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'Women's Fiction?' 'Men's Fiction?' 'Human Fiction?' What Does It Mean?

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STACK OF BOOKS
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"How good does a female athlete have to be before we just call her an athlete?" --Author Unknown

When did women's fiction come to be? In 1956, the New York Times reviewed Peyton Place. It was called lurid, and expose, and earthy." Grace Metalious is compared with Sherwood Anderson, Edmund Wilson, John O'Hara and Sinclair Lewis. I strongly suspect that today (in our more feminist times?) she would be classified as a writer of 'women's fiction'.

I've hit the topic of the caste system of novels before, from commercial versus literary fiction writer wars, to racial reading divides, to micro-indignities. Even name-calling. I thought perhaps I'd give it a rest this year, but alas my (women's? human?) hackles have once again been raised.

A dear friend, whose soon-to-release book (okay, you pulled it out of me, it's Robin Black and the book is Life Drawing) deserves everything from the NYT bestseller list to a National Book Award, has received excellent early reviews. (Life Drawing "might be the nearest thing to a perfect novel that I have ever read." -- The Bookseller, UK.) It's a great book. (I was lucky and received an early copy.) I absolutely raced through it. And, I have observed, more than one glowing review has finished by saying that both "women's fiction fans" and "readers of literary fiction" will enjoy it.

What does this mean? I'm compelled to parse that sentence; omnivorous review reader that I am, I've yet to see an analysis of a male-written book which states: Both men's fiction readers and readers of literary fiction will enjoy this book.

Why? Because there is no genre referenced in reviews as "men's fiction." Googling it, I couldn't find much beyond Esquire's self-proclaimed short stories labeled "fiction for men."

In "Dummies.com" the categories listed are commercial, mainstream, literary, mystery, romance, historical, suspense, thriller, horror, young adult. And there is an entirely separate description of women's fiction:

It's common knowledge in the publishing industry that women constitute the biggest book-buying segment. So, it's certainly no accident that most mainstream as well as genre fiction is popular among women. For that reason, publishers and booksellers have identified a category within the mainstream that they classify as Women's Fiction. And its no surprise that virtually all the selections of Oprah's Book Club are in this genre.

From a writer's perspective, some key characteristics of these books include a focus on relationships, one or more strong female protagonists, women triumphing over unbearable circumstances, and the experiences of women unified in some way. The field includes such diverse writers as Barbara Taylor Bradford, Anne Rivers Siddons, Alice McDermott, Judith Krantz, Anne Tyler, Rebecca Wells, and Alice Hoffman.

One can only assume, seeing the above choices representing 'women's fiction' 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 10 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.

If we go to Wikipedia, we get this: 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. It is distinct from women's writing, which refers to literature written by (rather than promoted to) women. There exists no comparable label in English for works of fiction that are marketed to males.

Agentquery.com describes it thusly:

Women's fiction is just that: fiction about women's issues for a female readership. However, it is not the same as chick lit or romance. While utilizing literary prose, women's fiction is very commercial in its appeal. Its characters are often women attempting to overcome both personal and external adversity.

Although women's fiction often incorporates grave situations such as abuse, poverty, divorce, familial breakdown, and other social struggles, it can also explore positive aspects within women's lives.

Okay, now I'm really getting confused. 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' 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?

As a teenager, when I read my first 'adult' books, I chose, Exodus, Marjorie Morningstar, Jubilee, Peyton Place, Crime & Punishment, Martha Quest. These are the books that marked me. But might I have eschewed them had they been labeled war book, women's fiction, black fiction, and literary fiction? I was perfectly happy knowing they fit into one of two categories: Novels and Classics. Classics meant the teacher assigned them, and novels meant... fiction. I could judge for myself after that.

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?

This is not a small issue, even if we place it under 'micro-indignity.' Last year, Amanda Filipacchi wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed, Wikipedia's Sexism Toward Female Novelists:

. . . editors have begun the process of moving women, one by one, alphabetically, from the "American Novelists" category to the "American Women Novelists" subcategory. So far, female authors whose last names begin with A or B have been most affected, although many others have, too.

The intention appears to be to create a list of "American Novelists" on Wikipedia that is made up almost entirely of men. The category lists 3,837 authors, and the first few hundred of them are mainly men. The explanation at the top of the page is that the list of "American Novelists" is too long, and therefore the novelists have to be put in subcategories whenever possible.

Too bad there isn't a subcategory for "American Men Novelists."

Or too bad there are any sub-categories at all.

Just today, I read a piece on Galley Cat, "You Are What You Read: Infographic." The lack of women writers was astounding. And this is why we need to keep on this topic. Because these lists become embedded in us, and the cycle of diminishing women's work continues.

We don't need firemen and firewomen -- they're all fire fighters. And all those writers we love? We don't need to call the writer-men and writer-women. We can call them writers.

And we can call the novels they write, just that. Novels.

I'm so disturbed when my women students behave as though they can only read women, or black students behave as though they can only read blacks, or white students behave as though they can only identify with a white writer. -- bell hooks