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Friday, March 30, 2012

Genre discussion: Women's Fiction?

Picture of a book with pages open Discussion of women's fiction
More and more lately, I’ve seen books described as women’s fiction.  I’ve even used the phrase myself to describe books that aren’t technically romances but that can’t be slotted into any other genre.  

Truthfully, though, I don’t have a good definition of women’s fiction, and I have to admit I’m somewhat bothered by the phrase. Though some may intend the phrase to be empowering to female readers, I find it rather condescending.  I don't believe it's meant to be so, but I'd like to hear what you think and whether it's useful and valid to describe a book as women's fiction.  Since my own understanding is vague, I'd love to hear what others think.

Share your thoughts: What does the phrase women's fiction mean?  Is it truly a genre?  Does seeing a book described as women’s fiction make you want to read it, or does it make you run fast in the opposite direction?

Updated: Jessica at Read | React | Review happened to link to an article on this topic today, and her one-line analysis sums up my discomfort with the this issue: “'Women’s fiction'” shouldn’t be used for literary fiction, but it’s ok to use for genre fiction?" Yes! That.

Romance novel book reviews by Sarah The Brazen Bookworm

16 comments:

  1. While I don't really like the term "Women's Fiction" and I try not to use it, I would probably define it as anything where the intended audience is women. So Romance, Chick Lit, Cozy Mysteries, etc. (That said?? I don't really like the term and try to avoid using it.)

    -Jac @ For Love and Books

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    1. OK, I get that. So then what about the books make them intended for women? I think this is where I start to get uncomfortable with that term...

      For the record, I'm also bothered by the term literary fiction, or at least the connotations that go along with it and the implications that anything else is somehow less literary.

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  2. I'm wondering if the term "Women's Fiction" has arisen as an alternative to "chick lit" which writers like Jennifer Weiner have loudly opposed to.
    I guess publishers, and humans in general, want to have ways to classify things, as well as sell things, but unless there's a "Men's Fiction", I'm not sure I understand the need for it.
    The issue with it, for me, is that such a term discourages men to read books by women (which statistically they do less anyway). But women readily buy books written by and about men. Thus my policy: I only buy books written by women. Because not enough people do that.

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    1. Yes, the fact that 'women's fiction' seems to preclude men from reading it is a big negative. And since, as you point out, statistics are already trending in that direction, why would we want to further discourage men from reading those books?

      Interesting that you choose to only buy books written by women. Do you ever find it hard to stick to that resolution? If you really wanted to read a book by a male author, would you get it from the library?

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  3. I'm beginning to think all writers (including me) dislike ANY term that excludes any potential readers. My first four books were traditional mysteries that many people, including my publisher, referred to as cozies. Not exactly..no cats, no tea, no recipes, but since there was also no serial killer, I was a cozy. The book I'm working on now has been described as Women's Fiction and that's how I found your blog. I wanted to see what others thought that term meant. Anything that's not a "guy" book?

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    1. Yes, I think I was surprised to see authors using the term as it does seem to exclude readers. Why limit your potential audience?

      The idea that your mysteries are cozy simply because there isn't a serial killer perfectly illustrates how constricting genre descriptions can be.

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  4. I think "chick-lit" used to be a term used for books that weren't strictly romances but with women as the intended audience, but "chick-lit" as a category has kind of narrowed to really be the quirky sex in the city type book. So I think women's fiction is now the name for the rest of the books that are targeted to women but not in no longer in the chick-lit category. Did that make sense?

    My problem is that if the book is written by a male, it would be called literary fiction. I think some of the books put in women's fiction should be in the literary fiction category (which seems to be taken more seriously) instead of women's fiction category.

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    1. Yes, that makes sense, and I think you're right on. I just hate that literary fiction is taken more seriously than women's fiction, simply because of the author's gender.

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  5. Ooh, this is a great discussion! I don't think I've ever really been offended by the term, although I don't always like "Chick Lit" even though I use it. For me Women's Fiction is almost like a genre within Literary Fiction, if that makes sense. It's just as important, but it's classified further by its female protagonist and typically by a dramatic storyline (versus the "romantic comedies" of "Chick Lit"). I always imagine that Women's Fiction is termed that way because the books have elements of female empowerment and feminism, that sort of thing. I never thought of a negative connotation to it - it does seem like the term could limit the audience of a perfectly gender-friendly book, but then if an author has really intended it for a female audience maybe they don't mind? Maybe there are even people who would pick up a book just because they're drawn to the idea of Women's Fiction? For some reason I'm okay with the term, I think because it translates to a very clear picture in my head. But not everyone else lives in my head, so it's certainly something to put a bit of thought into!

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    1. Yes, I completely appreciate there are readers who will pick up a book because it's Women's Fiction, so I want to be careful to denigrate the term too much. And you're right that it does provide a clear picture of what kind of book to expect. I like your idea that it could be considered a sub-sub-genre of Literary Fiction - I may just go with that to make myself OK with the term. :)

      As for the term Chick Lit, I use it a lot even though I think it's even more dismissive than Women's Fiction. However, ever since Bridget Jones, it's become such a part of popular culture that I don't think there's any way to get away from it.

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  6. Interesting topic. I think of "women's fiction" as general fiction written in the last two or three decades in which one or more of the main characters is female.

    As for why there's a distinction, I think it's because there are more woman readers than men. For us, fiction is just fiction - I think female readers are more open to ALL kinds of fiction, whether it's from the POV of a man or woman. I think there are fewer male readers, and I think that male readers can be a little picky and the term "woman's fiction" arose to let men know it's probably not their kind of book. Seriously, would you recommend "The Mermaid Chair" or "The Soldier's Wife" to a male reader? Probably no, because they're from a female POV about female issues. It's kind of like how there are "chick flick" type of movies.

    Honestly, I don't see anything offensive about it. We make up a larger part of the reading population, so we get a whole genre labeled just for us! But I think all this brouhaha about how offensive it may or may not be is probably why men look down on "women things" in the first place.

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    1. Interesting perspective - thanks for providing a different viewpoint. I didn't think of it in terms of the gender breakdown of the reading/book-buying population, but I suppose that should be taken into consideration as well. No, I don't think I'd recommend either 'The Mermaid Chair' or 'The Soldier's Wife,' but I also don't think I'm willing to say that there aren't some males who would appreciate those books. That feels uncomfortably like when Ginia Bellafonte dismissed 'Game of Thrones' as boy fiction and implied that women would only watch it for the added illicit sex (http://nyti.ms/HjN1xy). Perhaps what I'm uncomfortable with is the general pigeon-holing of any genre of books as gender-specific...

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  7. I am a reader and book blogger, but not a writer. I use the term women's fiction because 'chick lit' seems too light hearted and shallow for a most of the books I would classify as 'women's fiction'. I agree with the previous comment; I've never thought it as anything less than a category of literary fiction. To me, it signifies a novel about relationships, which, while it SHOULD be of interest to men, in general, women are more likely to read it. I think the person who said women read a wider variety of fiction is probably right. I wish there was a better name, but I can't think of what that would be, and until there is, the term gives me a clear idea of what I can expect from the book.

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    1. Yes, that's really just what it comes down to, I think. I'm not opposed to the genre existing - just to its name!

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  8. I'm chiming in a bit late here, but this might be of interest. This blog, by Amy Sue Nathan, often asks guests to define women's fiction:

    http://womensfictionwriters.wordpress.com/

    For what it's worth, I once heard an agent (can't remember which one) define women's fiction as 'books written by women about women.'

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  9. I'm writing a novel thatmight be considered women's fiction because it tells the story, largely from her POV, of a woman who enthusiastically embraces the sexual revolution as she comes of age in the late 1960s, works her way through college, marries someone who she considers "an emotional wasteland" after discarding the idea of having a baby on her own, and so on. My questions are: 1) if this isn't women's fiction, what is it? and 2) will female readers read women's fiction written by men?

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Thank you for your comments!

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