Hey, you! Yes, you there, with the marketing degree! Or you, Creative Director with that massive advertising agency. Hell, even you, person who spends more time than is healthy shouting at the TV when terrible ads come on, because you could do better. (Four monkeys with bad head colds could do better, you admit, but that’s not the point.)
I have a job for you. Are you ready? Good.
You have no time whatsoever, and 55% of a regular marketing budget, to repackage Women’s Fiction, and sell it to the reading masses as something which is just as good as Men’s Fiction.
Because, well – you know Men’s Fiction, right? The genre listed on all the annual bestseller round-ups? You can see it right there, can’t you? Just underneath the 74th biography of Steve Jobs – which is listed as a ‘Biography’ – you can see it. It’s in the top ten. It’s written by a man. And it’s listed as ‘Men’s Fiction’.
Except of course it isn’t. Because Men’s Fiction isn’t even a thing.
Most booksellers (except Amazon) pretend that Women’s Fiction isn’t a thing, either, by not specifically listing it as such, because they know it’s patronising and insulting to female readers, who make up a significant majority of the reading public. But just try, as a female writer, to sell a book to an agent or publisher and get away from the term ‘Women’s Fiction’. You can’t. Because behind the official lists, it’s the biggest genre there is.
I’m on this current box of detergent primarily because of the buzz around the film Brooklyn, which opened last week, starring Saoirse Ronan, Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent, amongst others. It’s based on a book by Colm Toibín, a longtime literary darling of this parish. It’s about a young woman who emigrates from Ireland to New York in the 1950s. It’s about her life and her loves, her duties and her choices. The book was a smash hit. It was lauded from here to the washing machine and all the way back to the arts review. The film looks like it’s going that way too. It’s all very lovely, really. Except I have a problem.
If Brooklyn had been written by a woman, would it have been a smash hit? Would it now be an internationally distributed film? And would anyone have cared one whit for a story about a young woman and her domestic struggles, if that young woman had been created and written by another woman?
I don’t think they would. My belief is that even if Anne Enright had written it, it would have been seen as a lady’s story. For ladies.
I’m not trying to take away from Toibín’s status as a writer of considerable skill and intuition. But I do have a fundamental problem with the fact that if a man writes a book which has within it themes such as love, marriage, family and anything even vaguely domestic, it is Literary Fiction; but when a woman writes about the same issues, it is immediately labelled Chick-Lit.
If she’s very lucky, and her actual writing is considered to be above average, she gets upgraded to Women’s Fiction, which is a bit like flying business-class with a budget airline. The seat is still too small, and everything still costs extra, but an attendant at least makes the effort to patronise you on the way out.
Even if she’s writing about war, mental illness, abuse, disappointment, or iron-mongering; even if her prose is so beautiful that it leads three politicians to vow never to sin again; even if nobody has ever mapped human frailty before with such devastating wit – just as soon as she sticks any romantic plotline in there at all, it becomes Women’s Fiction.
Why? Why is any book written by a woman, containing two or more people who feel unquantifiable positive emotions about each other, automatically classified within the greater Romance category? Why does this happen when the relationship between these characters is only one factor driving a more complex plot?
More importantly, why are books written by women about feelings, or family, automatically marketed as books which only other women will want to read?
And yet there is hope: a few genres have managed to climb out of this murky stereotyping. Crime / Thriller fiction by women has been kicking some serious ass lately. Young Adult Fantasy generally doesn’t sell along hard gender lines either, and Historical Fiction very often doesn’t care whether the one wielding the pen has a Y chromosome or not. But somewhere along the line, General Fiction has somehow become Genderal Fiction. And female authors are battered from it.
And so, to those who didn’t answer the call to arms in the first paragraph (good grief, you must have no horror of poor advertising, but I’ll bet you’re happier) I make a different request of you.
Stop saying ‘Women’s Fiction’. Please. You’re killing us.