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Thoughts on the Women's Fiction Label February 8, 2021

After the inauguration went through without a single murder, and desperate newspaper editors had to resort to headlines about Rolex watches to fill the controversy vacuum, my writing mojo came back like magic. I've now written more than half of the "new" Kagemusha, now tentatively titled Our Little White Lie.

Of course I did what every writer does when they're halfway finished with a work: consider it basically done already and immediately start filling out a spreadsheet of literary agencies and small presses to query. No matter how many times I declare I'm giving up on publishing because money poisons everything, I've never written "for myself." I write for readers who will find joy in my stories. After self-publishing for several years, I know it's not likely I'll reach those readers all on my own.

The first thing one must do when searching for literary agents and small press editors is filter by genre. So the first conclusion one reaches about publishing is that its genres make no sense.

"I'm a huge fan of RomComs like CRAZY RICH ASIANS and TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE. However, I don't represent romance."

"I focus on book club fiction with rich character-driven plots and fantastic writing. No literary novels, please."

"I'm actively seeking LGBTQ+ and BIPOC voices, but I'm not looking for anything political."

Obviously words like "romance," "literary," and "political" have much narrower definitions in publishing than they do in colloquial conversation. This is manageable. Okay, RomComs aren't romances. Cool. Got it. Makes total sense to me. (No, it doesn't.)

But then you get to the most ill-defined and nonsensical genre of all: Women's Fiction.

Google will tell you women's fiction is "a less infantilizing term for chick lit." Or it's "a story that centers on a woman's journey." Or, most helpfully from Wikipedia:

Women's fiction is an umbrella term for women centered books that focus on women's life experience that are marketed to female readers.

So...every book in existence with a female protagonist is Women's Fiction? Yes? But no, according to people on Twitter and Goodreads who "thought this book would be a fun romance, but it turned out to be Women's Fiction." And the agents who say they love upmarket novels with complex female characters like LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, or twisty thrillers that explore female rage like SHARP OBJECTS, but they don't represent Women's Fiction.

In my unscientific study of the term Women's Fiction in popular discourse, readers tend to decide certain books are "for women" because they...

  • Were written by a female author.
  • Have bright cover art depicting a woman in a dress and/or domestic items like flowers, scones, and shoes.
  • Are about boring stuff like interpersonal relationships, instead of cool stuff like sex and violent crimes.
  • Have the Oprah's Book Club logo on top.

The slightly more scientific 2013 article "Adult Reading Habits and Preferences in Relation to Gender Differences" from Reference & User Services Quarterly, a publication of the ALA, describes a study of 29 men and 29 women. While most female participants showed no preference in the gender of an author or fictional protagonist...

  • "Of the 60 authors chosen as favorites by male participants, 57 were male and 3 were female."
  • "Of the 29 male participants, 24 indicated that they preferred books with male protagonists, while 5 indicated that they had no preference."
  • "In the men's favorite books, male protagonists were featured in 64 books and female protagonists were featured in 8 books."

The article ends with this line:

While gender equality in life is crucial, when it comes to the realm of reading, particularly for leisure purposes, it might not be such a bad idea to embrace readers' preferences...and give the men and women what they want.

Though this study was published eight years ago, and the sample size was small, the continued existence of the Women's Fiction genre shows people in the book world still think that way. Men don't want novels by or about women, so women, go sit over there in your own genre and don't bother them. If your protagonist is a middle-aged woman dealing with family issues, please sit next to Liane Moriarty. If she's a single twenty-something dealing with workplace and dating issues, find Sophie Kinsella. She's the one waving the colorful shopping bags full of high heels. Perfect. Thank you, Sophie.

Many years ago when I first learned of the Women's Fiction genre, and I saw the authors in it complaining men weren't interested in their books, my reaction was, "Well, you can't be surprised men aren't interested if you literally label your book Women's Fiction, now can you?" But if you don't even need the label—if all it takes for a man to decide your book isn't relevant to him is a female main character—that does surprise and disappoint me. What the heck, fellas? I thought those dudes complaining they don't want SJW heroines in their video games were immature outliers.

A slight preference for reading about your own gender makes sense. Everyone wants to identify with the characters in the books they're reading, the movies they're watching, and the games they're playing. I can better relate to the books about young women navigating early-career workplace issues than I can to macho hard-boiled detectives with unusually intelligent cats. But I'll still happily read about the detectives if the story is intriguing. I won't pick up a book, notice the cat-loving detective in it has a male name, and say, "Never mind, this book is for men" with a sneer. That would be biased and unfair, wouldn't it? Hm?

However, the results of that study wouldn't be so stark if men's preference for male-centered books were simply an issue of individual bias. It's sytemic. Those numbers are a reflection of what the entertainment industry taught us all for decades: that books, movies, and video games about white men are the universal default everyone can enjoy, while stories that focus on women or minority groups are niche products. The marketing of books for women taught us they're all paperbacks about shirtless Scottish dukes, shoe shopping, domestic drama, and the hollow "life-affirming" brand of feminism that encourages women to Be Empowered without challenging the status quo. ("Look, the heroine was unattractive and mousy, but then she got a makeover, and now she has the strength to speak up for herself AND hook a rich man!")

Let's be honest about what people are thinking when they call a book Women's Fiction: it's bland fluff of inferior quality. They're titles that appear on listicles of Best Summer Books for the Beach and described with phrases like "quick read," "guilty pleasure," and "typical chick lit." Women's Fiction is the vanilla cupcake of literature—sugary and comforting, with no strong flavors or real substance. And marketing departments from the 1990s to the present cultivated this image on purpose, because they believed that's what sells books to the womenfolk, whose pretty little heads can't handle big words.

As Liz Kay put it in her 2016 Literary Hub article, "What Do We Mean When We Say Women's Fiction":

There's something about the way these books are marketed that tells us the pages inside are meant to be easily consumed, that they might be smartly written, but the reader herself will not be required to think. There's something vaguely misogynistic...no, scratch that, there's something overtly misogynistic about a whole category of books whose central promise is to not shake up the world as the reader already sees it.

Because this is the Internet in 2021, I'll spell out that there's nothing wrong with liking books about shirtless Scottish dukes. Sometimes—and by that I mean most of the time—I'm exhausted and crave cotton-candy wish fulfillment too. And the traditional concerns of women are no less important than what we call the concerns of men. Books about domestic drama aren't any more "frivolous" than books about lawyers ensnared in cat-and-mouse games with serial killers.

But are sexy dukes, fashion, and PTA power struggles really the primary concerns of women? I've never met a woman in the twenty-first century whose biggest problems were the age of her wardrobe and her mortifying lack of a husband. We read about dukes only to escape our real-life concerns about the rent or mortgage, career goals and setbacks, the toxic state of the U.S. government, problems in our relationships with parents or partners or kids, racism, taxes, the costs of higher education and healthcare, the sorry state of our lawns and what the neighbors must think, etc. Basically, the exact same concerns the menfolk with big brains complain about on Reddit.

I think the author of the 2013 study, and the publishing industry in general, have it backwards. They say, "Men like these things, and women like those things, so we need to give the consumers what they want." Instead, commercial entertainment shaped what men and women believe they like, then shrugged and said, "What can you do? That's what sells."

If I had a magic wand, I'd wave it and erase the existence of Women's Fiction as a genre label. A "book about a woman's journey" is so broad, it's useless as a category. Imagine it's 2022, the pandemic is over, and you go into a department store. You say to an employee, "Excuse me, I'm looking for running pants?" And the employee gestures broadly to the entire first floor and says, "There's the Women's Department." Then you find out the store carries only two brands: a line of the latest trends for young white career women called Sophie, and a line of matronly blouses and jeans for middle-aged white suburbanites called Liane. As far as that store is concerned, other types of women with different tastes don't exist.

Unlike clothing made specifically for female-shaped bodies, there's no such thing as a story written specifically for female-shaped brains. Marketing books by women and about women to women only, with the faceless models and country cottages and sparkles, is an active choice, not a necessity. We could choose to do things differently, if we wanted.

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