“Women’s Fiction” and Why it is a Problem

After reading this post and having this very argument several times, it is about time I write about it myself.

The term “women’s fiction” is archaic, sexist and needs to go, right now. Not only is it frequently used in a derogatory way towards women writers, but it also convinces a lot of men not to read books that they would have enjoyed, books that have as much literary value as “literary fiction”. This shuttering of women writers into only being “able” to write “women’s fiction” is how we get accusations that Elena Ferrente is a man, because god knows a woman couldn’t write so well! Because we all know that this wasn’t levelled against Harper Lee, or any other damn good lady writer. Whilst this is an issue, it is part of a much, much greater one.

As Ferrente recently said in a Vanity Fair interview:

“Have you heard anyone say recently about any book written by a man, ‘It’s really a woman who wrote it, or maybe a group of women?’ Due to its exorbitant might, the male gender can mimic the female gender, incorporating it in the process. The female gender, on the other hand, cannot mimic anything, for it is betrayed immediately by its ‘weakness’; what it produces could not possibly fake male potency,” she wrote to Vanity Fair.

“The truth is that even the publishing industry and the media are convinced of this commonplace; both tend to shut women who write away in a literary gynaeceum. There are good women writers, not-so-good ones, and some great ones, but they all exist within the area reserved for the female sex, they must only address certain themes and in certain tones that the male tradition considers suitable for the female gender.”

We’ve been fighting this sort of attitude for over a century, with men like D.H. Lawrence saying that women can’t write male characters, because they couldn’t possibly know how to write from a male perspective, but men are perfectly capable of writing women because they’re sooooo simple. H.D. raged against this very attitude in her novel, Bid Me to Live. Charlotte Brontë was angry about men stomping on her writing. Collette rallied against this, Virginia Woolf led the charge with A Room of One’s Own  and Rebecca West, Agatha Christie and Daphne Du Maurier drove in the blows with their popular, and very well written novels. Female writers ever since have been continuing the fight… but is anyone listening?

For example, my father can be, let’s face it, a bit sexist, especially when it comes to choosing what books to read. We’ve had several battles over books written by women and women recommending books to him. We’ve fought over the fact that he was gung ho to read The Cuckoo’s Calling when he thought it was written by a man called Robert Galbraith, but when he
found out it was actually written by a woman, and furthermore a women who wrote *gasp* fantasy books, he wanted nothing to do with it. We’ve argued over a female friend of mine recommending him Scandi noir crime novels, because he decided that books recommended by a woman wouldn’t be “hard hitting enough.” tumblr_m6v5osjxd21qd7lyl

But recently, the argument turned to The Lake House by Kate Morton. I had bought an Audible copy for mum, because she loves Kate Morton. It also fell right when Dad had asked me to hunt him down a book to read. He noticed The Lake House sitting in the library, and thought it must be the book I’d got for him. When he found out that it wasn’t, let’s just say that he wasn’t very pleased… despite the fact that he was enjoying it. “Well, it’s good for women’s fiction”, he said.

This book is a mystery, dealing with child abduction, mental trauma, war, murder and much, much more. Because it has a vague hint of romance, and because, most, but not all, of the POV characters are women, it is considered “women’s fiction”, or worse, “romance” or “chick lit”… which is really rather interchangeable, despite “women’s fiction” being vaguely considered the more literary of the three.

This is why I had to repeatedly justify and defend my decision to write about three female authors for my thesis. This is why books written by women are given silly, fluffy looking covers, when equivalent books by men are given nice serious ones.

I’m kind of complicit in this, though, I must admit. I do tend to dismiss “chick lit”, because I’ve honestly tried and can’t seem to enjoy it as much as I’d like to, usually because of how disconnected I feel from the characters. I’ve tried Sex and the City, P.S I Love You and a few others, and whilst I enjoyed the latter well enough, the former I couldn’t even finish, despite my love for the TV version. I recently read The Enchanted Island by Ellie O’Neill, because it looked interesting, but found the main character insufferable. However, her writing was perfectly fine, easily having more literary merit than many of the best selling male authors. So my prejudice isn’t founded on writing quality… it’s characters. So yeah, I’ll admit that I have been dismissive of what is marketed as “chick lit”, but the more I consider these gender issues, the more I worry that I, and many others, have missed out on grand books because of this gendered marketing tool.

Spot the difference here? Jeffrey Eugenides’ book, had it been written by a woman, would likely have been packaged like this Marian Keyes book, despite them both being best selling authors. I’ve not read anything by either writer, but really… this is a fair difference.

But what bothers me as much as the blatant sexism that carries on here, is that men like my dad automatically dismiss books that they would have enjoyed had they not been marketed towards women and had society and marketing not pushed many men so far away from being okay with reading anything remotely described as “women’s”. I’m sure it’s alienating for men who do enjoy books by and about women, who then may not want to admit it for fear of scorn.  No wonder why I’ve heard e-readers have become fantastic for men who can now enjoy their dose of Austen without being given the side-eye… nope, not just for middle aged women reading erotica on the train. Gotta love stereotypes!

For example, here is a list of “books for men” that contains one woman, the aforementioned Jane Austen. Even then, it comes with a caveat that it’s a “surprise” to have her, and that if it’s not “manly enough” you can read the version with additional zombies. Right.

Why limit the majority of women writers to a sub-genre that shouldn’t exist in this day and age, and one that limits the potential readership of their novels? Is that not counter intuitive, given that many of these “women’s” fiction novels are easily interesting to many men, even those averse to “feelings and stuff”. To worry solely about women winning literary prizes simplifies the issue- though, to be fair, many do so by writing about men, which in itself is rather telling. We need to look at it from both aspects, that women are being pigeonholed and kept from being taken seriously, and that men are being precluded from finding books simply because of a marketing ploy used by publishers.


20 thoughts on ““Women’s Fiction” and Why it is a Problem

  1. Great post, and mighty literary muscle to back it up. Only by continuing this conversation will we get anywhere! Regarding your cover sample, I haven’t read Eugenides’ book, but I did read Keyes’, and like most of her books it’s actually quite dark, the main theme being crippling grief. Keyes always writes about dark themes, narrated by characters who cover up an internal deep-rooted panic with wisecracks and self-deprecating humour. Yet to look at her covers, you’d swear they were all about finding the right shoes. She never complains, but a lot of her readers think it’s ridiculous and unfair.

    • Thank you! That’s an amazing compliment, coming from you! Your post was so wonderfully written and inspiring, totally put into words what had been annoying me for a very, very long time, and gave me the push to actually get it out there! Thank you!
      To be perfectly honest, for many years I did think that of Marian Keyes, and I am so pleased to have been proven wrong! I’m not even a reader and I’d love to take a chunk out of whoever makes her cover decisions!

      • I suppose every work of art is a trade-off between what’s meant and what’s sold. Perhaps it’s best to make peace with it, I don’t know myself (yet!).

  2. I noticed two other women in the list: Colleen McCulloch and Baroness Orczy. In fact I’m surprised there was one, let alone three 😉

    I find pigeonholing books into genres, and ever tighter genres at that, to be very frustrating. And yeah, women’s fiction, because we don’t read proper books (or write them) do we?

    • I’m with you! People are so hell bent on seperating everything into genres, then breaking those genres down again and again… it’s needlessly confusing and unnecessary!
      A woman? Read a proper book? Pshh. Never. I can’t read books written with words of more than one syllable 😉

    • Thank you! 😀 I’m thrilled with the feedback this post is getting, I didn’t expect it!
      Oh of course… I wish I could read everything, and be interested in everything, but yeah… to dismiss solely on basis of gender is a poor excuse. I think we all know people who do, sadly 😦

  3. I will admit- I love chick lit. It is a recognizable genre and sometimes suits my mood. However, sometimes I’m in the mood for a biography of Stalin or Jo Nesbo or Charles Dickens- not because of the gender associated, because I am interested in the book itself. Do I have authors I don’t enjoy? Absolutely. Is it because of their gender? Not even close. I agree with you; “women’s fiction” is a male created concept (one I will admit I haven’t heard before now). I am waiting for the day when female authors as a whole are celebrated with the same speed and ferocity of men. Wonderful post!

    • Thank you so much! 🙂
      Nothing wrong with reading a variety! I am doing so right now- I’ve got Miles Franklin, Dumas, and a history of London on the go all at once! If a book looks good, why give a toss if it’s written by a man or a woman? Why miss out! 🙂 and ditto if you don’t like certain authors.
      I wish it was non existent genre, hopefully it will be extinct soon. I’m going to be right there with you partying when that day comes!

  4. What a great post! I totally agree. I’ve often wondered why Marian Keyes books are given those covers. I also think writers such as Maggie O’Farrell or Helen Dunmore are unfairly judged because of their covers.

    • Ooh I read a Maggie O’Farrell book once, you’ve reminded me to go back to her at some point, she was great! …and very dark. The name Esme Lennox springs to mind? Great book. It had a very pink and fluffy cover, from memory… proves the point!

      • Yes. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. It’s a stunning book, very dark dealing with mental health issues. Generally has a pretty lady on the cover…..

      • I read it many years ago when I found it at a family friend’s house, and devoured it. It may be part of the catalyst for my being interested in historic mental health issues, since I don’t remember thinking about it before that. I should hunt down a copy!

  5. I’m glad so many people are talking about these issues now. I’m a librarian and at my job we often talk about the way books get pigeon-holed because of the genders of the authors, especially when it comes to young people. You’d think it was against the law to give a teenage boy a book written by a female author, to judge from some of the recommend book lists out there. I read everything from romance to Russian classics, but it’s so obvious that “female” genres like romance are completely dismissed even though more “male” genres like science fiction aren’t necessarily better books. It’s fascinating!

  6. I haven’t even read this yet – I will, and then come back and comment fully, but I just wanted to say I read that first article because you shared it, and loved it. I have a draft sitting in my blog I need to finish along the lines of “I have a problem with the term chick-lit”, which is a similar topic. I think I need to get on to that soon! R x

    • OK – so now I’ve read the whole thing, I definitely need to work on mine! I see your section on chick-lit touches on what I want to write about. My dad used to be a little sexist when it came to female authors, bearing in mind he only started reading in March 2015, he just used to not like books at all! I started him on male ex SAS authors, and I’ve gradually nudged him out of his comfort zone, and recently he’s read some crime fiction by female authors. I really want him to read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, and I hope he’ll give it a go. He’s currently reading a Sophie Hannah, so there’s hope! He’ll never venture towards chick-lit, and in a lot of ways I don’t blame him. As I’ve matured as a reader, chick-lit has largely fallen off my radar, and I’m not sure if it’s the quality of the “genre” (there are some cracking chick-lit reads out there), or if it’s my annoyance at genre’s name. R x

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