A recent article in the Times Literary Supplement, with a figure quoted from Helen Taylor’s book Why Women Read Fiction: The stories of our lives, noted that women account for 80 per cent of fiction sales in the UK, the US and Canada. Moreover, the item adds, women form the majority of audiences at literary festivals and bookshop events, listen to more audiobooks, and form the majority of literary bloggers.
The article (and the book it references) proceeds to interrogate the reasons for this 80 per cent statistic, the issues of how, where, when and what women read. However, the question the figure prompts for me is: why on earth do we live with such a phenomenon as ‘women’s fiction’?
An earlier item in The Bookseller (entitled What is women’s fiction) pursues, with similar scepticism, a definition of ‘women’s fiction’, noting that we do not see ‘any genre referenced in reviews as “men’s fiction.”’ The definitions or references this piece identifies include such explanations of the so-called genre as, variously:
- books written by women (basically);
- ‘… an umbrella term for women-centered books that focus on women’s life experience that are marketed to female readers, and includes many mainstream novels’ (Wikipedia); and
- ‘…fiction about women’s issues for a female readership… [that] often incorporates grave situations such as abuse, poverty, divorce, familial breakdown, and other social struggles.’ (Agentquery.com)
Clearly, none of these descriptions is satisfactory. First, as Randy Susan Meyers points out in the above piece, men commonly write on such ‘domestic’ issues as poverty, divorce, and family breakdown (except for male writers, this is perhaps assigned to ‘social issues’ rather than ‘domestic matters’). Meyers cites Roth, Updike, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Pat Conroy. We could add to this list Richard Ford, Dave Eggers, Ian McEwan, James Salter, and many more. Yet we do not, typically, see their books labelled as ‘aga sagas’; ‘bonkbusters’; or ‘chick lit’ (although, admittedly, I have, on rare occasions, seen the flippant ‘dick lit’ used).
The expectation that, as an item in The New Republic put it, ‘women tend to write about domestic issues and affairs of the heart, while men thrive in writing about “serious” issues such as politics’ is a stereotype that is ‘sad but largely predictable’ – and one that often leads to books by female authors being reviewed less and, when reviewed, in more dismissive terms. Indeed, best-selling author Marian Keyes is one writer who has made a plea for us to stop using the term ‘chick lit’ as it is dated and used as a ‘way to mock women’.
As an aside here, you do despair that the days when women had to take on male pseudonyms to be published and taken seriously— the Brontë Sisters; George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans); Karen Blixen; James Tiptree (Alice Bradley Sheldon), do not seem so far away (come to think of it, Rob [Robyn] Thurman and J.K. Rowling anyone?)
Plainly, too, there are male authors writing about women’s lives – and they have long done so, from Samuel Richardson’s early novel Pamela, to William Makepeace Thackeray, Gustav Flaubert and Tolstoy, to Roddy Doyle to Stieg Larsson… to name a few across the centuries.
Finally, ideas about what women read – and write – also appear subject to much stereotyping. Sixty per cent of thriller writer Lee Child’s readers are, apparently, female, for instance. Plus there is a huge number of female psychological thriller/suspense writers. That’s before we get started on the female literary greats. Certainly, it’s not all romance, spanky erotica, and family saga. And in any case, romance in literature is not the exclusive territory of women. As the writer and editor Greg Herron has noted: ‘The great irony is men already read books with romance in them — they just aren’t called romance novels.’
Not that it matters. We must all read what we choose without apology or explanation. In her opinion piece ‘What Do We Mean When We Say Women’s Fiction?’ Liz Kay is another writer that has bemoaned the overt misogyny implied by the ‘women’s fiction’ category of literature. She does state, though, a preference for literature by women, and also that she is ‘not drawn to crime stories… not drawn to overtly masculine grit.’ My own tastes align with that, and I agree with her that ‘women’s fiction’ is not, or should not be, a signifier of a low bar.
Overall, it seems to me ‘women’s fiction’ is a belittling term and an outdated concept. Yes, I can see it may be a handy marketing tool, but one based around gender stereotypes and condescending to a majority of fiction readers.
But do you agree?
Lucy Scholes, ‘The female-only book club: why women read more than men’ in The Times Literary Supplement, 17 April 2020, https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/why-women-read-more-fiction-helen-taylor-review-lucy-scholes/.
R.S. Meyers, ‘What is women’s fiction’ in The Bookseller, 11 December 2011,
Andrew Piper ‘Women write about family, men write about war’ in The New Republic, 08 April 2016. https://newrepublic.com/article/132531/women-write-family-men-write-war.
Anta Singh, ‘Marian Keyes: Please can we stop saying chick lit’ in The Daily Telegraph
31 May 2015, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/hay-festival/11642225/Marian-Keyes-Please-can-we-stop-saying-chick-lit.html.
Maya Rodale, ‘The real men who read romance novels’ on HuffPost, 06 April 2014,
Rebecca Whitney, ‘Are women hard-wired to love thrillers’ in The Daily Telegraph, 28 February 2015. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11440540/Thrillers-and-crime-novels-Are-women-hardwired-to-love-them.html.
Liz Kay, ‘What do we mean when we say women’s fiction?’ on Literary Hub, 19 December 2016, https://lithub.com/what-do-we-mean-when-we-say-womens-fiction/.