A Genre of One’s Own: Why Women’s Fiction?

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.”

…Except when you’re taking a class on contemporary American women’s fiction at a university (like I did, and our curriculum began with Ella Price’s Journal and included Toni Morrison’s Love.

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
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

Women write and read fiction—and plenty of it. Women read more fiction than men and works by male writers comprise only 20% of the fiction market.

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.”

#notwomensfiction

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!

AWP 2016 Recap: Searching for a Feminist Utopia

Last week, from March 31 through April 2, I attended the annual conference presented by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in Los Angeles.

Though I was most excited about escaping New England’s frigid winter-spring for warmer climes, I was also eager to attend panels and events integral to the current literary landscape and publishing industry. My first and previous AWP conference was three years ago in Boston (where I took an inverse journey from my last, leaving the humid heat of Florida for snowy scenery during sprang brake). I don’t remember so many panels on women in literature then, so I’m glad to see the conversation has progressed in a relatively short amount of time.

This conference, I attended three panels speaking to social issues in this context (though there were many more!):

  • An Office of One’s Own: Literary Agents on Equality, Gender, and the Business of Creating Books. Four literary agents (Duvall Osteen, Sarah Smith, Monika Woods, Melissa Flashman, and Lisa Lucas, paying homage to Virginia Woolf) shared their perspectives on the current publishing industry as women, critically looking at successful books by women; the literary marketplace; and women’s roles as writers, agents, editors and how they must collaborate with and support each other. What I found interesting and a little misguided was that the panelists’ (all white) conversations were primarily guided by their own experiences, devoid of the issues that women of color face, until the moderator (Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation) addressed this.
  • Guerrilla Girl Marketing. The creators (Katherine Towler, Ann Wertz Garvin, Brandi Granett, Erin Celello, Diane Haeger) of Tall Poppy Writers, a venerable online forum for women writers, spoke about marketing novels and connecting to readers with this marketing collective. From accruing resources to establishing their branded social media presence, the panelists emphasized the importance of working together with women writers to expand the reach of their writing.
  • Visions of a Feminist Utopia: The Feminist Press and the Future. Contributors and editors (Jennifer Baumgardner, Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, Yumi Sakugawa) of the 2015 anthology The Feminist Utopia Project questioned beyond the publishing climate to women’s lived lives: “What is this future we say we believe in? What does it look like and what are we like within it?” Readings from Nalebuff and Sakugawa opened the floor to issues surrounding feminist theory, like sex work and activism.

Basically, these panels taught me that:

  1. Women need to work together to succeed in a man’s world. The “classic” literary canon has long been dominated by old white males (read: Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc.). Women have made strides to be recognized in literature, yet we’re still relegated to the periphery. Even though women read more than men (except in history and biography categories), books written by men receive more reviews and awards than those written by women. As the VIDA count revealed in 2014, men get more ink across the globe: That year the London Review of Books featured 527 male authors but only 151 women, the New York Review of Books had a ratio of 677 men to 242 women, The New York Times book review featured 909 male but 792 women contributors, and The Nation had a ratio of 469 men to 193 women. The words of one panelist stuck with me: as readers, “we have the power here. We should buy books by and about women.” Not to mention, women are also sorely underrepresented in executive positions, though 80% of literary agents are white women and there are more women in editorial positions according to Publishers Weekly. Both on the page and behind the page, women are continuously sidelined.

  1. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Books written by women are often unjustly branded as “women’s fiction.” With this sexist label comes a stigma about the writer and the work itself. Women’s fiction is chick lit. It’s Nicholas Sparks. It’s beach reads and pink covers. It’s fluffy romances and frilly emotional characters. But books written by (and/or for women) are much more than that. Two of the panels highlighted the negative effects of this umbrella classification, citing “women’s fiction” as an obstacle in being taken seriously in academia or other careers. “Serious novels can have pink jackets and be about women,” said one literary agent. Women authors are writing compelling stories not just for a female market, yet their work is absorbed by that gendered classification. All panelists unanimously called for getting rid of “women’s fiction” or calling books written by men as “men’s fiction.” Now that’s not a genre you see at a bookstore.

Other panels I wanted to attend but couldn’t fit into my schedule included: The Active Politics of Queer/Feminist of Color and Indigenous Feminist Publishing Movements, From the Margins: Literary Magazines Supporting Writers of Color, Women Who Edit: Literary Journals, Diversity Integrated: The Literary Art of Inclusion, Rewriting the Hollywood Gender Gap, Unsung Epics: Women Veterans’ Voices, Two Sides of the Mirror: Writing About Body Image Across Gender, Women Writing Fiction in a Postfeminist Era, When I Was Latina: Navigating Privilege in the Publishing and Writing World, Women’s Caucus, and Women Publishing Women: The (Under)representation of Women in Print and in Publishing.

Overall, these panels were generally focused on women, but I would’ve liked more discussion about how trans*, nonbinary genders/gender nonconforming/genderqueer individuals, as well as people of color, are represented in literature and publishing.

As editor Ron Charles says on VIDA’s website, “we have a long way to go.” The Tall Poppy Writers panel put it well: “The need to support writers cuts across gender lines.” Gender parity is vital if we wish to change the conversation and acknowledge women’s and other’s lives and voices. After all, how are we ever going to progress if we hear the same stories over and over again?

What conferences or talks on social issues have you been to? What books by women writers have you read recently?

Share your thoughts about these topics below!