Shopping a Pro-Choice Feminist Novel

Emily Wolf
5 min readMar 21, 2022

Writing a novel is hard. Like childbirth, the first tends to be the toughest and require the most endurance — to organize, to outline, to craft. It takes time to find other book-moms with whom to be honest (I did 20,000 steps to avoid writing today. Do you think I should start over?) and to share tips (Have you seen Caitlin Moran’s new piece? Try reading your dialogue out loud.) It takes time to find a routine. You write, learn, rewrite, repeat.

And most women writers don’t have “a room of one’s one.” They write during baby nap times, late at night, or early in the morning; revise whole chapters while sitting in carpool lines; shelve their work for months or years to accommodate pregnancies, moves, natural disasters, elder-care crises, day-job requirements, or the gobs of invisible, indispensable work women do to make the world turn.

A few beat the odds. They produce a first novel, eventually — despite earning an hourly rate of $0 — and it’s good. Maybe it’s really good. But they are not famous. They didn’t attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There are no literati on their holiday card lists. They may not even have an Instagram account.

This was me in 2019. Despite my Imposter Syndrome screaming at me not to make myself vulnerable to rejection, criticism, or, scariest of all, being seen, I queried literary agents. I sent out 175 requests (hourly rate still $0) only to realize that most of my queries, though ostensibly welcome per the agents’ websites, went unread. It wasn’t rejection I came to fear most. It was the abyss.

It was during the querying stage that my antenna went up. In many of the complimentary but, ultimately, vaguely worded rejections I receive, there’s a whiff of risk-aversion. My protagonist, Zoe, has an abortion in the novel’s opening scene. She is thirty, white, married, and Ivy-League educated. She grieves the abortion but doesn’t regret it. “I’d love to read this,” one agent responds to my query, “but can you change the abortion to a miscarriage?” When I politely decline, so does she.

Zoe goes on to experience the other stuff of young womanhood: toxic relationships, online dating, bad sex, magical female friendships, love in its many, often under-recognized forms, reckoning with what society expects of her, deciding whether to comply. And she has the audacity to laugh at least as much as she cries.

After three months, I find my unicorn agent. Beth is such a gift I wonder for some time whether she is real. She loves the book. I shove my antenna down. I ignore that whiff of risk-aversion I’d gotten so used to. I had an agent, so none of that mattered anymore.

When Beth puts the manuscript out on submission (after we wrestle with it, of course — books use one space after a period now, not two, and do we really need this character?), we feel good about it. I still remember where I was sitting, what the light looked like outside my window, the breezy sound of fluttering leaves, the summery smell, when Beth told me she’d sent her own queries off to acquisitions editors at the Big (Six Then Five Now Four) Publishers. “I’ve seen it all,” Beth says after a brief hesitation, “but I think this one’ll go fast — keep your cell phone handy.” I tossed and turned that night, dreaming of my first manuscript going to auction the very next day. “It’s happening!,” my husband assured me.

I remember sitting in the same spot — just earlier in the day, and earlier in the summer — the following year. Beth had gotten the same vague rejections, with the same whiff of risk-aversion, from the Big Publishers that I’d gotten from agents. “I don’t think they like the abortion,” I sputtered. “Me neither,” Beth sighed.

We talked for an hour about how white, privileged protagonists don’t get abortions in literature (unless they’re Gloria Steinem). How only secondary characters, who are dysfunctional and/or disturbed, get abortions. How protagonists decide to keep their babies at the last minute and thank their lucky stars that they did. “Like Miranda in Sex and the City,” I say, recognizing in that moment that something sinister has come out of the shadows and into the light.

Beth suggests that I shelve my novel. I’d begun to write a second, less controversial one by then, and had outlined a third. “Let’s sell those,” she says, “and then try to sell this one.”

I eventually text my husband to help remove me from the bedroom carpet. I am a puddle of self-pity and disappointment. Then, I am enraged. I read piece after piece about how book publishing is failing. How stories are suppressed and lost. I listen to a Ted Talk about how most of us need to green-light our own work.

So I ignore Beth’s advice and my own fear (I don’t know what I’m doing. How much is this going to cost?) and I do.

She Writes Press, a “hybrid” publisher, in which the author shares more of the financial risk, but also retains more creative control and a larger portion of sales, will publish my first novel, My Thirty-First Year (And Other Calamities), on August 2, 2022 — ironically, a few weeks after SCOTUS will likely gut or overturn Roe.

Some literary snobs will turn their noses up at me for publishing with a hybrid. They won’t appreciate that my husband and I scrapped our family budget to put dollars behind my words. But my novel is about giving patriarchy the finger. It seems only fitting that I publish it in a way that does the same. I’m glad I know how many voices and perspectives the publishing establishment shuts out — I’m glad I see its brokenness. Story is the ancient connective tissue that binds us all. It should be inclusive. I hope to play a role in making it so.

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Emily Wolf

Author, worker, woman, wife, U2-loving frazzled mama.