Today’s guest post is by author Paddy O’Reilly.

When Elizabeth Lhuede asked me to write about why I wouldn’t want my book classified as ‘women’s fiction,’ my first thought was that I don’t actually know what the classification ‘women’s fiction’ means. I know the publishing and bookselling industries use it for marketing. And yet having my work categorised that way would make me very uncomfortable indeed. It feels dismissive. It feels like being shunted off into the section of the bookshop set aside for trivialities. It feels, in fact, like a throwback term, something that would have been used in the time when a woman’s place was supposed to be in the kitchen, reading her lovely unthreatening ‘women’s fiction’ once the house had been made all spick and span and the scones were rising in the oven.

What is ‘women’s fiction’ anyway? Unlike crime or romance or SF, it isn’t a genre with identifiable characteristics and conventions.

Is it writing for women?

Is it writing about women?

Is it writing by women?

I asked a few fellow writers for their thoughts about the term ‘women’s fiction’. Here’s what they said.

  • My understanding is that men don’t read fiction much these days, but women still do. (Is that right?) In which case nearly all fiction is women’s fiction.
  • If there’s any such thing, it’s fiction about a female protagonist, written by a woman, that women want to read (and possibly men, too). Apart from that, it could be any genre, any style and about anything at all.
  • ‘Writing by women’ is nice, ‘women’s fiction’ not – it has an unhelpful air of relegation in terms of readers or subject matter or level.
  • On reflection I think women’s fiction is an irritating term. We have fiction about women. We have fiction by women. These are just statements of fact (and fiction about women is not necessarily by women, and vice versa.) But women’s fiction… that’s not fact, that’s someone’s judgement call. (It will suit women, it’s about women’s issues – relationships, parenting, etc, as if men don’t take part in those parts of life.) And it’s way too broad. I hate books about shopping and dating. I love books that examine relationships and family. And both those types of books are called women’s fiction. More ghettoising.
  • Women readers do seek out ‘women’s fiction’, whatever that means to them. It doesn’t mean it has to be confined to any particular type of writing, though. (And women also seek out other things to read.) But others (critics, prize judges, lit editors, possibly even booksellers) think it means commercial fiction about domestic life or about relationships with men and family members – like that’s a bad thing. So it’s really not a very helpful term in any way.
  • If I think of women’s fiction at all it would be as an offshoot of popular fiction and would include Mills and Boon, superficial romances and novels involving much shopping for products with trendy names. I recall a genre called ‘sex and shopping’, definitely women only stuff. I imagine it’s a useful category for marketing and shelving books. Readers of literary fiction might use the term derisively to show how intelligent they are.
  • There is no such category as ‘Men’s Fiction’ that I know of in the mainstream, so that would indicate that ‘Women’s Fiction’ is used to corral, marginalise and fence off the work by women from the mainstream. Do women writers themselves refer to their colleagues’ work as ‘Women’s Fiction’ – I seriously doubt it – so the question remains who uses this term and for what purpose? In the same way good writing has no gender, it is just good writing, only the author has a gender, which should not reflect on the quality of the work.
  • I’d be asking someone who uses it what she means by ‘women’s fiction’ – it’s usually only used in a demeaning way in my opinion

Meg Wolitzer, an American writer, also has a few thoughts on the topic.

‘…any lumping together of disparate writers by gender or perceived female subject matter separates the women from the men. And it subtly keeps female writers from finding a coed audience, not to mention from entering the larger, more influential playing field. It’s done all the time, and not just by strangers at parties or by various booksellers that have no trouble calling interesting, complex novels by women “Women’s Fiction,” as if men should have nothing to do with them. A writer’s own publisher can be part of a process of effective segregation and vague if unintentional put-down. Look at some of the jackets of novels by women. Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house.

‘Compare these with the typeface-only jacket of Chad Harbach’s novel, “The Art of Fielding,” or the jumbo lettering on “The Corrections.” Such covers, according to a book publicist I spoke to, tell the readers, “This book is an event.”’ (You can read Wolitzer’s entire article here)

How tempting it is to write a book and give it the title ‘Women’s Fiction’. Then, to introduce a little cognitive dissonance, the cover must have large imposing lettering, and no pictures.

Why does it seem like that book would be ironic?

Paddy O’Reilly’s debut novel, The Factory, was listed among the best books of the year in 2007 in the Australian Book Review and the Sydney Morning Herald, and performed as the Radio National Book Reading in 2009.

Her latest novel, The Fine Colour of Rust , was released earlier this year in Australia and the UK, and comes out in the USA on September 4. She’ll be talking about various kinds of fiction at the Melbourne Writers Festival from August 25.