What is Women’s Fiction? Is it really a genre? How does it differ from chick-lit?
After the “Top Ten Tuesday” of June 11, where we talked about our “unpopular bookish opinions” I began a discussion with another blogger – Christine who has the blog Life with All the Books – about women’s fiction. In her post she said that what she takes issue with…
“… is the genre itself being called ‘women’s fiction’ – I genuinely find it pretty offensive to imply that only women enjoy books like these. Also why is there no corresponding ‘men’s fiction’? I feel it’s pigeonholing women and is stereotypical and dated. Just to reiterate though – I’m not insulting the books themselves or their readers in any way!”
As someone who proudly purports to read women’s fiction, this got me to thinking, mostly through a discussion in the comments with her.
What is Women’s Fiction?
First of all, I wondered… Are we really all seeing that label and thinking the same thing? I’m not sure we are. In fact, I’m almost positive that we aren’t. If I look through the books on NetGalley that are under their women’s fiction genre, I’ve noticed that there are many books there that I would never call women’s fiction. In fact, several I found there are more what I would call chic-lit than women’s fiction. I mean… Danielle Steele? Sorry, but that’s hardly what I would call women’s fiction; surely she’s closer to being a romance author, no? And yet, this is what springs to mind when we use this label, and I think it’s about time that we set the record straight.
Just to see how far off my opinion is from the general definition, I checked the Wikipedia entry which says that:
“Women’s fiction is an umbrella term for women centered books that focus on women’s life experience that are marketed to female readers, and includes many mainstream novels or woman’s rights Books. It is distinct from Women’s writing, which refers to literature written by women.”
Well, that’s not too bad, but I don’t think they have to be marketed exclusively to female readers. I mean, why can’t men be interested in a woman’s life experience? I seriously don’t think it should necessarily be included as part of the definition, even if the majority of readers would still be women. On the other hand, Writer’s Digest seems to ignore the marketing to women in their assessment of the difference between women’s fiction and romance, which is fine with me. It is more about the female journey, and understanding “what it is to be a woman.” Their distinction between this and romance also makes a whole lot of sense to me. They note that the romantic relationship is the key element in romance books. While we know that romance novels are almost invariably marketed to female readers, I’m sure some men do read them. However, I’m also certain that more men would read women’s fiction if books that should be categorized as romance weren’t lumped in with them, as if they’re the same; obviously, they really aren’t.
Should women’s fiction be considered a real genre?
The question is, why would people object to a literary genre called women’s fiction? That’s what is most beyond me, and the argument that there’s no equivalent men’s fiction doesn’t cut it for me, I’m afraid. Perhaps had female writers and stories about women been given the same historical attention and respect that male writers have received, then there might not be a need for this genre. Case in point: If Mary Ann Evans had written under her own name, would she have even been published? Yet George Eliot is well known author even to this day, and she even insisted on people calling her by her pen name. See? Misogyny exists (and probably always will) in the world in general. The lack of equal recognition is what brings those who are of that minority or oppressed population group to step forward and make their own way to gain the attention to this inequity, and point towards themselves as examples of what should be. Therefore, if female writers, writing from the women’s perspective was heretofore ignored, mocked, or even shunned, by comparison to the focus on male writers, then I think that women have a perfect right to our own unique genre.
Can anyone write women’s fiction?
Not surprisingly, I believe that on the whole, more women write women’s fiction than men do, and there’s a good reason for that. It is arguably much harder for a man to fully understand a women’s journey than it is for a woman. That doesn’t mean that if the author is female that she’s going to get it right, either, but chances are she’ll generally have a better feel for it than a man will. Still, I have read some male authors who succeeded in portraying their female protagonists quite well, and I would consider some of those books to be women’s fiction. One example, David Blixt’s excellent novel about Nellie Bly, “What Girls are Good For” which not only gets into his female protagonist’s head, but does in in first person! On the other hand – and correct me if I’m wrong here, guys – it seems that women don’t have as difficult a time getting into a man’s head. I’m not sure why that it, but that’s my overall impression.
Is women’s fiction the same as chick-lit?
As an aside, I should probably mention the genre called chick-lit (sometimes spelled chic-lit, which I wrote about LONG ago on this blog) is probably closer to women’s fiction than romance is. Technically speaking, as I see it, the difference between chick-lit and women’s fiction is mostly down to the age of the female protagonist. Whereas the chick-lit female in question is usually in their 20s or 30s, and the women’s fiction females are generally slightly, if not a whole lot older than that (40s and up). The similarity being that both these genres focus on the woman’s experience, but just from a different life perspective – one of less experience and the other with more experience. I admit that when I was younger I did read many books that (in hindsight) were probably chic-lit novels, but now that I’m in my 60s, I find that I’m really not attracted to these books, and those that I have read over the last decade have left me feeling like I wanted to slap some sense into of these main characters (ahem, I’m talking to you, Andy from “The Devil Wears Prada,” for example). Sorry!
Yes, women’s fiction is a true genre, in my opinion, and books I consider to be in that genre are almost always literary fiction as well. I’m not at all ashamed to say that I like women’s fiction a whole lot. In fact, when a book is historical, biographical, women’s fiction, I’m totally in my element. We just need to be careful when we call something women’s fiction, to ensure that we are judging it for its focus on the female experience (with or without a romantic relationship), and not that it just happens to be written by a woman or that it just happens to have at least one prominent female character.