to fill it with tidbits about my life experience that might make me seem like an interesting person since I couldn’t make myself seem like a serious writer.” One of the things she mentioned was that in college she had worked for a live party entertainment company. This job included dressing up in a clown costume or a gorilla suit or jumping out of cakes at stag parties.

Suddenly, “T.L. O’Dell” got to be “Tawni O’Dell” again: Her publishing house decided to promote her as an “ex-stripper with a thesaurus.” Apparently, her biker chick name was OK if they marketed her book as her being by an ex-stripper. (Though, I’m not sure jumping out of cakes counts as stripping — minor detail.)

But wait, it gets even worse. Then Entertainment Weekly wanted to photograph Tawni for an article about her book. EW sent a cadre of photographers after she held a reading in her home state of Pennsylvania. Their hope was that she could pose in the woods as some kind of wood nymph. (Never mind that her book had nothing at all to do with wood nymphs.) The photographer told her, “We need to tease her hair. I want glitter. Lots of glitter, and the clothes will have to go.” She replied, “You want me to be naked?” The photographer ignored her. “I see swaths of tulle billowing out behind her and hanging in the tree branches like a morning mist,” he said. So she took her clothes off and was sprayed with glitter while she thought to herself, Did John Irving ever have to do this? As he snapped away, the photographer called out to her, “You’re a wood nymph! Yes, you’re a wood nymph! You’re an ethereal spirit. You’re an incarnation of the sky. You’re real yet you’re not real at all.”

Fortunately for Tawni O’Dell, Oprah Winfrey chose Back Roads for her next book club pick and for some reason that prompted EW to drop the feature on her; America never got to the see the novelist as a naked wood nymph and covered in glitter. But the experience stuck with her, for obvious reasons.

Of course, Tawni O’Dell’s experience with the publishing industry/marketing female authors is just one subjective experience. But it sounds a lot like the complaints we hear from other writers about how the sale and marketing of their books are gendered. One wonders if Tawni O’Dell had written Back Roads in 2010 — post-Shopaholic, post-Devil Wears Prada, etc. — if the book would have been packaged in a pink-and-purple cover to supposedly appeal more to women readers. (That was the complaint of the Guardian’s book critic, Imogen Russell Williams, who accused publishers of trying to “candy coat” books for women and girls.) Or perhaps it would have been packaged as “chick lit.” (Memorably, Kate and I attended a Barnes & Noble reading by Cecily von Ziegesar, the author of the Gossip Girl series, who practically spat out the term “chick lit” and said with some annoyance that the superfluity of “chick lit” had caused her husband to not want to read any books written by women.)

I don’t know what the answers are. Maybe some day we will look back on stories like Tawni O’Dell’s the way we look back on the way women are treated on “Mad Men”: The idea a woman writer was told she’d only be published under initials so her book would appeal more to men will be utterly appalling. For what it’s worth, when it comes to Jodi Picoult/Franzen-gate — which appears to have prompted her to write the Post-Gazette essay in the first place — O’Dell is to-the-point on her opinion: “I feel no need to enter the fray since I see it not so much as a topic for discussion as it is a rehashing of facts that reflect society in general as much as they do literature or any art form.” That makes me think that Tawni doesn’t just think it’s the publishing industry that needs to change. The change needs to come from society itself.

[Post-Gazette: Stung By Gender Bias, Author Tawni O’Dell Stings Back]