Genre and Gender: Grappling With the Awkward Question of “Women’s” Fiction

From Writer Unboxed:

I’m guessing that there are others like me, who have struggled to find a “genre name” that fits what they’ve written.

Some genre labels seem pretty straightforward. Fantasy. Mystery. Memoir. “Young Adult” is defined by its audience, “western” by its setting, “historical fiction” by its era. Yet there’s a huge chunk of contemporary fiction, like mine, that doesn’t meet any of those criteria and thus seems to fall, by default, into the awkward category of “women’s fiction.”

Women’s fiction is, in fact, the box I check when I fill out questionnaires or apply for awards, yet I’ve never liked the term and wish I didn’t have to use it. Nonetheless, I’ve accepted the label, not wanting to cause trouble or appear hypocritical, especially when (happily) accepting awards in that very category. No one can have it both ways—criticizing a label, except when it benefits them.

I still don’t want to be hypocritical, but I think it’s time to raise the question. Publisher’s Marketplace already has, recently dropping women’s fiction as a genre, and even the Women’s Fiction Writers Association is planning to address the question as it nears its tenth anniversary.

This raises another question, of course—whether we need a new word for the same category, or whether the category itself is flawed.

First of all, what does the term women’s fiction actually mean?

Those who embrace the term will say that women’s fiction is defined by the nature of its narrative arc—that is, by a story line that depicts an internal, emotional journey—rather than by the gender of the author, protagonist, or intended audience. According to the Women’s Fiction Writers Association:

“the driving force of women’s fiction is the protagonist’s journey toward a more fulfilled self.”

Period. Thus, a work of women’s fiction can—in theory—be written by a man, have a man as its central character, and be read chiefly by men.

Okay. If we set the notion of gender aside, as part of the definition, and define the genre of women’s fiction by the protagonist’s internal arc— it’s clear enough, I guess, although it seems like an awfully broad definition, encompassing much of our great literature.

But, again, what does the word women have to do with it?

It does seem odd to use gender in the label for something that purports to have nothing to do with gender! It’s confusing and misleading—especially since gendered labels are being replaced, more and more, by gender-neutral ones. Stewardess has become flight attendant; waitress has become server; and mailman has become letter carrier. That’s seems respectful and right.

Moreover, there’s no corresponding “men’s fiction”—nor is there “women’s art” or “women’s music.” It seems reasonable to ask why writers are the only ones who use a gendered term, and whether we should continue to do so.

My discomfort with the notion of women’s fiction label has grown stronger over the years, even though my latest novel, like its predecessors, has been deemed a work of women’s fiction. Yet it could just as easily be categorized by its setting, theme, or the fact that it’s a love story.

Aha, you may be thinking—that’s because it’s not women’s fiction; it’s a romance!

But it’s not. According to the Romance Writers of America:

“Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”

“Emotionally satisfying” is a subjective term, since what satisfies one reader may leave another reader annoyed, puzzled, or just plain angry. Remember Bradley Cooper as Pat Solitano in Silver Linings Playbook, throwing A Farewell to Arms out the window because the ending made him furious?

It’s the “optimistic ending” that defines a romance novel—in other words, a “happy ending.” No matter how many obstacles, arguments, misunderstandings, wrong choices, and estrangements take place during the course of the story, the lovers are together at the end. Without revealing details of the plot, I’ll simply say that my new book does not meet the criteria for a romance.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG suggests that a genre tag is most useful to guide a physical bookstore to shelve a book where the publisher thinks most prospective readers/purchasers will venture.

I expect that a genre tag in an online bookstore serves a similar marketing role. However, there are so many different ways of enhancing the visibility of a book, at least on Amazon, that an author can pretty much create their own special genre by virtue of the words used in the book description as well as list in multiple categories.

Using a variety of different terms in different Amazon ads and honing the targeting language to reach differing audiences is also a potential help in covering multiple genres.

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