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.
As a reader I really get annoyed by the term women’s fiction – it is often applied to books about which I (a woman) have zero interest in (shopping, shoes, anything involving Sarah Jessica Parker) so I am made to feel as if I am not really a ‘proper’ woman after all because I am not interested in an entire category of books written especially for me – the constant reinforcement of gender stereotypes is so frustrating
but also, and much more sadly it is, as you say, often used to marginalise important issues and the women who write about them by being applied to books about such pesky subjects as family relationships and similar things which clearly involve both men and women but which publishers think only women are interested in
I’m with you 100%, Paddy, I really dislike the term “women’s fiction” for all the reasons you mentioned above – namely that’s it’s dismissive, old-fashioned sounding, limiting and vague. I would be very much surprised if it has ever encouraged a man to pick up a novel, and if he did, it would be with very definite pre-conceived notions about what kind of story he was getting. It doesn’t do anyone any service, and as you mentioned, it completely short-changes fiction by women about women.
I have similar problems with the term “chick-lit”, which I believe for some readers means the same thing as “women’s fiction” (a book about women by women); I have occasionally used the label when reading one of those British novels that are rather silly, that have those distinctive “chick-lit” covers, but part of me always baulks at it and I prefer to call them plain old “fiction.”
I think the only ones labels like this helps is the publishers themselves, who need words and categories like this when deciding how to publish, market and promote a book, from what kind of cover to give it to how to write the blurb. Maybe it should stay one of those dirty “trade secrets” …? 😉
p.s. can I go totally fan-girly on you and say that The Fine Colour of Rust was my favourite book read last year? (and I hated seeing it described anywhere as “chick-lit” or “women’s fiction”, grrr!)
Thanks, Shannon! And Bernadette, sorry about the late reply (this is similar to my fiction writing speed…) I was interested in Wolitzer’s idea of covers and that certain covers signal the book is an ‘event’. Frankly, I think every book is an event. And if, as most people in the industry say, apart from the very heavily marketed ‘event’ books most books sell by word of mouth, then we have as much power as anyone in promoting books we love without ghettoising them. Which is kind of great.
Me, I love the term ‘women’s fiction’ – in fact my gf and I have our books categorized as ‘litfic, poetry, plays, memoirs, children’s lit, crime, SF/fantasy, women’s fiction’. It’s partly because the term is useful to me as a reader, designating ‘books I might actually read’ as opposed to ‘tedious, narrow-vision crap about how haaaaaard it is being a maaaaaan’, which 90% of the time is what people turn out mean when they say, for example, ‘literary fiction’. So I absolutely think of The Fine Colour of Rust (which I loved, btw) as women’s fiction, because that term doesn’t sound derogatory or denigratory or ghetto-izing to me; in fact if I hear a book described as ‘women’s fiction’, I expect it to be *more* inclusive, *more* humane, *more* capacious, *more* fully engaged with more aspects of the world, than a book which is not described with that phrase.
In terms of what ‘women’s fiction’ is: I’d follow the view of the feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter that for historical reasons, women writers are, and always have been, positioned differently from male writers in terms of their access to publishing, to reviews, to critical acclaim, and to canonical status. Partly because of this, and partly for other historical reasons women’s writing can be seen as forming a parallel literary tradition to the mainstream (masculine) canon – not entirely unconnected to that mainstream canon, but in some ways and at some points almost semi-autonomous. ‘Women’s fiction’ is created out of a network of texts by women which refer to and build on one another.
tl;dr: women are awesome and the adjective ‘women’s’ is a compliment; how could it be any other way?
Great post, Ika. I agree, we shouldn’t be afraid of the idea of “women’s writing”. We should celebrate it.
WTF is women’s fiction. Exactly what I was thinking to myself when typing my question into Google’s search box after stumbling across the genre title. Generally women’s fiction is lumped together with Romance. How typical.
I agree with Paddy that Women’s Fiction is a worrying term (though I get the high minded academic theory that it is meant to be a more a inclusive idea. But that goes against common sense which is what most of us are stuck with). It raises good questions though but mostly unanswerable ones. Do women write or read differently? About different things? For different reasons? Should there be Short People’s Fiction (I’m really short) or Mad People’s Fiction (no comment)? Perhaps Materialist Fiction or Uneducated Fiction. Haha. The point is, marketing is an ugly sport. I just don’t want my books (or other women’s books) to have an insipid empty boring pathetic cover just because I can breed with males! I’m funny that way. Mostly, I fear that’s what Women’s Fiction means – publishers treating books by women weirdly and limiting their readership.