TCL’s Literary Musings: Women’s Fiction.

What is Women’s Fiction? Is it really a genre? How does it differ from chick-lit?

Paper Literary Musings

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 what girls are good forsurprisingly, 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!

Conclusion

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.

Rosie Medium

 

26 thoughts on “TCL’s Literary Musings: Women’s Fiction.

  1. Wonderful post Davida. I agree that Women’s Fiction and Chick-Lit have a lot of similarities, but differences as well, definitely maturity is a big one. I do know men who read women’s fiction, just as there are many women who read books based on male experiences (although many of those are action, thriller, spy etc.) This post gave me some things to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The main problem with this kind of characterisation though is that while men who would otherwise have been inclined to read the books next the said category, would probably shy away from reading them because. Another thing is that with the labelling, women writers ,as you pointed out, may get into their heads that whatever they write is going to be considered as “women’s fiction” as well. Writers like Alice Munro, Alice Sebold, in my opinion, write very well though. Their writing is beautiful, provocative and moving. You should check their books out!
    I really liked your post. You write very convincingly and engagingly. ❤️❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. And yes, I’ve read both Munro and Sebold, and I like their work. Are they “women’s fiction” writers? I’m not so sure. Yes a couple of Munro’s stories I’ve read could be categorized as that, but not all of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting post. I have never thought about Women’s Fiction as a genre and would probably struggle to define it. But I like your definition. I just hope that books labeled Women’s Fiction won’t be ignored by men or even by some women who confuse this genre with chick-lit or similar.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Such a thoughtful post! My main objection to the term springs from its use in publicity and/or reviews becuse it stops many men from reading novels labelled in this way. This also applies to book jackets. I’ve handed many novels on to my partner that he’s enjoyed but would never have picked up in a bookshop.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Romance novels tend to have the bad covers more than women’s fiction, but yes, sometimes women’s fiction novels have covers that look like they’re almost romance novels. However, those are often the ones I find lack something.

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      1. Sadly, at least here in the UK, that doesn’t always seem to be the case. I remember Elizabeth’s Strout’s wonderful Amy and Isabelle appearing with a dreadful pink cover when I was a bookseller. Sank without trace!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. A great post. It inspired me to look at my Goodreads lists to see which books I’ve read that I put under women’s fiction. Often I use the category that the author has used, but sometimes I add extra categories, ones that I thought the book suited best. I found that those in my women’s fiction list tended to be books from larger publishing houses, who most likely marketed them at a profitable reading sector.

    Interestingly I have put many more of my books into other genres like historical fiction or romance, where they seemed to be better suited. It was a useful exercise and highlighted that I no longer enjoy fluffy books.

    I do agree that some male writers struggle to capture the complex layers which make up a woman. I cringe when they stereotype them into either hourglass sex godesses or hardened butch men who just have boobs. But, as you say, not all women writers can get women right either.

    There is a genre now called LadLit, it fills the niche market for men that ChickLit does for women. I’ve not read a book in this genre as it doesn’t appeal to me.

    Thank you for this post, I’ve enjoyed reading the comment too.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ok….this is a great discussion topic Davida! I’ve actually never thought of chick lit defined by age! To me chick lit is light, fluffy, entertaining, and easy reading with very little substance….usually includes romance. Elin Hilderbrand comes to mind. For me, women’s fiction focuses on women characters and women’s issues….but it usually has more substance and more thoughtful themes than chick lit. I think of books like Clock Dance or Britt Marie (written by a man!). You’re right, though, why don’t we have men’s fiction! Maybe The River could be called men’s fiction? But it was marketed to the general public. Why can I enjoy The River but men are not encouraged to read books about women???!!! Very thought provoking post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah… but my point is, I don’t think we NEED a “men’s fiction” genre. Mostly because female authors have traditionally been ignored, ridiculed, or mocked, forcing many women to publish under men’s names or use their initials instead of their full given names. The problem with men not reading women’s fiction is that the genre isn’t properly defined, thereby making it less appealing to them. Also, when we lump inappropriate books into the genre, people who might like the appropriate ones will be turned off by the inappropriate ones. See what I mean?

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      1. I see! I vote we eliminate women’s fiction because we have many other genres that would apply and be more specific…I don’t think we need men’s fiction or women’s fiction. Readers should be comfortable reading whatever they want to!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. We will then have to agree to disagree. I believe, if properly defined, that women’s fiction should appeal to men as well as women. But we do need a women’s fiction genre, because of the historical marginalization of women in the literary world.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Definitely Yes to properly defined women’s fiction!! And I understand your point about women authors being marginalized. Honestly, I hadn’t thought that much about it until you brought it up! My reading consists of a majority of women’s authors, so I was neglecting to think historically. I always agonize over assigning genres and now I need to carefully consider women’s fiction. 👍 What titles do you think are good examples?

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      4. Probably the best examples are the ones that look at real, historical women (or based on what real women did) and tell their stories from their point of view. Of late, books like The Only Woman in the Room, Mistress of the Ritz, and The Last Train to London come to mind.

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  7. Great post!!! Personally I have never particularly liked the term women’s fiction as it is frequently used in a demeaning sort of fashion. I tend to categorise books along the lines of historical fiction, contemporary, sci fi etc. But your point arguing that women’s fiction is about the female experience has given me great pause for thought. It is a similar sort of argument as to why we need feminism (feminism purely highlights women’s rights that have historically been denied and is not anti-male etc.). So similarly women’s fiction is required not to exclude the male viewpoint but merely to raise up that of the woman’s because historically women have been viewed as less than. I very much like that idea. Incredibly interesting post indeed :)))

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A lot of food for thought here. I like your definition “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.”

    I think my books “When the Sun was Mine” and “Whispers Under the Baobab” fit so maybe I’m not marketing them correctly. What do you think judging by these descriptions? https://www.darlenejonesauthor.com/when_the_sun_was_mine.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “When the Sun was Mine” is certainly women’s fiction, but I don’t think the other one is, unless it includes parts when Flo was alive from her perspective. But they both sound like the primary genre is mystery.

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  9. Thanks for a great article. I’ve never really thought about the different genres and how they are defined. All clumped into the ‘women’s fiction’ categorically. I am in my 60’s also and after reading this article, I thought back to when I was in my teens and 20’s (I’ve been an avid reader most of my life). The books I read in my early years I wouldn’t even think about reading now. I have matured, as have most people. I do think we need genres, but I disagree with clumping all books, either written by women or have the protagonist as a woman. I have read many books written by women, about women that were not “fluffy” no-brainer type. I have learned things from these books many times and have appreciated the education. And, you are right, there are many good books revolving around a woman that are written by men. Your example of the Nellie Blye book is excellent.

    Thank you for your thoughts on this subject. I enjoyed reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

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