Chick-lit. Fluff books. Girly books. Women’s fiction gets called a lot of names. Many of these names are meant to denigrate the genre. After all, anything that features and is marketed to women seems to be seen as lesser in our world. But what exactly is women’s fiction? Books categorized as women’s fiction focus on a woman’s life experience and are marketed more heavily towards women. (This in itself is a problem…but I’ll get to that later.)
Women’s Fiction and Romance Novels are NOT THE SAME THING.
If you market a women’s fiction book as a romance novel you will make the romance readers who pick it up very angry. Why will you make romance readers angry? Because they have expectations that are central to their genre. And those expectations are not always met by women’s fictions books.
Romance novels have a romantic relationship as the central plot of the story. For a book to be categorized as a romance novel it MUST have a happily-ever-after ending. That’s what romance readers are looking for, the satisfying happily ever after.
Women’s fiction books may include a romance in the story but the main focus is on the female protagonist’s life experiences and relationships with her friends and family. In an article for Writer’s Digest Magazine, literary agent Scott Eagan defined women’s fiction “as a story that shows the female journey.” These books are about what life is a like as a woman. And, rather than always ending with a happily secured romantic relationship, they usually end with the character in a better place in her life (whether that is professionally, locationally, or relationally with her friends or family). They have a satisfying ending, but they don’t always end with a romantic happily-ever-after.
So why is women’s fiction important? And why is the genre name problematic?
Women’s fiction is so, so, so important for women to read about other women’s experiences and know that they aren’t alone. It’s about showing women growing and learning and making their way in the world. Women’s fiction is primarily written by women, is about women, and focuses on a woman’s experiences.
These books are often more realistic than romance novels because they aren’t designed simply for the warm-fuzzy entertainment that romance novels are. Instead, they are about sharing experiences – good and bad – and examining what it is like to be a woman in today’s world. They focus on a woman overcoming struggles in her professional and personal life to ultimately find fulfillment. (It’s not sounding quite so fluffy anymore is it?) Sometimes they include romance, but instead of focusing on how a relationship with a partner (usually a man in the majority of romance novels) can bring fulfillment, women’s fiction novels focus on a woman’s goals and relationships with her friends and family.
And…that’s why the genre title is so problematic.
As soon as something is labelled “for women” it is also deemed “not for men.”
By marketing books by and about women only to women, men are taught that stories about women aren’t for them and that women are lesser than men. When men only read stories that include female characters as side characters and never protagonists, they learn that women have less value than men. Most men only have a vague idea of how their experience is different from a woman’s. If more men read books written by women, and especially books that focus on a woman’s experience, they might learn something about the many ways in which men and women are the same, the reasons why women may act differently in some situations than men, and by extension of learning more, respect women and our ideas and experiences more. Reading about other people builds empathy.
Think about it. This problem of books about women being labelled as only for women and marketed only to women starts early. Have you ever witnessed a parent in a bookstore tell their son, “You can’t get that book, it’s for girls.” Or heard a boy say, “Ew, that’s for girls” when a book has a female protagonist or a girl on the cover?
Shannon Hale, a best-selling author of more than 30 books, has written about how our culture assumes that stories about male characters are for everyone and stories about female characters are just for women and girls. It starts in elementary school when boys are immediately told by teachers and parents that a book that features a girl is for girls only and are shamed for wanting to read it or like it. And yet, books with male characters are seen as universal stories for everyone.
By calling a genre of books about women “women’s fiction” we are continuing that stupid gender stereotype.
By keeping boys and men from reading stories about girls and women but expecting stories about male characters to be universal, we are teaching everyone that women’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings are lesser than those of men. We are stopping boys and men from learning empathy. If as children, boys are told that stories about girls are only for girls, then when they become men, why would they read books about women? Especially when we keep telling them that stories about women are “women’s fiction” and even if we don’t mean it, it sounds like they’re just for women.
But if men were to read books about female characters written by female authors they would learn a lot. (Seriously, some men writing female characters have it way off….). And if more men read about women, maybe we could get them to encourage their sons to read about girl characters too.
And who knows, maybe through reading about different peoples’ experiences we’d grow kinder, nicer people and have a better world? But I’m dreaming pretty big here.