The fiction of ‘women’s fiction’

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’?

clay-banks-GX8KBbVmC6c-unsplashAn 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?

 
References 
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,
https://www.thebookseller.com/feature/what-womens-fiction-339267.
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,
https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-real-men-who-read-rom_b_4713546
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/.

Images
Featured image Ben White on Unsplash
Clay Banks on Unsplash

 

33 thoughts on “The fiction of ‘women’s fiction’

  1. As you say many 19th century novels were penned by women yet published using a male’s name, and even today (apparently) ‘naughty’ erotic fiction is often penned by men using female pseudonyms……… as an aside, seeing as I’m addicted to reading female blogs, without knowing the author’s age, without question I can 100% differentiate between a 20yr slip of a girl and a middle aged mature woman, it’s all a question of outlook my dear girl……. err I’ve meandered slightly off message, but many years ago I did go through a stage of reading erotic fiction written by women because the stories leading into sex scenes were so well written…….. hmm now I’m wondering were they penned by men? That doesn’t feel right to me, romantic fiction should only be written by women.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely not. And I hadn’t thought about how many men write romance and erotica under pen names. I wish I knew who they were – it would be interesting to gain a more male perspective on the related issues.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 😀 Absolutely not? Well written romantic fiction has the power to get me ‘aroused’ (your Kindle story did the trick!) though I’m not so sure I’d be happy getting a ‘h***-*n’ knowing the tale was written by a guy, doesn’t quite feel right.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That should be in more reviews! I ended up reading this holding it in one hand, etc. I did once see an erotica review where the reviewer mentioned having to ‘stop to sort myself out’, but most delicately avoid the obvious.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m very surprised to hear that females buy 80% of novels sold in USA, UK and Canada. I wonder if that statistic is accurate.

    Anyway, I just finished reading The Promise, by Chaim Potok. Liked it very much. Next I plan to read The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan.

    Stay well.

    Neil Scheinin

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ll love The Joy Luck Club, in fact anything by Amy Tan….. She’s a jewel.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Yes, it seems a high figure – buyers not necessarily readers, and fiction not non-fiction, but still – high. I read the Joy Luck Club some years ago – a rich and enjoyable read, hope you like it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I tend to steer clear of books labeled “chick lit”, “women’s fiction”, or “romance” because of a preconceived bias as to what they are about, and maybe I have been wrong to do so. Personally, I just want to be told a good story, and it doesn’t matter to me if the author is female or male. I think chick lit and women’s fiction categories should just go away.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree. I also avoid the chick lit and romance labels, along with anything that’s ‘cozy’ – cozy mystery, etc., along with anything featuring pink and purple covers or bunting. Perhaps I am missing out though – keep meaning to try Marian Keyes, for instance – she’s always direct and hilarious in interviews.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Same here. In the past, it seemed to me that books and magazines targeting women were either vapid or bordering on porn…maybe things have changed.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t understand such categorisation – but then maybe I don’t like men’s fiction. I feel the same way about children’s fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. I find myself going through ‘phases’ or reading me then women authors – I *think* it’s unconscious, but who knows.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I will be posting today on a book written by a man and illustrated by a woman – a perfect partnership from 1937

        Like

  5. I definitely agree. Anything that can demean women, and their work/talent, will be done. It’s the way patriarchal cultures control women and their access to success and relevance. “Men’s” stories are usually insulting to women, violent, sexual and there’s a lot of blood, conflict and the big winner. Those are men’s “romance” novels. They make women look inferior and weak. Men don’t like it when women save themselves or don’t rely on men at all. The way men write about women shows exactly how little they know about us. I stopped reading most male authors years ago. Their portrayal of women was so ridiculous, I couldn’t stop laughing. We need more women everywhere, especially in publishing. Until patriarchy is dead, or limping away, women writers will continue to be dismissed and overlooked. Wonderful post. Thank you for that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This debate around which male authors write about female characters successfully is a big one – Ishiguro for me, and Eugenides often gets a mention, but I am not very familiar with his work. But yes, the prevailing attitudes to categorising fiction written by half the population and (probably) read by well over half is an infuriating one – another instance of the male perspective forming the baseline.

      Like

  6. I emphatically agree…. I just realise that most of any literature I read IS de facto written by women. Never made it an issue, they just seem to be closer to feeling the pulse of their story than men do. Exceptions always highly praised too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I find myself reading more by women these days. I think it’s not a conscious choice but who can be sure. And I agree it’s about finding a perspective one can identify with.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I dislike “genres”. “Young adults”? Women lit? Men lit? Is Alexandre Dumas a young adult writer?
    Would Ana Karenin be women lit?
    I go by Hannah Arendt’s words: “Only the universal matters.”
    Be good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point – when these books were written, of course, it was about all-round entertainment. e can add others to the list, Dickens, for instance. Great quote – Hannah Arendt looks like someone I need to find out more about.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dickens is a great failure of mine. Only read Little Dorrit. In a 19th century French edition, and was not impressed. I think I need to buy an English version. Which would you recommend?
        Arendt? A must. I recommend the condition of the modern man for starters. Sorry: “The human condition” is the English title…
        Stay safe.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ll look out for that, thank you. You already tried the best Sickens novel, Oh dear. He was a story teller but, let’s be honest, not the best writer. Maybe Great Expectations, but life is probably too short to persist if if a book is not happening for you.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I found the book on my shelf. Not a 10th edition. That might be in a box in Paris. I’ll give it another try. 10-20 pages… If it fails the test, back on the shelf. I’ve already tried Proust thrice. To no avail… Hush. I might lose my Frog passport for that. 😉
            What are you reading these days?

            Like

  8. That was a thought-provoking article, Libre.
    I completely agree with your inference.
    Categorization based on gender is an outdated and prejudiced concept. There is no need to compartmentalize creativity based on sex. As the poet and philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge quotes “a great mind is androgynous”. Virginia Woolf discusses this in ‘A Room of Ones Own”. She puts forth the hypothesis of the ‘Unity of Mind’ needed for creation.
    By the term androgynous Coleridge had meant a resonant, porous mind transmitting emotion without impediment, naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.
    He quoted this in 1832. We are living in the 21 st century. Why are we not able to cast the prejudice aside and think like them? As you commented in my post, when is this going to end?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, very kind. These are some brilliant, erudite references, and I love the ST Coleridge quote. I recall reading he was a great supporter of Mary Wollstonecraft. Unbelievable that we’re here more than 200 years later and fighting the ghettoization of women’s fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Probably stats r right. Most of book bloggers are women …as far as I see. I think women more buying books because they see it as a “relaxing chilling time” (& only then educational). Men (just my personal opinion) are buying more “practical” books (to learn 😂) & only then – entertaining (social/political issues) & probably erotica. But they’d never admit it …or at least not at once 😏😏

    Plus men are usually allll about work & business so they don’t read much. For example my husband 😂 – is reading only on vacation

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Anecdotally, I have also found men read more non-fiction – and tend towards the ‘vacation novel’. Think of the book stands at airports! So it doesn’t mean they don’t read, just (probably) less fiction. And obviously the stats mask huge variation and preference.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Jacqui Murray Apr 29, 2020 — 5:52 pm

    I do despair of categorizing women as a particular virtuous type. When I look at the women’s movement, I don’t know anyone like that. So Women’s Lit–what is Men’s Lit?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point. There is sometimes an odd portrayal of women in genre fiction, at least. Romance seems to stem from the fairytale tradition, with ideas about evil versus virtue and ideas also about what made a virtuous woman still prevalent.

      Like

  11. Omg, I was thinking about the women’s fiction just yesterday, and wondered why there isn’t any “men’s fiction” genre.
    I don’t think women’s fiction is a bad term, especially when, as you said, 80% of readers are female. It’s a great marketing handle, and I don’t think it belittle women at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think it does boil down to marketing and the female reader market being larger, and therefore more targeted – at least in terms of fiction. ‘Chick lit’ makes me grind my teeth though! It’s so lazy. we’ve basically put Jane Austen and Nancy Roberts into the same basket.

      Liked by 1 person

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