Thought Catalog
May 16, 2014

Could The Term “Women’s Fiction” Be Bad For Authors?

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What is the issue?
m-gucci / iStockphoto
m-gucci / iStockphoto

Spring Break(down) for Publishing

The industry! the industry! tries to stuff as many conferences and trade shows into the phone booths of April and May as possible. This ensures that attendees are exhausted, distracted, and confused, and that organizers are harried, frustrated, and confounded.

Calendar-cramming may become one of those fading elements of Old Publishing soon. When whole conferences are held, cheek-by-jowl, in competition with each other — in the same venues? #Cmonson.

One of the effects of this annual nametag-gnashing is that important issues rise up, get tossed around like Frisbees at Daytona Beach, and then are dropped, trampled, forgotten. Publishing can’t stop to focus on anything. It drags its “big-book” blanket bingo over the dunes, staggering from that major book fair on one end of the quarter to that huge book expo on the other.

And this spring, one of the genuinely serious sets of issues getting covered up by the sand of “crazy busy!” has to do with gender.

Run for Your Life

Gender issues in publishing? Politics and religion suddenly look like dandy topics.

If an exhibition hall elevator doesn’t have enough room for you when the doors open, you can say to the folks inside that you’re “hoping we can all have a good chat about gender balance in the industry.” You’ll have the whole car to yourself by second floor.

We are probably running as hard and as fast from serious, significant issues of gender in this industry as we are from questions of ebook royalties and author obesity.

There are special circumstances that make this the case. I will scoot around those for now  — Dick van Dyke-like — rather than tripping over that ottomon.

All I need to say for the moment is that some very fine observers are worried that the preponderance of richly talented, keenly intelligent women in our industry may — I said may — weigh on various aspects of our content in completely unintentional ways. I said unintentional ways. Can an industry imbalanced in either direction, male or female, be sure that its collective sensibilities are producing the material that both genders truly need to read?

While I’ve touched on the quiet concern of some deep-tissue matters the business needs to confront in mutually supportive, patient, non-judgmental exchanges — especially in a culture in which men are not reading enough — I want to commend to you today one messenger of an important aspect of these sobering questions.

‘Women’s Fiction’

Author Randy Susan Meyers, in What Does ‘Women’s Fiction’ Mean? at Beyond the Margins, has found the courage to call into question a classification that may be the perfect example of the trap of ghettoization. She writes:

One can only assume…that what one needs to write ‘women’s fiction’ is simply a uterus. Jests aside, this category seems suddenly entrenched in literary culture. 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.

I have found that there are, actually, pockets of operation in which “men’s fiction,” or phrases like it, are in use. Meyers is right that there’s no such official stamp as “men’s fiction.” But there are instances of the term’s application.

For example, we learn from the newsletter of agency frontrunner Andrew Lownie that Little Brown’s Sphere imprint in London has a senior editor for “men’s commercial fiction.” In a January edition of Lownie’s bulletin, a roundup of editors’ interests includes an entry from that senior editor, the very capable Ed Wood, who writes, in part:

A lot of people ask what men’s commercial fiction is: in short, it’s anything mass market that appeals to a male audience. Simple as that.

To me, men’s commercial fiction should be bold and thrilling, with the ability to cross boundaries. It can also take many forms, from tales of guns and guts to witty stories of modern male life.

But Meyers is completely right that while “women’s fiction” is an actionable classification in much of the industry today, there is no such common categorization of material for men, certainly nothing so coherent as Wood’s understanding.

Meyers is rightly concerned that bias and sales limitations may be exacerbated, not eased, by the terminology of “women’s fiction”:

If I’m not mistaken, are there not many books written by men and marketed to all genders that include abuse, poverty, divorce, familial breakdown, and other social struggles? Philip Roth, John Updike, Jonathan Tropper, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Pat Conroy, and Wally Lamb – to name a few. The prejudice is clear, but there is also a practical problem here. If ‘women’s fiction’ is a marketing device, it’s confusing as thus. Label a novel ‘women’s fiction’ — is the message ‘not for men’? By carving and dicing books into thin-as-lox slices, women writers lose readership. With ‘women’s fiction’ are half the potential readers in the world blocked off before the books hit the shelves?

A good example of this? Therese Walsh’s new The Moon Sisters. Such a book, built on coming-of-age tensions and tinged with magical energies, is easily overlooked by too many readers when “women’s fiction” is slapped on it.

An Aside

This observation is my own and not Meyers’: if anything, the assumption that “women’s fiction” means that “everything else is for men” might actually be backward today.

I’ve been working with Jo Henry, Carl Kulo and their researchers at Nielsen recently on a deep-dive study of the Mystery/Crime readership: Our survey results indicate that more than two-thirds of that audience is women. And guys might be thought to like a good mystery, right? This would seem to be a genre in which they could find their feet as readers, as my generation of boys found traction in the Hardy Boys books.

Based on this and other reports of faltering male readership, especially in younger guys, when do we finally stop saying things like “everything else is for men”? With romance in the ascendancy, isn’t it becoming more likely by now that “everything else is for women” in the world of books? As Meyers is helping us realize, do we really see so much output from male authors that’s “not for women”?

Back to Meyers’ own good thoughts.

Dentist Office Books

I love what she tells us here:

My own novels have been labeled: women’s fiction, mainstream novel, literary fiction, commercial, upmarket—almost everything except horror and spy. But, as the nation of readership becomes more acclimated to categorization, more men have written me to say, I picked up your book from my wife’s side of the bed and was surprised how much I loved it. One man (who’d taken a writing seminar I taught) wrote the following: I bought “The Murderer’s Daughters” for my wife, to be supportive of you–since I loved your workshop. A few weeks later, I took my wife to the dentist and forgot my book. She had brought yours with her, so while she was in the chair (since I had nothing else) I picked it up. Wow. It’s great! So maybe we can start a new category? Dentist office books?

And I agree with her: “This is not a small issue.”

I may come to this table concerned primarily for my brothers who aren’t reading, but it’s not helping my case any more than it is women’s to have this burden of categorization hanging over everything.

I’d be glad to see a young man reading one of Meyers’ books. And I guarantee you that if you tell that guy that something is “women’s fiction,” he won’t touch it until he’s stuck at the dentist’s office.

Every time you say “Oh, guys don’t read,” you can hear the books in boys’ hands snapping shut. These guys will fulfill your assumption if you even hint that reading may not be “manly.” Be careful what you say.

Male and Female Fiction

There is a useful series of comments with answers from Meyers following her article at Beyond the Margins. I like this exchange:

Elizabeth Hein: “I’d like to say I write ‘issue based fiction that explores the inner life of adults in crisis,’ but there’s no shelf for that in a bookstore.”

Meyers: “I’d love to see that shelf and we’d call it male and female fiction.”

And there you have it. Male and Female Fiction.

This is what literature was, and is, and can be. But we have to make it so. And that will not be easy. Our culture is all too happy to accept Madison Avenue’s obsession with gender. Everything in our world is sexualized. We are making ourselves crazy over gender distinctions, real and imagined.

Meyers:

We don’t need firemen and firewomen—they’re all fire fighters. And all those writers we love? 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.

What do you think? If we could slap this industry out of its springtime events-mania long enough to make it think about what it’s doing, would the sales departments and editorial boards be willing to contemplate giving up “women’s fiction” as the readership-limiting label it has become? When does a classification become a curse?  TC mark