I unapologetically love Gothic novels. I grew up on Poe and Stevenson, on Wilkie Collins and Mary Shelley. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca made me want to become a writer. Everything about the Gothic novel—the strange, eerie setting, the sense of dread, the claustrophobia and suspense—I was living every day, as a woman in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. Between religious police who patrolled the streets and Scud missiles that fell through the sky, my respite was in the stories of those who had managed to escape almost supernatural peril. One day I would tell my own such story; I was sure of it.
Enter the modern publishing industry, and the difficulty of finding an agent.
Book Twitter reads like a Gothic novel. Publishing is a labyrinth with obscure rules and pitfalls. Many soon discover, to their shock and horror, that publishing a book traditionally can take years. And those are the successes. Stories of failure and betrayal abound, from a few that rock the literary world to endless accounts of misrepresentation, embezzling and ghosting. And doesn’t ghosting just scream Gothic?
For those who need a refresher, or who, to their own disadvantage, have turned their noses up at Gothic novels as being sensational, overwritten nonsense, here are some tropes associated with the Gothic. More specifically, the Gothic feminine, which involves stories of women trapped by their societies and families, where the very institutions meant to protect have turned against us, much like the U.S. Supreme Court.
1. The silencing of women’s voices: Women in the Gothic feminine are either killed or otherwise shut up, usually in an asylum.
2. The gaslighting of women’s narratives: When a woman in a Gothic story raises an issue, she is not believed, because she has no authority or power.
3. The rules as a weapon used against women: Lost inheritances, refused divorces, and ignored allegations abound, with governments as gatekeepers. In Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria, one landlady says, “women have always the worst of it, when law is to decide.”
4. The male savior that isn’t: Police, priests, doctors, vicars and other respectable men are usually the villains of the story, but the woman only realizes it too late.
A woman writer seeking to be published in this industry isn’t looking for an agent. Not really. They’re looking for someone to give their last vestige of trust, when the experiences and stories that drove them to write in the first place have already consumed nearly all their strength and faith. They’re looking for a savior.
But that’s not what an agent is. An agent makes roughly 10-15% of what an author makes on a novel, which is usually a pittance. An agent has relationships with publishers, yes, but those aren’t guarantees of publication. To make a living wage, an agent needs to work with several authors, which means they don’t usually have time to edit your work closely and coach you through your crises of confidence.
A few agents do in fact do these things, beyond their actual job of negotiating contracts and project managing your book’s publication. Mine did, and I owe her a great debt. But it’s rare, and getting more so.
What can you, as an author, do about it? The same as any Gothic heroine. Become stronger, savvier, more ready to reinvent yourself. Transformation is a key trope of the genre that gave us Dracula, but while the Gothic masculine is about men feeling their masculinity is in crisis because someone other (usually the poor, the immigrants from Transylvania, or women) has started to become more powerful, the Gothic feminine is specifically about feminine agency.
Helene Meyers, author of Femicidal Fears, writes that “Literature, like feminism, is a ‘technology of gender,’” which speaks to me as a writer, a technologist and a woman. I did eventually find an agent, and I did publish my Gothic novel, Driving by Starlight, about a young woman confined by Saudi society, who finds her liberation in dressing as a man (transforming herself) and driving cars at night. And now Leena stands in a long line of Gothic heroines, of women who will not be confined or silenced.
Invest in yourself as an author, because if you don’t, nobody else will. Don’t pin all your ambitions and hopes on your agent. Take classes, build a network of writers who support and amplify each other and give each other feedback. Hire editors who can help your work stand out. Support other writers in whatever way you can, by sharing feedback or tips on craft.
And write. Never stop writing. Never give up, you Gothic heroine you.
Anat Deracine is the author of the novel Driving by Starlight (Macmillan, 2018), a story about a girl growing up in Saudi Arabia; she is co-creator of an online comic called The Night Wolves; and author of many short stories, including The Divine Comedy of the Tech Sisterhood which highlights inequalities in technology.