Nancy: Female Isn’t a Genre, Except When It Is

Kate Bush captured this photo of an exciting new genre! that is so NOT a genre.

Kate Bush captured this photo of an exciting new genre! that is so NOT a genre.

A few weeks ago, this bit of news hit the twitterverse, in which musician Kate Nash called out a record shop for categorizing widely disparate music by one unifying characteristic: being made by possessors of vaginas. I shouldn’t have been so shocked to learn of a whole store selling vinyl records (those crazy, retro millennials are no doubt driving this trend). I wish I had been more shocked that said store had reduced a collection of such wide and varied artists to the not-a-genre genre of ‘females of all description’.

This incident brought my own thinking back to a subject I’ve been pondering over the past few years: that of Women’s Fiction. As regular 8LW readers might know, one of the writing tribes I proudly claim is that of WF writers. The manuscript I wrote for our Jennifer Crusie-taught McDaniel writing program was a WF story (with an ever-changing title) that has three women friends at its core. I have plans for two more books that I would categorize as WF, and another that might be more mainstream/general than women’s fiction, because it includes male POV characters, but that I still might consider WF because one of the female POV characters is really at the heart of the story. I belong to WFWA, have pitched my manuscript as WF, and plan to continue doing so.

But should I? Should I be so quick to align to a ‘catch-all’ genre about the female experience, with books written primarily by women? While I have sought out the camaraderie and intelligence of these fellow writers and have enjoyed being in a creative space that embraces the feminine and celebrates a female view of the world, have I been too quick to overlook the built-in bias that attaches to my work by being dropped into what, on its surface, appears to be a default category? Am I, despite my own yearning for gender parity and inclusiveness, hanging a ‘no boys allowed’ sign on my books?

The first difficulty in unpacking this issue is defining the category. The words Women’s Fiction, much like the words females of all descriptions, don’t narrow down the field much, do they? A quick perusal of books labeled WF won’t help much, either, as you’ll find everything from family sagas to buddy capers to marriage stories to mother-child stories to…almost any topic. If it is conveyed by strong female characters, or if it is – as WFWA defines the stories their writers create – “layered stories that are driven by the main character’s emotional journey”, and it doesn’t fit ‘better’ under a major genre category like romance or mystery, it could be WF. In fact, it might be easier to talk about what WF isn’t rather what it is, as Rebecca Vnuk does in this Booklist Online article.

But wait, one argument goes, doesn’t publishing do that with other difficult to categorize, non-genre books? After all, there are lots of General Fiction and Literary Fiction books. The answer is yes, that’s true. And, at least historically, these have been dominated by male writers and male experiences and male stories, without being labeled Men’s Fiction. Further, it’s important to note how these different categorizations have affected the publishing industry’s treatment of these differently-categorized books.

Shelf space. If you haven’t been in a brick and mortar bookstore lately, you might not recall how important physical visibility of books really is. But if you go the route of traditional publishing, your publisher will (hopefully) fight to get your books into as many stores and in as prominent a position within those stores as possible. Bestsellers and books with buzz are going to win that fight. Next, high-attraction genres (yay, romance!) and ‘literary’ and general books will take up a lot of additional space. Something as vague and wide-ranging as WF, which is often literary and can certainly always fall under the catch-all general, will not get much space. And if people do happen to see the WF shelf, as I mentioned above, the title might just be an invitation for men to walk on by (more on that in a minute).

Advances. The amount of money a traditional publisher is willing to give an author before any books are sold is not just about the author’s livelihood (although that is important). It’s also an indication of how much support the publisher is going to give the book. The dirty little secret, which really isn’t a secret at all, is that publisher marketing campaigns are not created equal. And publishers are not paying lower advances so they can pump more dollars into the marketing campaign of traditionally lower-advance-paying genres like romance and WF. Less investment and less risk will probably mean less marketing support as well.

Discoverability. By limiting shelf space, the industry already limits not only the number of authors that get space, but also the number of publishing contracts and scheduling slots for the genre. By slapping a gendered description on these limited shelves, it creates the impression that these stories are of no use or interest to men. Those two things alone already set firm boundaries around discoverability. Add to that the ongoing fight to get books by women about women featured and reviewed in trade as well as reader-centric publications, and you’ve created a trifecta of lower visibility, which will support lower sales, which will depress future advances.

And perception all too often becomes reality. Perception that these books are lesser, should take less space, have less marketing support, and be overlooked by reviewers and readers who want ‘important’ stories leads to the reality that these books have lower sales and less impact.

As I grow older and hopefully wiser and see more of how the world works, I’ve come to realize this issue runs deeper than money and career opportunities, although those are vitally important. I have a deep concern that by relegating women’s stories to limited shelving and review column inches, and indicating that men can choose to overlook women’s stories in a world that tends to overlook women’s experiences, we are adding to the ongoing inequality women face in their daily lives – at work, in the justice system, and in their own homes. It’s wonderful and important to be able to celebrate women’s stories. But if women are celebrating alone, are we really moving forward as a civilization?

After all of this, I’m still unsure of which way I’ll go with my current and future books of women’s stories, lives, and experiences. If I go the self-publishing route, I will take full advantage of keywords and promotions meant to expand visibility of my books to readers of any gender, and blurbs that explain that this book is about the transformative power of friendship, or about getting a life back on track after paying a debt to society, or about the unraveling of a marriage. I’ll still have to decide whether to use the Women’s Fiction moniker to denote that these story experiences will be delivered primarily through female POV characters and experiences. If I go the traditional publishing route with the author’s limited ability to control the destiny of store shelving, key words, and marketing, it might require some long, hard talks with an agent and editor to determine how to be true to the stories and my own life experience while giving the books a fighting chance out in the big, wide world.

9 thoughts on “Nancy: Female Isn’t a Genre, Except When It Is

  1. That’s always been my concern around Women’s Fiction. It has all the gender-limitations of Romance, but without the broad readership.

    • And in self-publishing, one of the key marketing tools is building on series. Many WF books don’t lend themselves to series – I know mine don’t. So fewer readers looking for them + less opportunity to build a platform on a series = WF being a harder sell in self-publishing.

  2. I’d like to see that record store and what its other categories are. That little section there can’t be the only records they have by female artists, right? That must be the section for the uncategoricals, not that I approve of that kind of crap.

    I, too, am infuriated by the notion that a book by Patricia Gaffney is “women’s fiction,” but a book by Clive Custler is “fiction.” In about every endeavor, women of achievement are almost always described with a gender attribute, so Sally Ride is a “female astronaut,” for example. It’s what Simone de Beauvoir described in “The Second Sex” back in 1949—man is The One, woman is The Other. And it’s still true, 67 years after she wrote the book.

    However, that said, romance/women’s fiction has the literary market cornered. We sell more books and have more readers. (Of course, we don’t make as much money; see paragraphs one and two.) And having a designation all our own means we’re not stumbling through the racks of Clive Custler and James Patterson when we don’t want to be, looking for something by Debbie MacComber. If I’m comfortable with any designation of “women” in front of anything, it’s in front of the word “fiction.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for better publicity, more money, more shelf space, and more attention. We should. And we can point to our collective success as to why we have earned those things.

    • “We sell more books and have more readers.” And the beautiful thing about both self-publishing and transparency brought on by the digital age is that readers have been able to connect with writers and stories they might have missed otherwise, and the (women) writers of those stories can get more of the recognition, credit, and money.

      The community that centers around WF proper and women’s fiction such as romance is one of the best things going in publishing, and one of the reasons I’ve proudly affiliated with the genre and will continue to do so. At the same time, we have to contemplate how to expand readership and extend an invitation to readers of any gender who might like the stories and/or subject matter we write. A writer’s work is never done ;-).

  3. I think if one is appealing to a niche market, then the gender labels can help. I recently read someone disparagingly label an album “cock rock” (and I have a feeling he was probably right — it was middle-aged men pretending they were in a garage creating “art” and giving craft a big F.Y.). And of course, people who are interested in “Gentlemen’s Specialty Magazines” know exactly what they are getting.

    But labelling something with a male label makes me walk on by. I can imagine it takes a flexible and brave man armed with recommendations to take a chance on “women’s whatever”.

    The thing is . . . I think I read that 85 percent of book buyers are women. And if something is labelled “women’s fiction” I might take a closer look at it than I would otherwise. I hate the “chick-lit” label, but I’ve learned there’s some good, funny stuff there, so I will take a closer look at those, too.

    So, I don’t think the competition is between women’s fiction and romance. Quite frankly, it sounds like if we try to feed many romance readers a book without romance, they spit in disgust. So, mislabelling a book “romance” to seek a wider audience will probably backfire. The competition is between women’s fiction and fiction-fiction (but are we talking literary fiction? Cussler is listed in Amazon under the specifics: Action & Adventure, Thrillers, Suspense or the very vague Genre Fiction). Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook is listed under Romance Historical (#1 in Historical Romance, as a matter of fact), Genre Fiction Historical, and United States.

    On-line stores are said to have passed brick-and-mortar sales as of 2014. (Fun figures here: Although, maybe retail will still have a place:

    If a book is tagged right, then “women’s fiction” kind of becomes meaningless. For me, it mostly means “buddy book”. I’m not sure I’ve read any women’s fiction without a community.

    OTOH, traditional dick fiction like the James Bond books are about the lone wolves. Maybe the distinction does have a meaning (although, I’ve yet to see the term “dick-lit” in a book seller’s categories).

    Oh, I’m just rambling today. I don’t want to tailor my stuff to preconceived notions of genre, but I’m getting to the point where I’m thinking seriously of marketing my short stories, and I’m just failing to find the Google Search Words to find the kind of publications I’d like to go to. I need to spend a lot more time reading different short story venues, and finding something that I like and that would be a good home to my stories.

  4. Dick-lit – I love it! The name, not necessarily whatever that genre would be. (Then again… ;-).)

    I do think being able to self-tag e-books and play with metadata, keywords, etc., opens up additional channels for reaching readers. But for those who want to see their books in print and on bookstore and library shelves, it’s a harder task. Also, as far as I know, most trad publishers don’t give the authors much input when it comes to categorizing and tagging books.

    • (-: Dick-lit would be just as vague as Chick-lit. The James Bond books are dick-lit. But I think some of the other classics where some guy goes out alone with his tent into the wilderness and fights bears and winter . . . well, I haven’t READ much of that sort of Dick-lit, but we’ve all heard of it extolled as fine adventure tales.

      I wonder if Cujo (the Steven King book about the dog and the woman and her kid trapped in a small foreign car) is dick-lit, even though it has a female protagonist? If so, it’s a very interesting twist. If not, the differences between that and something that would be dick-lit would make an interesting side-by-side analysis.

      I don’t think dick-lit or chick-lit need to be derogatory labels, although, they do wind up being seen as such. They do tend to cater to some emotional need that runs through a lot of XX or XY chromosome types.

      • I think dick-lit is my favorite new phrase! It really does cover a lot of ground. However, where it diverges from chick-lit is it was never used as an actual category or descriptor in the industry. (OK, maybe that’s for obvious reasons.) Both chick-lit and Women’s Fiction were/are industry categories. But Men’s Fiction has never been a thing.

        The overt understanding has always been that literature, as well as everything else in the public sphere, is the men’s sandbox. Women have to try to carve out some small space of it if we want to play there. And especially now, this year, this American election cycle, I am just out of patience with the whole damn patriarchy. F**k the patriarchy!

        • Here, here! Well, f**k the patriarchy only if the patriarchy is a good f**k. If not, the patriarchy can make a date with its dominant hand, and we can use electronics to replace the other aspects of patriarchy.

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