Mon. May 27th, 2024

The Idea of You

The Idea of You

When I embarked on writing the novel that eventually became The Idea Of You in the spring of 2014, my aim wasn’t to create something groundbreaking or contentious. I simply wanted to craft a narrative around Solène Marchand, a woman teetering on the edge of 40, who finds herself anew through an unexpected romance with a much younger, globally renowned celebrity. At the time, I was within that age bracket and should have been hitting my professional stride as an actor. However, I was experiencing the abrupt shift in available roles. Parts were becoming more conventional, and opportunities were dwindling. It was a harsh lesson that in Hollywood, women over 40 were viewed as less desirable. The prevailing notion was that we lost our allure as sexual beings and, consequently, our value diminished. I was determined to challenge this perception, albeit in my own modest manner.

Following the book’s release in 2017, I encountered another hurdle. Some readers dismissed the narrative, which delved into ageism, sexism, societal double standards, motherhood, female camaraderie, autonomy, and the less glamorous facets of fame, as mere “fluff.” They fixated on the romantic aspect and the intimate scenes while overlooking the broader themes woven throughout the story. They categorized it as a romance novel, which it wasn’t. Romance novels adhere to distinct conventions, whereas my book defied those norms. Despite this, it was pigeonholed and labeled as such.

Perhaps it was because the story revolved around a woman’s journey in love? Maybe it was due to the fact that the main characters, Solène and Hayes Campbell, were portrayed as two consenting adults with a healthy sexual appetite? Or could it have been influenced by the cover design and the publisher’s marketing strategy? I’ll never truly discern the exact reason. However, I began to receive messages from women that commenced with hesitant and self-effacing remarks like, “This isn’t my usual genre, but…” or “I didn’t expect to enjoy this book, yet…” Despite their initial reservations, they went on to discuss the very themes I had set out to explore in writing the novel. It became evident that they had preconceived notions. They didn’t anticipate that a narrative about a woman’s sexual reawakening in midlife could delve into deeper layers. They couldn’t fathom that it could be simultaneously provocative and intricate.

I have a deep affection for literary fiction. I’m drawn to narratives featuring characters who differ from me, as they offer insights into new worlds and fresh perspectives through eloquent prose. I yearn for stories that are richly layered and carry profound messages. However, I also appreciate tales that captivate and amuse, offering moments of levity and the occasional escape from reality. In my own writing, I’ve endeavored to occupy a space that encompasses both dimensions, aiming to craft stories that are intellectually stimulating while still providing entertainment and a sense of enjoyment.

In The Idea Of You, there’s a poignant moment where Hayes, a member of the globally acclaimed British boy band August Moon, expresses dissatisfaction with his role as the group’s founder. Meanwhile, Solène, a refined art dealer, urges him not to undermine the significance of his and his bandmates’ contributions.

“It’s art. And it brings joy to people,” she insists. “And that’s immensely valuable. There’s a prevailing issue in our culture where we tend to devalue art that resonates with women—whether it’s film, literature, or music. We often dismiss it as lacking in depth, especially if it doesn’t adhere to a dark and tormented aesthetic. What’s more, much of this art is crafted by women themselves, further perpetuating this cycle of undervaluation. We package it in a pretty pink wrapper and hesitate to acknowledge its artistic merit.”

The resonance of that sentiment has only grown stronger for me in the years following the creation of that dialogue. It’s come to mind when reflecting on instances like the success of Barbie, which became the top-grossing film of 2023 and the highest-earning film directed by a woman, yet Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie were overlooked in the nominations for Best Director and Best Actress at the Oscars. It echoed when revisiting the critics’ initial resistance to Taylor Swift and the dismissal of her fanbase during the early stages of her career, often derided as juvenile and trivial. However, as history shows, Swift has emerged triumphant, recently joining the ranks of Forbes billionaires solely through her musical endeavors. It’s clear she’s no longer considered unserious.

Yet, nowhere does Solène’s description of that sentiment feel more personal than in the responses to her story. To label it as “fluff” or “fanfiction”—particularly without having read it—is both reductive and dismissive. Moreover, this isn’t an experience shared by male authors. It’s disheartening enough that novels featuring female protagonists are often pigeonholed as “women’s fiction,” while those with male leads are simply considered “fiction,” despite the fact that the majority of fiction readers are women. But to assume that a novel featuring a fictional celebrity romance must be based on a real-life figure—such as the internet’s assumption regarding Harry Styles—is not only unimaginative but also potentially sexist.

While there are undoubtedly talented and adored writers of fanfiction, it’s not a genre that aligns with my writing style. Hayes Campbell, like Solène Marchand and the array of other characters in this book, drew inspiration from individuals I’ve crossed paths with and from the art I’ve immersed myself in. However, he ultimately sprang to life through a significant infusion of my imagination. This creative process mirrors the approach taken by most writers I know, irrespective of gender, when crafting their characters and constructing their fictional realms.

My situation is just one manifestation of a broader issue within the literary landscape, where works by women and men are often subjected to unequal treatment. As author and academic Kate Zambreno astutely pointed out in a recent New York Times interview, first-person narratives penned by men tend to be perceived as more serious, receiving greater financial backing and media coverage. Furthermore, they are typically not dismissed as mere autofiction or memoir but are instead lauded as literature exploring psychogeography, philosophy, and art criticism. Even if a woman employs the same literary techniques, her work is often marketed as simply reflecting a woman’s experience or, in more disparaging terms, dismissed as a “mom memoir” if she happens to be a mother.

What is it about art created by women and targeted towards women that leads us to undervalue it? Why do we assume that it can’t be intricate or significant? We don’t package books by male authors in pink covers and suggest they’re perfect for beach reading. We don’t belittle consumers of male-focused fiction as immature. We don’t reduce their writing to fanfiction or use a celebrity’s name for clickbait. In essence, we don’t diminish them or their contributions.

I never anticipated that the novel I set out to write would ignite such discourse. Yet, the story of Hayes and Solène has prompted readers to contemplate their own agency and aspirations, to reflect on love, aging, and the significance of human connection. It has elicited laughter, tears, moments of introspection, and heartfelt sighs along the way. Perhaps, in the end, it is indeed a form of art.

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