By Jillian Waterhouse, Staff Writer—
On International Women’s Day, which took place Monday, March 8, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga library hosted a visit with award-winning author Rebecca Wells in which students had the opportunity to listen to excerpts from her current projects and ask questions about her published works.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, campus events showcasing women’s personal journeys and success stories have been abundant.
Rebecca Wells is a #1 New York Times bestselling author who is best known for writing stories which center around women, such as her novels “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” “Little Altars Everywhere” and “The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder.”
With a discussion led by UTC librarian Chantelle Swaren, topics of conversation centered largely around women’s empowerment. Though Wells has seen great success in her writing career, she said that she has not always felt as empowered to share her voice as she does now.
Wells elaborated on her journey and the obstacles to finding confidence as a writer.
“I wasn’t raised to tell my story,” she said. “I was raised to entertain and be an object of desire for men and to set up the question for men to tell their stories.”
Wells is not alone in her plights as a female author. Throughout history, prominent writers such as Louisa May Alcott, author of “Little Women,” have felt pressured to write under pseudonyms to protect their identities and see success from their work. Social stigmas raised even more barriers for historically marginalized or unconventional women—women of color, lesbian women, and women fighting for radical equality through their work. As a result, a literature gap appeared within the 19th and 20th century due to the struggles female authors faced in writing and publishing their work at the time.
Following on from the accomplishments of several waves of feminism and movements for women’s liberation, female authors are far more prevalent and respected in American society today than they once were. Taking inspiration from these developments, as Wells began to take control of her own narrative and chronicle the stories of the women in her life, she found many stories she believes are worth sharing hidden in plain sight.
Wells’ storytelling focuses on the unique depth of female friendship, relationships between mothers and daughters and spirituality. Raised in Louisiana, Wells has had quite the journey. She studied buddhism through college, worked as a party fortune teller in her spare time, and eventually went on to perform on Broadway. Currently, Wells lives in solitude on an island in Puget Sound, WA, working extensively on her next project. Attendees of her talk with Swaren were able to listen to Wells read from this current, unreleased work.
Though Wells has seen success in her career, much work is still left to be done to achieve gender equality in literature creation and publishing. In April of 2020, a study from SuperSummary found that on average, fiction novels featuring male leads sold over 10 million more copies than those featuring female leads. Over 70% of the most popular fiction books assessed had male authors. Female characters were often described by their beauty and marital status, mostly commonly using words such as young, little, and beautiful, while male characters were defined by their societal status and strength, depicted through words such as great, tall, and rich.
Studies like this show that, while female authors have seen more success in recent years, success stories like that of Rebecca Wells remain relatively uncommon. Women have achieved higher publication rates, yet their stories do not reach the same level of critical acclaim or popularity as those written by men. Though women earn nearly two-thirds of MFA degrees in the United States, female authors have not risen above the 50% gender equality line on the New York Times Bestseller list since the early 2000s.
In the question-and-answer portion of the talk, a student asked Wells how to develop their creativity and express their ideas even when it’s hard to express them.
After a pause, she responded.
“Listen to your story,” Wells said. “Be polite to it. Ask what it wants to be told, treat it gently and tell yourself that it has validity.”