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Women’s Fiction – Should it Even be a Genre?

With international women’s day just passed this week, it seems a good time to talk about the genre of women’s fiction.

Many people in the industry would likely say that women’s fiction isn’t a genre, it’s simply a way of assigning books dealing with women’s issues to an area of the bookshop so it finds the right market to make sales, not a way of confining books to being read only by women. Yet you’d be forgiven for thinking the complete opposite (as general assumption would) — that the trappings of this category tie women authors into a discernible and unfair discrimination and side-lines their work into literature that is not to the male interest.

Women's Fiction

Let’s just put this into context a little first — there is no such thing as ‘men’s fiction’ in the same way. When searching for an agent, there are some who will specifically state they are not interested in stories that deal with ‘women’s issues’ , women's issues being anything to do with relationships (marriage, siblings, parenthood, boy meets girl, friendships), domestic abuse, rape, etc. But it seems to me that all these areas concern both sexes, so doesn't that make them society's issues? According to the publishing world, never mind the many books that deal with human issues alongside these apparent ‘women’s’ issues that may apply to both men and women. And I’m yet to come across an agent that discriminates against ‘men’s’ issues. There are smaller publishers that specialise in women’s fiction, but none that specialise in men’s (because the distinction isn’t made). Do a search on Amazon and women’s fiction is a searchable, definable category that lists mostly romance books (so why can’t it just be labelled romance?). Do a search under men’s fiction and the top categories range from science fiction to children’s books to gay fiction. Nothing specifically for men.

This whole setup implies — deliberately or not — that by default all fiction is for men, except for this corner us women have been ‘permitted’ for ourselves, and smacks of the outdated attitude of ‘let’s give a little something to the women to humour them’. But it also discriminates against men too, outright stating that these subject areas are not for them to concern themselves with.

However, according to statistics, women buy and read more fiction than men — they are the main consumers of fiction — so shouldn’t the default surely be the other way around? Or, better still, let’s just call it <<romance/crime/family/fantasy/insert genre>> fiction and have done with the discrimination all together.

The other stigma that comes with this unwanted label is that the content isn’t meaty enough to be considered serious fiction. It places it within the limits of chick-lit, even though a large proportion of women’s fiction is far weightier and more literary than the average chick-lit tale. Is it any wonder we hear stories of female authors assuming a gender neutral pen name in order to garner agents, publishers and audiences?

It’s every female writer’s fear, at least for those who are not targeting a specifically female audience. Much the same as if you wrote a book with an adult audience in mind and had it shoved into the young adult genre purely for having a teenage protagonist.

Unlike our male counterparts, who only have to suffer the usual bouts of writer self-doubt to which we all pander, we have this extra layer of concern to contend with, and it’s a serious consideration on our paths to publication: how do I avoid the stigma? Because once we're trussed up in it, it's impossible to untangle the perception.

Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think there is anything wrong with writing for a female audience. That’s not the problem. What is a problem is the instant dismissal of perfectly decent, intelligent, carefully considered literature by a certain social superiority that automatically comes attached to the status of being a women’s fiction author — or even just a female author — and it’s not exclusively confined to males.

So when will the publishing industry dump it? Dump women’s fiction as a category, genre, or whatever you want to call it. Dump the labels of chick-lit, chick noir, or whatever else cuts out certain audiences from accessing good literature purely by gender and not by taste. ESPECIALLY in an age where all of our interests are tracked online and marketed towards. There is no viable reason any longer to market by gender when this kind of specific data is widely available to advertisers. When I look for a new book, am I seeking a book that's specifically for females? Hell no. I read the blurb and decide if the story interests me, and that could be just as much about war as it could be about murderers or space pirates or one sister’s very existence being used to serve as a cure for the other’s terminal disease. Labeling a book ‘romance’ will be just as effective in accessing its intended market without discriminating that the lit is only for ‘chicks’.

It’s actually extremely offensive that the label ‘women’s fiction’ itself — or any of the other gender determining labels — implies that women readers’ intelligence needs special consideration that doesn’t apply to men.Or that male readers might need pre-warning. It falls within 'Little Women' syndrome, which is not actually a medical condition but is still prevalent in modern society. I’ve even experienced this attitude first-hand in my own writing group. When one member gave over a piece set to a military background to the group to critique another member told me that maybe I didn’t 'get it' in the same way he did because I was female and he was male. He also said I probably wouldn’t enjoy a story about football for that reason either. I've read enough and watched enough fiction and non-fiction about war for this accusation to really steam me up.

Now, I’m not going to go into the whys and hows online of why the author’s work didn’t click for me, but trust me when I say it was nothing to do with gender filtering, and it was all to do with the writing and story execution techniques, which I have a pretty solid handle on, and discussed many ideas with said author on how to approach what he was trying to achieve. I also flagged the fact that if a story about football was well executed and gripping, then it wouldn’t make an iota of difference to me what the subject area was. For the record, despite this older man’s outdated attitude, which was not meant in any way maliciously, he is a friend and someone whose company I enjoy. He just needs a little reprogramming, is all. *wink*

So, the reality of ‘women’s fiction’ as a category is that it acts as a warning sign to any would-be reader that they might want to avoid this type of fiction because, according to some omnipotent force beyond our reach, this category doesn’t play into what it sees as suitable consumption for the preconceived male stereotype. In the reverse, however, no warning label is deemed necessary.

Either way, it’s time to dump the gender genres — cut the ropes and set female authors free. How long must this debate continue before the industry will listen?

What do you think — should women’s fiction even be a genre?

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