In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf was tasked with speaking on women and fiction. She grappled what that meant in 1928, and invoked the names of literary goddesses Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters (among others) as exemplars of their time. Ultimately concluding the relationship of the two as “unsolved problems,” Woolf questioned the intersection of these concepts:
“The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like, or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them, or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together.”
Perhaps the convergence of the three culminates in what we call “women’s fiction” today.
Deconstructing Women’s Fiction
What’s women’s fiction?
“Women’s fiction” is a genre (or more of a category/reading interest) that’s as broad as it is disputed, so there’s not one definition.
Rebecca Vnuk, author of reference books on women’s fiction, delineates its thematic elements (and also offers examples here):
- “The main character (or characters) is a female, and the story is character-driven.
- The author is female—there are rarely exceptions to this rule.
- A woman’s relationships are of highest plot importance.
- The setting is usually contemporary. That isn’t to say that some historical fiction has women’s-fiction appeal, but if you are looking to slot a book into one category or another, historical fiction usually gets higher billing.
- Love and romance may be present but are not the heart of the story.”
Basically, “A woman is the star of the story, and her emotional development drives the plot.” These themes hold primarily for mainstream or commercial women’s fiction rather than literary fiction (like your Toni Morrisons), where plots don’t just revolve around women’s relationships and the “reader spends more time admiring the author’s use of language than they do enjoying the story…If the book can be assigned in a college-level English class for a term paper, it’s probably not really women’s fiction.”
So I’m confused. Could women’s fiction be literary? Could romance (historical, contemporary) or erotica be women’s fiction? What about chick lit (for women in their twenties and thirties, originating with Bridget Jones’s Diary)?
Romance makes just that the central story arc and generally ends in a happily ever after, whereas general women’s fiction doesn’t.
Romance books galore at Barnes & Noble.
But containing such overlapping components across these labels of fiction “means that there will always be arguments for calling one book women’s fiction, while a similar title is considered a romance or literary fiction, and so on.”
If anything is certain with women’s fiction, it’s that the phrase is used to refer to a particular market within the publishing industry, like on Goodreads and Amazon, enabling readers and publishers to more easily find what they’re looking for.
Dismantling Women’s Fiction
But the literary landscape is still rife with sexism on many counts. Even the way we refer to these novels inherently separates them from the rest of fiction. Notice that while there’s women’s fiction, there’s no equivalently named category of men’s fiction…like “literature is male by default.”
Author (of different types of fiction) Meg Wolitzer questions this gender identifier, stating that “Amazon is clearly trying to help readers find titles they want. But any lumping together of disparate writers by gender or perceived female subject matter separates the women from the men. And it subtly keeps female writers from finding a coed audience, not to mention from entering the larger, more influential playing field. It’s done all the time, and not just by strangers at parties or by various booksellers that have no trouble calling interesting, complex novels by women ‘Women’s Fiction,’ as if men should have nothing to do with them.”
Randy Susan Myers (another author of many fictions) shares her stance: “If you want to publish on Amazon, you must pick a category from a list of wide ranging possibilities that include ten sub-genres of women’s fiction and, zero that are labeled men’s fiction. The message is clear. Men are the norm. Women are a sub-category.” Or, as Woolf put it, “it is the masculine values that prevail.”
This bias toward patriarchal literature echoes what feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir argued about gender relationships in The Second Sex—that woman “is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other.” This Otherness is the designation of something as different based on dichotomous modes of thought (like the biblical alterity of Eve to Adam, etc). Books by women, about women, and/or for women need to be referred to as women’s fiction because they’re Other, because The Man thinks they’re inferior. Is it women’s fiction just because it gives female characters agency, a voice, power?
Consequently, women’s fiction as a genre is stigmatized. Women’s fiction as Other means covers featuring pink or pastel colors, cursive script, makeup, jewelry, women doing women things, the word “girl” in the title, etc., when fiction by men doesn’t suffer from the same gendered designs. The bias against women’s fiction (whether or not the book is considered “literary”) stems in part from this visual branding, since “packaging literary fiction by women in frivolous-looking covers diminishes its perceived seriousness…Even when their artistic merits are equal, women writers often still lack the cultural authority of their male counterparts, and this rampant trashy branding contributes to that disparity.” The literary canon has long been dominated by white men, and they still reap the benefits in this systemically sexist society, even when women write and read more fiction.
TL; DR: Women’s fiction is belittled as a reading interest, while novels by/about dudes are somehow “superior.”
Just as Woolf was excluded from academic spheres dominated by and only open to men—“This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.”—so too are women relegated to the periphery as Other with this labeling of genres. Perhaps it’s a marketing ploy, but the women writers I met at AWP share a dislike for the label since their fiction is about women’s interior lives.
“Fiction by women is still being read differently, with the usual prejudices and preconceptions,” and it’s about time we engage with and counter this moniker and what it stands for.
In an era when antiquated occupational identifiers like “authoress” are obsolete—and even sound ridiculous—“We don’t need to call them writer-men and writer-women. We can call them writers. And we can call the novels they write just that. Novels.”
Like author Maureen Johnson called for an end to gendered covers with her “Coverflip,” I say we deconstruct and dismantle women’s fiction.
Since summer is nearly upon us—and that being the most popular time for beach reads (generally considered women’s fiction)—I’m going to read anything I can get my hands on this season that could/would fall under this category (by women, about women, but not necessarily for women), including multicultural, LGBTQIA, and disability narratives.
Women’s fiction is a slippery slope. (Innuendo? Maybe.) Let’s destroy it. Come read #notwomensfiction with me! Tweet @things_he_says_ or mention @things_he_says on Instagram, and use the hashtag #notwomensfiction!