Novelists do well to heed the sound advice that prevails in the writing community: Know your audience. It does not follow, however, that we should pigeonhole our fiction to fit a commercial category.
My work is eclectic; some of my short stories have elements of fantasy, horror and romance, but the content of my long-form fiction falls into what most publishers would insist on classifying as women’s fiction. Does this mean men shouldn’t read what I write?
Somewhere I read that so-called women’s fiction is characterized by its focus on a women’s emotional journey. The protagonist is always a woman; the plot revolves around the trials and tribulations of womankind.
From Wikipedia, we read:
Women’s fiction is an umbrella term for women centered books that focus on women’s life experience that are marketed to female readers. . . . It is distinct from Women’s writing, which refers to literature written by (rather than promoted to) women.
Ah, so women’s fiction is fiction promoted to women. I’ll ignore the ungrammatical construction of the first sentence. The greater problem with the passage above lies in its ambiguity. Does it mean if a novel is not promoted to women it ceases to be women’s fiction? And if “Women’s writing” constitutes a category, why is there no category called “Men’s writing?”
As Randy Susan Meyers (author of Accidents of Marriage) blogged in the Huffington Post (May13, 2014, updated July 13, 2014) “if you want to publish on Amazon, you must pick a category from a wide-ranging list that includes 10 subgenres of women’s fiction and zero that are labeled ‘men’s fiction.'”
Joanne Harris, author of the Gospel of Loki claims in no uncertain terms that the book industry is sexist. Here are some pertinent excerpts from her blog of May 4, 2014:
- It doesn’t help when “women’s fiction” is still considered a sub-category. (Amazon, Goodreads, Wikipedia, take note.)
- It doesn’t help when universities create “women’s fiction” courses, as if women were a minority group, and not half the population.
Think of how many novelists infuse their books with testosterone: Tom Clancy, Lee Child, Nelson De Mille, David Baldacci, John Le Carre, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac . . . and the list goes on. These men are not referred to a “men writers” and, rest assured, they are not read only by men.
I had a tough time categorizing my novella, Ninth-Month Midnight, self-published through Amazon. My protagonist, a bereaved mother harboring a guilty secret and verging on a mental breakdown, defies her husband and her religion, putting her faith in a charismatic male psychic who claims the power to contact the dead. She suffers the loss of a child with devastating effect. The point of view is close third from the mother’s perspective.
Ninth-Month Midnight has elements of psychological suspense, the paranormal, and romance. Why couldn’t I just call it fiction? Because Kindle wants authors to market to a specific audience. I caved and chose women’s fiction as the genre.
I’m angry with myself and with the publishing environment that pressured me into this choice. The practice of pigeonholing is illogical. Consider the current best seller, The Shack, by William Paul Young about a parent whose daughter is murdered; in the midst of “Great Sadness,” God invites the parent to the shack where the child was abducted. Point of fact: the parent is the father, not the mother; and the author is a man. Therefore, you can bet your butt this wasn’t promoted as women’s fiction. Kindle’s metadata categorizes it under “mystery and suspense” and “inspirational” fiction.
Examples of wrong-headedness abound. Surely a man, as well as a woman, grieves when a child is lost, as we see in Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. And while we’re talking about McEwan, consider Atonement, a novel about a girl who destroys her sister’s lover and her sister’s happiness with long-term consequences. The metadata calls it literary fiction. If Isabel McEwan rather than Ian McEwan had written it, would it be classified and promoted as women’s fiction? You bet it would.
Oh, the folly of putting fiction into boxes!
I’ll give the final word to Meyers: “All those writers we love? We don’t need to call them writer-men and writer-women. We can call them writers. And we can call the novels they write, just that. Novels.”