What “Women’s Fiction” Really Means

Published on 1/29/2021

We add gender to many things in life, often unnecessarily, and almost always to differentiate the female version. Examples range from profession (a female comedian) to products (“girly drinks”), and extend far past it. We’re obsessed with labelling things as either female or male, and sadly this extends as far as books.

We label the gender of books, or rather, we label the gender of books written by women, for there is an entire “genre” of books dedicated to women’s fiction. What constitutes including a book in women’s fiction? It must be written by a woman about women’s life experiences, and will henceforth be marketed only at women.

Where is “Men’s Fiction”?

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think we should have gendered book genres when we’re at the point of understanding the fluidity of gender more. Rather, my point is that you know women’s fiction is inherently misogynistic, given the fact that there is no men’s fiction. To have both would be annoying, but in a different way, and it would constitute another battle.

But by not having men’s fiction, you portray men’s literature to be the norm, the expected, whilst women’s fiction is the outlier. We suffered through centuries of women pretending to be men just to be published - as God forbid, a woman should write a novel! Mary Ann Evans pretended to be George Eliot, both the Bronte sisters and Louisa May Alcott were initially published under male pseudonyms. Women belonged at home, but certainly not writing!

When we label female writers to be the other, we continue this trend whether or not that is our intention. Yes, if a woman writes in a distinct genre, such as horror or young adult, she is permitted to leave the foreboding genre of women’s fiction. But she shouldn’t have to. Writing about your experiences as a female in this world, writing to your intended audience of like-minded females, should not relegate you into the category of “women’s fiction”. As Joanne Harris says, this suggests that "Men are the norm. Women are a sub-category".

Because we know what follows the label of women’s fiction, and that’s exactly why there is no men’s fiction category, as their work could never be diminished without judgement in the same manner.

“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.” - Randy Susan Meyer

Anything that women like is inferior quality

As soon as anything is targeted at females, or generally enjoyed by them, we diminish the quality of it.

Take Taylor Swift, who has a predominantly female fan base. The media continually attacked her and diminished her work, labelling her as frivolous for writing about her failed relationships - something that most singers or writers do. We were taught to hate Taylor, and we all did, we diminished her work and claimed her music to be bad simply because it was popular. We hated her for not being a man, for daring to be female in this world.

As soon as predominantly women enjoy something, we assume it to be of lower quality. We do this to artists or boy bands that have mainly female fans, romantic comedy films or books about motherhood or female-centric struggles. We immediately infer them to be of lesser quality. Why is a movie about romance and a thirty-year-old woman immediately labelled as ‘worse’ than an action film with minimal dialogue? They’re different, and shouldn’t be compared as such, yet we continue to do so.

I’m tired of things being put down simply because women like them, as if we’re lepers infecting content with our preference. Women can like something and it can be good quality, the same goes for men.

Men won’t read books with a female protagonist

There are exceptions to this. I’ll say that immediately, as I know that otherwise my comments will be filled with each exception. I’m happy that there are exceptions, but have you noticed that these exceptions are predominantly young adult? As adolescents don’t seem to share the issue with reading female-centric stories, and can look past the gender of the character. Not all will read them and not view them as “girl books”, but more will try than older men.

As women, we’re used to reading stories with a male protagonist, and we’re accustomed to this. We will gladly read books that don’t feature our gender as the protagonist, whilst men often won’t. It is far rarer for a man to read a book that has a female main character, as they don’t find it fitting, they don’t think they have to. This is relevant, as this feeds into the sectioning off of fiction about women. Since male readers will likely not read a book centred around a female and her experience, the book industry is led to believe that it should be its own genre.

Men need to read books by women, books about women and books for women. They need to understand our experiences, understand how we navigate through this world. Fathers need to learn what it is like to be a mother, and the same vice versa. Men need to read about how it feels to be sexualised, assaulted, disregarded and more. Because then they can empathise with us, they can become a part of the conversation.

“Chick-Lit” isn’t any better

The newest trend, perhaps a reaction to the realisation of women’s fiction, is to label such books as “chick-lit”, mimetic of a chick-flick. I find this term to be even more degrading, brushing us off as “chicks”. I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable with being named a “chick”, not until you find a male equivalent. Why can’t a book by a female just be literary fiction? Why does the inclusion of her gender in the storyline make it any different?

Jodi Picoult writes incredible novels, gripping tales of drama, law and relationships. Yet I’ve seen them categorised as “Chick-Lit”. Because of their female characters - despite the many male counterparts- and the fact that a lot of women read these. As soon as you involve gender in the storyline it’s redacted to only be about that. It makes it seem as if a story about being female experiences could never be anything but that. We can’t be a mother and have a good literary tale to tell.

There are countless benefits to reading fiction, one of which is the ability to address issues that may be stigmatised or unapproached. Reading fiction has been shown to increase your empathy, allowing you to see perspectives that differ to your own and learn more about experiences others may have. By sectioning off everything female into women’s fiction, we suggest that others won’t benefit from reading from this and experiencing that perspective. We say that men should not read these before they have a chance to make that decision for themselves.

Just as women are comfortable reading a male protagonist, we need to expose men to female-orientated fiction so that this can go both ways. We need to remove this vague and inherently misogynistic label and give women the place they deserve in fiction, which is right here with the rest of us. It isn’t hard to solve; each book placed in women’s fiction could easily be moved to a different genre, whether that’s romance, mystery, thriller, young adult or literary fiction. They have a genre, and women’s fiction isn’t that.

Did you know that reading can boost your mental health? If you need a hand, here are 5 habits that help me to read more.



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