‘The Idea of You’ Is More Than Fan Fiction

In the spring of 2014, when I set out to write the novel that would become The Idea Of You, I didn’t plan on writing something that was revolutionary or controversial. I wanted to write a story about Solène Marchand, a woman on the cusp of 40 who rediscovers and redefines herself through an unexpected love with a much younger man who happens to be a world-famous celebrity. As someone who was in that age range and who should have just been hitting my stride in my professional life as an actor, I was seeing the sudden shift in parts available to me. The characters had become more staid, the opportunities fewer and further between. I was learning the hard way that in Hollywood, after 40, women are much less desirable. The assumption was that we ceased to be sexual beings and were thus less valuable. I was eager to prove the industry—and our culture at large—wrong, in my own little way.

Shortly after the book’s publication in 2017, I realized I was also bumping up against something else. Some readers were viewing this story about ageism, sexism, the double standard, motherhood, female friendship, agency, and the dark side of celebrity as nothing more than “fluff.” They focused on the love story and the sex to the exclusion of the other pertinent themes of the book. They called it a romance. It was not. Romance novels have specific rules, and my book did not follow them. But it was labeled and categorized as such.

Was it because it centered on a woman’s love story? Because the main characters, Solène  and Hayes Campbell, two consenting adults, had a healthy sexual appetite? Or maybe it was the cover and the publisher’s marketing campaign? I’ll never know. But I started receiving messages from women that began with self-conscious and belittling openings like, “This is not the type of book I typically read, however…” and “I didn’t think I was going to like this book, but…” Then they’d proceed to discuss all the themes I’d set out to grapple with in writing the novel. It was clear they had made assumptions. They didn’t think a story about a woman’s midlife sexual awakening might contain something deeper. They couldn’t imagine it might be both tantalizing and complex. 

I am a lover of literary fiction. I appreciate stories with characters who are not necessarily like me, who expose me to new worlds and new ways of thinking through elegant prose. I crave stories that are multilayered and have something profound to say. But I also enjoy stories that entertain, that provide levity and occasional escapism. And I have always tried to write in a space encompassing both.

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There’s a scene in The Idea Of You when Hayes, a member of the chart-topping British boy band August Moon, is disparaging his work as the group’s founder, and Solène, a sophisticated art dealer, is imploring him to not discredit what he and his bandmates do.

“It’s art. And it makes people happy,” she says. “And that’s a very good thing. We have this problem in our culture. We take art that appeals to women—film, books, music—and we undervalue it. We assume it can’t be high art. Especially if it’s not dark and tortured and wailing. And it follows that much of that art is created by other women, and so we undervalue them as well. We wrap it up in a pretty pink package and resist calling it art.” 

That sentiment has resonated with me more in the years since I wrote this line of dialogue than ever before. I thought about it when Barbie became the biggest box-office hit of 2023 and the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, yet Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie were not nominated for Best Director or Best Actress, respectively, at the Oscars. I thought about it when I revisited critics’ resistance to Taylor Swift and the dismissal of her fandom for the first decade of her career, writing both off as juvenile and unserious. We all know who got the last laugh there. In April, Swift was named to the Forbes billionaire list, becoming the first musician whose earnings stem solely from her songs and performances to do so. Not so unserious now, is she?

In no other case does Solène’s description of that sentiment feel more personal than with the responses to her story. Labeling it as “fluff” or “fanfiction”—particularly when done by those who have not read it—is both reductive and dismissive. And this is not something that happens to male authors. It’s bad enough that so many novels with female protagonists are labeled women’s fiction, while those with male protagonists are simply fiction, and that these categorizations exist regardless of the fact that fiction readers across the board are disproportionately women. But assuming a novel with a fictional celebrity in a relationship must be based on an existing celebrity—in this case, the internet has decided, Harry Styles—is unimaginative at best and sexist at worst.

There are some brilliant, beloved writers of fanfic out there, but fanfiction is just not what I do. Hayes Campbell, like Solène Marchand and the myriad other characters in this book, was inspired in part by people I’ve encountered and by art I’ve consumed, and he came to life thanks to a healthy dose of my imagination. It’s how most writers I know, regardless of gender, create their characters and their worlds.

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My case is just one symptom of the larger disease in the broader literary world, where comparable works by women and men are given inequitable weight. “First-person narrative by men is still published and reviewed as more serious and gets a lot more money and coverage,” author and academic Kate Zambreno said in a recent New York Times interview. “It’s also usually not dismissed as merely autofiction or memoir, instead read as literature encompassing psychogeography, philosophy, art criticism. Even if a woman is doing exactly that, she’s usually still marketed as merely writing a woman’s experience or, worse, a mom memoir, if she has children.”

What is it about art made by women and marketed toward women that makes us view it as less than—that makes us think they can’t be complex and important? We don’t wrap male writers’ books in pink and tell readers they’re great for the beach. We don’t frown upon consumers of male fiction as juvenile. We don’t reduce their writing to fanfiction and attach a celebrity’s name for clickbait. Bottom line: we don’t undervalue them and their work. 

I never set out to write a novel that would spark this kind of debate. Hayes and Solène’s story has made readers think about their agency and ambition, about love and aging and the meaning of human connection—and it’s made them laugh, cry, wallow, and sigh in the process. Perhaps it is art, after all.

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