Why Aren’t Female Celebrities Writing More Novels?

If Sean Penn and James Franco can do it, why not Reese Witherspoon or Constance Wu?

Photo illustration of Sean Penn and David Duchovny with books they've written next to Oprah and Reese Witherspoon with their book club logos.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Clemens Bilan/Getty Images, Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Webby Awards, David Livingston/Getty Images, and Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images.

Last week, an acclaimed author published a sequel that further examines the darkest parts of American culture. I’m referring, of course, to Sean Penn’s Bob Honey Sings Jimmy Crack Corn, the follow-up to his debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff.

The first Bob Honey was almost universally panned by critics last year, and the follow-up edition is no better, written in ostentatiously alliterative prose that falls somewhere between juvenile tongue-twisting and unhinged rambling: “Catholic catagonia caged poor Annie’s exculpatory rapture, leaving investigators singing psalms.” It includes footnotes explaining obtuse military slang and references to William Golding, making sure we know that Penn understands them but not sullying the actual text with anything resembling clarity. But hey, Salman Rushdie said it was “fun to read” and Paul Theroux called it “comic, cauchemaresque, crackling with life.” Such literary lions wouldn’t steer us wrong, right?

Penn isn’t the only famous person publishing literary fiction. BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s short story collection came out in June, and the Grammy-nominated rapper Logic released his psychological thriller, Supermarket, under his real name, Bobby Hall, in March. Last year saw the publication of novels by David Duchovny and Michael Imperioli, and in 2017, Tom Hanks’ story collection was almost as beloved as Tom Hanks himself. Going back a bit further offers work from James Franco, B.J. Novak, Jesse Eisenberg, and Ethan Hawke. But for the past few years, such A-list wordsmiths have all been dudes. So where are the novels and short stories by famous women?

There’s a long history of celebrities, male and female, entering the publishing world to diversify their brands, telegraph that they’re intellectuals, or—more generously—write because they are agnostic in their creative pursuits, though mostly they write nonfiction or children’s titles. There are a handful of exceptions—Amber Tamblyn, Krysten Ritter, and Molly Ringwald have all written novels—but by my count, 40 well-known men (mainly film and TV personalities, but also musicians, sports stars, and political figures) have published books of adult fiction in the past two decades. There have been 19 women who have also done so. It’s worth noting that almost all of these authors are white, and Nicole Richie is the only woman of color.

In today’s literary landscape, famous women are recommending fiction instead of writing it. Members of Emma Watson’s feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, discuss authors like Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood every two months on Goodreads. Emma Roberts’ Belletrist book club features a different title and independent bookstore on social media every month. Book of the Month Club has a large roster of well-known, predominantly female guest judges, including Gabrielle Union and Constance Wu. Sarah Jessica Parker helms an eponymous imprint at Random House. And Reese Witherspoon—taking the baton from her friend Oprah, the grande dame of book recommendations—picks one book each month to promote, which then gets a Reese’s Book Club designation. Which means that Reese’s and Oprah’s names are on novels, but not as the authors.

In these cases, female celebrities are seen as readers, not writers, consumers, not creators. Women fill the slot in which they’ve historically been placed: supporting and encouraging, rather than competing. Famous women are clearly leading literary lives. So why aren’t more books authored by them? Perhaps we should look to the book industry, though I find it hard to believe that publishers would turn down, say, Jennifer Lawrence’s lyrical short stories because they were already committed to Pete Wentz’s roman à clef about mental illness (which is real). It’s possible that female celebrities aren’t writing fiction, though baffling that we don’t yet have novels by auteurs Greta Gerwig and Shonda Rhimes. Maybe women in Hollywood are fighting first for equal pay and increased creative space in their own industry as writers, directors, and producers. Maybe male celebrities are less bashful—or less self-aware—about their vanity projects, conditioned to take their art more seriously. I wonder, though, if it’s about the risks. The stakes are different for men in pretty much all areas, including the arts. Men can go off their diets and have celebrated dad bods. They can star in movie flops and move on to their next lead roles. They can write lines nonsensical like “Dogs of seething yearning deliver them to these, the kennels of resuscitation, before they stray,” and not see a dent in their popularity. Women don’t have the same luxury. The moment they show vulnerability, honesty, ambition, or, God forbid, mediocrity, they are vilified. Still, I’d love to see Sandra Oh’s flash fiction or Natalie Portman’s suburban family drama—at least before the inevitable John Krasinski bildungsroman.