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.”
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.