Elizabeth: Women’s Fiction?

For someone who doesn’t even have a Twitter account, I’ve encountered a lot of interesting tweets lately.  Last week it was the By Age 35 thread and this week it was the tweet to the left from Comedy Central writer Jake Weisman about Jane Austen’s writing.

The tweet, as he may or may not have expected, stirred up a bit of a storm.  Not by people who disagreed with the fact that Austen combined satire with spot-on social commentary, but that Weisman had felt the need to disparage the fact that her stories also included . . .gasp! . . . love and romance.  The consensus seemed to be that he had read her work, enjoyed it, and was appalled that he might be thought to be a fan of romance.

Heaven forbid!

As one responder tweeted:

“What if I told you her novels are sarcastic, satirical, AND romantic? That they can be all of those things? Stop trying to distance Austen from the romance genre to justify your appreciation of her work. It’s very telling.” ~ Ally@inaneenglish

The article on Upworthy that covered the tweet-storm appropriately pointed out:

“Because — spoiler alert — literature can be more than one thing. It can be both satire and romance. It can be both mystery and adventure. It can be both comedy and science fiction. Books can even be all those things at the same time.”

It was what followed in the Upworthy article after the initial series of tweets that really caught my attention (and led to this post).

“Clearly, Weisman’s tweet struck a nerve, and it’s not surprising. Often certain genres of books, like romance, are largely written off or seen as less than.  Why?  Because the people who most often write and read those books are women. . . [and] the publishing industry, like so many others, tends to be very male centered.”

Attacks on the romance genre are nothing new and they have shown no sign of abating, despite the genre’s continued strong sales, growth, and recession-proof performance over the years.  When I was in a graduate writing program years ago (not the McDaniel program; that came later), both the instructors and participants definitely looked down on genre fiction.  Science fiction and fantasy were looked at with disdain, but nothing was deplored more than love stories.

The horror!

I’ll admit I said I wrote “character focused historical fiction” to avoid their judgey-attitudes.    They, of course, were serious writers.  Apparently, I still feel a little bit of hostility over that.

Even further back, I still have a copy of my high school yearbook where a friend said she had enjoyed knowing me but was “disappointed that I never got you to stop reading those romance novels.”  In her view, science fiction was the only genre worth reading.  We were destined never to agree on that.

The local independent bookstore that I was in the other day had about 75% of its shelf-space dedicated to “fiction”, 10% to “science fiction and mystery”, and a single 24” column of shelving dedicated to “romance”, which was predominately filled with Nora Robert’s titles.  Considering what prolific readers my romance-reading friends are, that seemed particularly baffling.

When I attended my first Romance Writers of America conference in New York six or seven years ago, I only remember seeing one lone male writer among the sea of female writers.  He was wearing a cowboy hat so he was hard to miss.  When I later attended the conference in Atlanta, there were a few more men, and last year in Orlando, there was a definite male presence.  I’ve also started to see more male writers (or at least writers with male names) showing up in romance book recommendations, so perhaps the attitude toward romance fiction is changing, at least for some men.

We’ll have to wait and see about that.

The Upworthy article raised one question that I have been thinking about myself; perhaps you can answer it for me.

Why are books written by women are often labeled “women’s fiction” but books written by men are just “fiction”?


7 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Women’s Fiction?

  1. The Upworthy quote reminds me of the Romance story my dad read. I was a teenager and reading a mix of Romance and some hard core Science Fiction. He complained to my mom about my reading ‘that trash’ . Mom, who is not a reader, defended me saying he hadn’t read any romance. The end result was Dad and I switched books. So I read Kobo Abe’s “The Wall” a short novel and Dad read a historical fiction – something about love’s splendor. I learned about allegory and passed my British lit class with flying colors by commenting and comparing Abe to C.S. Lewis. Dad gave me back my book with a “it wasn’t half bad” comment – but getting no more grief about romance meant he approved.

    I still read mostly Science Fiction but I like the ones with a strong female character – who gets her HEA, best!

  2. Somewhere here on the blog, I think it was about a hundred years ago, I wrote about the Women’s Fiction issue. It was after reading an article about a record store that had put all the female artists behind a divider marked Female Artists or something like that. While the historical context of the publishing world labeling books by women as WF no doubt was to ‘other’ women and their stories, a lot of modern writers embrace the term. (Not everyone, of course.) But as traditional publishing has fractured and morphed so dramatically over the past several years, I think the ‘hallowed institutions’ that filtered out much of women’s writing and made those labels anathema have diminished in importance.

    These days, fjust as labeling a book Romance brings the romance readers to it, labeling a story WF is a beacon to readers looking for those stories. Hollywood is optioning and producing more of these stories. Women are being recognized as the important segment of the reading/viewing market that they’ve always been. The takeaway: regardless of what we call them, stories by and about women ROCK! And they sell.

    • Absolutely. Despite what some say about the Romance genre and/or women writers, the bottom line is that they definitely sell.

  3. It’s absolutely true that male is the invisible gender in the same way that white is the invisible color. It’s also true that whom the books are written for matters (almost?) as much as whom they are written by. (That is, a book marketed to the stereotypical male is a man’s book, regardless of whether it’s written by King or Roberts.)

    Oh, and the idiot who thinks that something can’t be both satire and a love story is the direct result of men being given “classic” men’s literature from which to draw their role models. Keroac and Hemmingway and others of their ilk run the gamut for “damaged” to “utterly broken”, and some (I’m looking at you, Hunter S. Thompson) appear to be proudly sociopathic.

  4. All in all, I’m in favor of labelling that helps a reader find good stories. However, genres are just dumping grounds.

    I’ve mentioned Sturgeon’s Law already this week — 90 percent of anything is dreck — and I mention it again now. You’re going to find a lot of dreck in the “women’s fiction” genre, and a few things that really speak to the human condition (including mating rituals, aka romance). The same thing goes for the “mainstream fiction” genre — when I was looking for books about people of small stature, I dipped into the mainstream and romance genres — both entries were flawed entries, but they were flawed in different ways. The MF genre was essentially pessimistic about humans and their ability to love and to change; the R genre was optimistic (oh, boy, so wildly optimistic in this case!) about humans ability to love and to change. Perhaps the failings in both books is that they took liberties with the pessimism/optimism, and forced the plot into those shapes without consideration for the actual story.

    I think men can be wildly romantic, and sometimes it shows in men’s fiction (which isn’t labelled as such). But it seems like explosions and winning as a maverick have much more important roles than in women’s fiction. I could be wrong in that impression, though. They are both awfully big genres . . . .

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