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.