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.
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default all fiction is for men, except for this corner us women have been ‘permitted’ for ourselves, and smacks of the outdated attitude of ‘let’s give a little something to the women to humour them’.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?