Why I Hate “Women’s Fiction”

woman reading brown hair blue book white shirt

Let me clarify: I don’t hate Women’s Fiction. In fact, my most recently published novel, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, can be classified as Women’s Fiction. I hate the term “Women’s Fiction”.

Jodi Picoult – Master of Women’s Fiction or just Master of Fiction?

I don’t understand why we need a genre of literature called “Women’s Fiction”. After all, there is no genre called “Men’s Fiction”. Some might think women should appreciate being given a genre of their own. I counter: Why do we need one? Men don’t have one.

When you consider that women buy more books than men, common sense would suggest books considered Women’s Fiction should be the norm, and books expected to only appeal to men should be the ones in a special category.

(For people who don’t have to worry about the genres of the books they read, here’s what I’m talking about: In the publishing world, your book must fit into a category so the literary agents, editors and publishers know what to expect when they dive in, and so bookshops know which shelf it goes on. Literary genres and bookstore shelves don’t match up perfectly, but some terms are used by both, such as General Fiction, Young Adult, Children’s, Mystery, Romance and Nonfiction. Bookstores of course then break some of those, like Nonfiction, into sub-categories like Cooking, Sports and Biography. But back to my point…)

I get how the term Women’s Fiction came about–it was a quick way to differentiate the rising tide of novels by and for and about women from what had been the norm in the male-dominated fiction field for decades. But here’s why the term bothers me:

#1 – It carves out fiction with female protagonists as subservient to the larger collection of literature. I guess if you throw in “Chick Lit” we get two pieces of the publishing world’s pie. But giving us a slice or two of the pie isn’t complimentary. We’re integral to the whole pie. I’m in good company with this opinion; Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty said much the same in this interview.

#2 – “Women’s Fiction” could be interpreted to suggest that only fiction in this category appeals to women. Which is of course bull, because women have been avid readers of all genres–literary, mystery, thriller, medical, sports, etc.– throughout time.

#3 – It could be interpreted to suggest that men and people of other non-female genders won’t like these stories. Which is bull, because many female authors write stories that appeal to all genders, just as many male authors write stories that appeal to all genders.

#4 – The term could be interpreted to suggest women can only write fiction in this genre. Which is bull, because women have been writing in other genres since long before Jane Austen hit the scene. Of course, many like George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) had to adopt male pen names to be taken seriously. *

#5 – It pigeonholes these books into a narrower category than they deserve. Most are life stories that happen to have female protagonists or that delve into emotions women can relate to. But that doesn’t mean men can’t relate to them as well. Or, if they can’t, they can learn something from reading them. Does that sound condescending? No more condescending than expecting a woman to learn something about men by reading stories focused on them. In other words, not condescending at all in my opinion. After all, isn’t that why many of us read? To learn something or appreciate a new mindset?

#6 – It encourages stereotypes. Just look at some of the covers included in this post. I love most of them but some do give pause when you consider what message they send.

I’m in a Kristin Hannah phase so must include one of her covers.

I’m sure there are many other interpretations of what Women’s Fiction might mean, to those not familiar with literary genres. What does it call to your mind? Cheesy romance? Cancer-riddled tear-jerkers? Beach reading? Or higher-brow fiction dealing with prickly issues like menstruation and menopause; or writings filled with misandrist rantings against men? Or maybe, as Liz Kay writes on Literary Hub, the Women’s Fiction tag to you denotes a book “deemed not serious enough to be of interest to men.” If any of those resonated with you, I strongly encourage you to pick up a bestseller by a female author. Soon.

As genders blur, maybe genre terminology will too. Just as recipients of female-focused leadership and achievement awards in the art and business worlds often say they look forward to the day when special awards for women are no longer necessary, I look forward to the day when the genre Women’s Fiction is obsolete.

* Fun Fact: Louise May Alcott wrote under the name A.M. Barnard for many years. According to my mother, we are (very) distant relations to LMA. The “M” in S.M. Stevens is for “May”–an old family name.

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