Today on "things an undergraduate English scholar thinks are wrong with the literary world," we’re going to talk about "women’s fiction." You’ve all heard the term. It’s what you call the books your grandma, aunt, mom, or yourself reads if you’re female and not particularly inclined towards Robert Ludlum and John Grisham. It doesn’t refer to any particular genre. Books as varied as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “The Help,” and “My Sister’s Keeper” have been referred to as women’s fiction. As far as I can tell, the only qualifiers for labeling a book as women’s fiction are (pick one, or both): a woman wrote it, or women read it.
My question is, why?
We don’t call the books men read and write "men’s fiction." When men write about spies, war, and history in a fictional context, their stories are filed under the appropriate genre, not sorted by gender. When men decide to write about the hot-button topic of the moment, it’s literary fiction. When men spend an entire book writing about the woman who done me wrong, it’s a classic — see “The Great Gatsby” and “Lolita” for examples. When women do any of the above, it’s women’s fiction, a label that seems to imply trivialness and frivolity.
In order for women’s writing to shed the label of women’s fiction, female writers can’t write simply for themselves, write only to tell the stories they want to tell. They have to write with an eye toward what male readers want.
Take “Gone Girl” as an example. Blood, sex, murder, infidelity — all things that fill the pages of action, spy, and thriller genres — and the majority of the book is written from a distinctly male perspective. The book is a hit and critically acclaimed, precisely because the writer doesn’t care all that much about the female experience. Amy is a cipher, an empty space for every male reader to fill in the woman who done me wrong or for female readers to fill in the woman who done took my man. Amy is there for the reader to hate, which is why “Gone Girl” succeeds where other female-written novels fail.
There’s no room in acclaimed literature for the real female experience, the one that isn’t eroticized, mythologized, or built up simply for male and female readers alike to hate. That’s why the label of women’s fiction exists – to take all those books about the real, messy, uncomfortable female experience and shove them off to the side. Because let’s be honest, as much as we love John Grisham and Robert Ludlum, they aren’t what we’d call character writers, and their plots are often formulaic.
On the other hand, character writers like Jodi Picoult who consistently take on hot-button issues and spend a lot of time exploring the various sides are shunted into women’s fiction simply because of their gender. Forcing female writers into the women’s fiction category limits sales, limits readership, limits the awards and accolades that many of these writers deserve to be able to compete for. It’s a racket, and it needs to stop.
I’m not asking everybody who reads this article to call their local bookstore or library and demand that they sort the offerings of female writers by the appropriate genre, not by gender (although hey, if you feel like it, go for it). I’m just asking that the next time you pick up a book that’s labeled as women’s fiction, ask yourself why it’s labeled that way. Ask yourself what that label does to your perception of the story, of the author. And then take a gander at the latest John Grisham bestseller and wonder why there’s no label for men’s fiction.