Who Writes Women’s Books?

By Poison Ivy,

I was thinking about how romance comic books historically were written and drawn almost entirely by men. And still are. An occasional female has managed to make her way into the comic book business, but precious few have stayed for long. See Trina Robbins’ roundup of women artists in the comics for more details.

It was also common but mistaken knowledge when I was growing up that all romance novels were written by men. (Occasionally I still hear it today from cynical types not in touch with the current publishing scene.) I don’t know where this nonsense originated. I know there were certain male writers who wrote many, many books under female pseudonyms, such as Dan Ross as Marilyn Ross for gothics (of course it turns out that his wife, Marilyn, helped him enormously, especially in getting correct female point of view). Various more obscure romantic novelists of the 1960s and 1970s were men writing under female pseudonyms. Sometimes gay men, if the truth be known. But Mary Stewart, Dorothy Eden, Victoria Holt, and Phyllis Whitney (who by the way, is still alive at 103), all preeminent writers for women, were definitely real women. Georgette Heyer, who singlehandedly was the Regency subgenre in her lifetime, was a woman. And Daphne du Maurier, that grande dame of the “had I but known” gothic tale Rebecca, was a woman. For gosh sakes, Margaret Mitchell, famed author of Gone with the Wind, was a woman, too!

So where did this idea that men write all the women’s books come from?

The authors I’ve mentioned all were published first in hardcover. I’ve heard that the early writers who wrote paperback originals often were men, and that there was a lot of switching between genres. One week, a hack writer would do an adventure tale of a man being captured by the luscious, sexually aggressive Amazon women of some unknown civilization in a dark continent. The next week, he’d write a big city noir murder mystery with a tough guy detective who constantly encounters “real blondes.” (You know what that means, don’t you? It was the sly 1950s way of saying that the guy had sex with the gal, and saw that her pubic hair was as blonde as the hair on her head.) And the third week of the month, the writer would write a rip-roaring western. The fourth week he’d pen a sweet romance about the girl next door who can’t make up her mind between the earnest but bad-tempered boy next door and that smooth night club owner who wines and dines her. Of course she chooses the guy without the money. (Flashy guys make bad husbands is the subtext.) Maybe these versatile writers became insider publishing gossip. Or maybe, like Dan Ross, they received a bit of publicity and the general public began to think that all romance writers were men writing under female pseudonyms.

There were plenty of women writing original paperbacks at the same time. Elsie Lee, who did gothics, contemporary romantic suspense, and Regencies, comes to mind. And Arlene Hale, a prolific writer of nurse romances and sweet romances, not to mention that she probably ghost wrote some of the last novels purportedly by Emilie Loring (which were published long after Mrs. Loring died, and clearly are written by several different uncredited authors). I’m sure I’m missing some prominent female paperback novelists of the 1950s-1970s, and of course I do not count any Harlequin authors because at the time, none of them was American. I’m not sure if any even was Canadian. If anyone knows, please tell me.

Today, most writers of women’s books are women. I’ve met them, and you’ve probably read a lot of publicity about them. Multi-bestselling author Nora Roberts definitely is a woman, as you can tell from her web site. Most active romance writers have web sites. As for male presence, there are several husband-and-wife teams writing for the women’s fiction market, including category romances, and they do it openly. Lynda and Dan Trent come to mind. (Sorry, I couldn’t find a web site for them.) Their books are usually sold under a female pseudonym, but the co-authorship is plainly stated in the interior pages. And there are some female authors who get writing contributions from their husbands but do not necessarily give them shared billing. I won’t mention who they are since they obviously do not want to tell the world. As to Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, the new romance writing team making publicity/writing seminar stops all across the country, they live in different states and apparently are just writing partners, not the more typical intimate duo. Janet Evanovich and Stephen J. Cannell have just signed to do a similar team up, so we can expect more of these strictly business relationships. Other than these anomalies, pretty much every romance novel you see published today is written by a woman.

It turns out that women write women’s books.