We Need To Stop Justifying Women’s Fiction Now

In justifying a genre, are we automatically demeaning it? And what has this got to do with my glossy hair?

Like all truly great women, I’m multi-tasking the bejesus out of it, because I’m writing this in a hair salon. I come here awfully regularly, to get de-badgered. And because I no longer have the sort of life where I can dedicate an hour to just one thing, I thought I’d bring my laptop with me while I dealt with three things: the grey hair which has been part of my life since I was 17; a new blog post, and internal conflict.

We Need To Stop Justifying Women's Fiction Now

This is what being non-extraordinary looks like

Many many years ago I embraced the fact that I’m a narcissist when it comes to my hair. Even though I tell myself I’m not high maintenance, I had to get comfortable with the fact that every 4 weeks, without fail, unless something untoward happens (such as getting kidnapped by Instagram assassins, or a last-minute invitation to interview the Dalai Lama about his feet – that sort of thing), I pay someone a significant amount of money to ensure that I don’t look any older than I really am.

If I hadn’t embraced all this, every trip to the hairdresser’s would turn into an identity crisis. Otherwise, how could I ever be okay with the fact that I pour more money into my hair than I do into charity? How else could I scoff at social influencers on social media, whilst telling myself that I would never be that shallow – yet still hold my ultra-coiffed head up high and say “feck it, I have to wear my hair every day”?

The conflict doesn’t end there. Because while I’m here, getting my head seen to, I also thumb through the free glossy magazines, which now tell women how strong and powerful we are, whilst simultaneously telling us that we’re not beautiful enough, not thin enough, and not young enough.

They tell us that women are doing amazing things, and should be lauded; but also that we are not the women they’re talking about, and we never will be (unless maybe we buy certain stuff).

Why We Have To Stop Justifying Women’s Fiction Right Now

The glossy magazine women are talented, but we are ordinary, and just a little bit shit, no matter which filters we apply. They have everything we’re supposed to want. We are sitting in a high street hair salon, salivating over beauty, and justifying the fact that we’re concerned about our appearance – ignoring the fact that we’re not okay with it really, or else we wouldn’t be justifying it at all.

That Bit Where I Try And Tie It To The Title

The same strikes me about so-called women’s fiction. We say we’re all right with it, but we’re not, really. We can’t be comfortable with anything we’re constantly justifying. We’re saying it’s just as good as anything else – but if it was, it wouldn’t need justifying, would it?

Recently, I spoke to someone who said they didn’t want to speak up in a conversation about books because she “only read chick-lit”. She believed that ‘only’ reading chick-lit meant nobody would think she had anything worth saying.

And do you know what? She was right. Because no matter what lip service we’re paying to true empowerment, most people will only stick up for acknowledged literary women’s fiction. The popular stuff still doesn’t get a look in, no matter which universal truths it deals with.

If a major book-related discussion strikes up, who amongst us would introduce our favourite chick-lit into the conversation as an example of our point?

Could it be something to do with the fact that we’re constantly celebrating womanhood by making women feel inadequate?

In recent years, female authors have become really successful in other genres – but those genres still have to be specific.

Why We Have To Stop Justifying Women’s Fiction Right Now

It’s really heartening to see the new breed of bestselling female authors who are killing it in what were once male-dominated genres, most notably crime and crime thrillers. The surge in popularity of domestic noir or grip-lit has also seemed to favour women, both as readers and writers.

What’s most striking about this, however, is the fact that even in those genres, story elements frequently associated with women’s fiction – such as romance or relationships – are played down. Even if they’re the strongest elements of the book.

When I read a crime thriller, it’s always a toxic friendship, an evil family member or an enigmatic spouse which interests me most. Yet when a woman writes these books, we often don’t mention that. We focus instead on the radioactive Maguffin or the fight scene or the minority character STRIVING TO GET AHEAD. (Block caps because EMPOWERMENT. Etc.)

It’s as if we don’t want to mention the elephant in the room.. which is that a woman wrote it.

It’s as though we’ve forgotten the days when nobody even noticed tired old trope of the investigator or renegade whose only motivation was the death or abduction of [insert female relative here], and how lazy and crap that was.

So when it comes to general fiction written by women, known to the world at large as ‘women’s fiction’ (because unless a female protagonist is written by a man, most men won’t read it), even though outwardly readers and writers are all saying ‘it’s just as good as any other fiction’, inwardly, we’re still justifying both reading it and writing it.

And do you know what? I don’t think it’s the marketers who are doing this. We’re doing it to ourselves. There’s no ‘women’s fiction’ shelf in a bookshop. It’s not even on Amazon. It’s all in our heads.

We need to do two things. We need to stop justifying ‘women’s fiction’. And we need to start bringing books written by women into serious literary discussions, without apologies or qualification. Because they’re not ‘only’ anything, any more than someone could nowadays be ‘only’ a woman.

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  43 comments for “We Need To Stop Justifying Women’s Fiction Now

  1. November 19, 2018 at 7:48 am

    It is weird, innit? Women are often much deeper thinkers, churning things over whilst my own thoughts at any given moment probably consist of “is there anything on telly?” or “I can’t find my book and I need a poo; is the back of a cereal box an acceptable substitute?”
    And yet at the same time women seem much more concerned about superficial presentation than men. I guess decades (centuries?) of being told to shut up & look pretty will generally mess with one’s head.
    I don’t care if an author is male or female but I guess one way to eliminate the issue is to use initials, like JK Rowling. Until she became famous it was a genderless label. And I’m going to use that plan too because my initials and surname are sufficiently similar to hers that I’m hoping for a bit of subtle me-too marketing, a bit like supermarket versions of a big brand. 😀

    Liked by 4 people

    • November 19, 2018 at 8:35 am

      Agreed on all counts, Nick. And truth be told I don’t believe most readers care whether a book was written by a man or a woman, either. Trouble is that it can often determine how a book is packaged. But regarding more important matters, IS the back of a cereal box an acceptable substitute?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Sue Featherstone
        November 19, 2018 at 8:55 am

        Yes, if it’s the 1960s and it’s the only reading material allowed at the breakfast table. My sister and I used to argue over who got to read it first. (Heaven forbid we should talk to each other instead!)

        Liked by 3 people

        • November 19, 2018 at 1:53 pm

          We had that morning talk in our house too, Sue. Usually descended into non-verbal signals though 😉

          Liked by 2 people

      • November 19, 2018 at 9:05 pm

        The characters are a bit one dimensional and the plot doesn’t really go anywhere. Interesting twist, though, with the inclusion of Niacin, Riboflavin and Thiamin (if I remember rightly these are the Three Musketeers).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sue Featherstone
    November 19, 2018 at 8:54 am

    I stopped worrying abut what other people thought when I realised a large sector of the population could happily while away hours and hours watching other people chase up and down a field after a piece of leather…

    Liked by 4 people

    • November 19, 2018 at 1:19 pm

      Especially when they’re women, eh Sue? You’d be hard pushed not to find a fan of either gender in Ireland right now, after Saturday!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. November 19, 2018 at 9:01 am

    Reblogged this on anita dawes and jaye marie.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. November 19, 2018 at 9:04 am

    I am now old enough not to care much about the way I look ( really) but there are days when I remember what it felt like…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. November 19, 2018 at 10:55 am

    No thoughts at all about the merits of fiction by genre, sorry. Too busy reading the back of my cereal box! Boy, those were the days when I was, um, a boy… but when I was that young I also devoured everything Mary Stewart ever wrote and my only thought was “cool as history, maybe cooler”, not “written by a woman”.

    My only thoughts, of course, are about your hair. Since I’m obsessed with grey, I couldn’t be happier with the current shock of misty slate I’m sporting, and Steve Martin was my idol, because at my age he could be. Men never had to worry about having grey hair, including most importantly the salt-and-pepper incomplete look, did they? All sexy, Gregory Peck and Sean Connery and the list goes on. They can dye it, they can let it go grey, we can use that Grecian Formula to take off just a little, whatever we like.

    And I would urge you Ms. Sparling to believe that the same is now true for you. I speak for only one member of the Y-chromosome set, but as a man-of-a-certain-age I can tell you nothing revs my engine higher than seeing a woman who is clearly also-of-an-age but still with gas in the tank. Think Helen Mirren, I’d walk past any girl named Kardashian to get to her (and I’d run past the one named Caitlyn). I bet you would knock them out– six months, try it and you can always go back which will REALLY set them on their heels!

    Liked by 2 people

    • November 19, 2018 at 8:18 pm

      I suppose I should let my walking around with a megaphone, slapping teenagers, speak for itself, no matter what colour my roots are, Will. I’ll think about it while I’m disciplining my harem.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. November 19, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    I write women’s fiction and I hate, hate, hate describing it as that because I also read books by guys featuring guys and never have needed to call it men’s fiction. That being said I don’t have nearly the marketing dollars available to battle for attention in the general literature category, so I’m grateful for the niche – I just wish it was called something else.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 19, 2018 at 8:21 pm

      Absolutely, Allie. Imagine saying to a man who’d read everything ever written by Lee Child ‘oh, you only read men’s fiction? Once you strip out the taciturn gadget obsession, there’s not much else, is there?!’

      Liked by 2 people

      • Jup
        December 7, 2018 at 9:44 pm

        The need to identify gender when talking about women is something that always puzzles me. For example when newspapers report on things like “female police officer thrown from car….” that would be a police officer thrown from a car then…..

        Liked by 1 person

        • December 8, 2018 at 1:58 pm

          Absolutely, Jup. I think it’s unconsciously done 99.9% of the time but there’s still no need for it!

          Liked by 1 person

  7. November 19, 2018 at 1:03 pm

    I have always found the label ‘wimin’s fiction’ denigrating. Does it only contain words of less than six letters, no adjectives except ‘nice’ no adverbs (what’s an adverb?) and no plot line that a four year old with learning disabilities wouldn’t be able to follow? Because, let’s face it, wimin are stupid, sweet and fluffy maybe but intellectually fluffy. They need a whole section of the library devoted to books they can understand, written specially for weak minded adults who are only interesting in lurve and doing their nails. Don’t they? If that’s not what wimin’s fiction is meant to imply, please correct me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 19, 2018 at 9:25 pm

      I wouldn’t dream of it, Jane. In fact, I would rather eat nothing but tinned peas for a week, than correct you. This may not sound bad to you, but remember, I am a woman also, and therefore can subsist only on gin and cupcakes.

      Like

  8. November 19, 2018 at 3:56 pm

    I’m a female author, who writes about a female mob goddaughter. So technically, if it wasn’t described as crime, it would fall into the women’s fiction genre. Probably, my market is predominantly female. But I’m told by male high school teachers that male teens like it too, because it’s comedy. So if it *was* described as women’s fiction, it would kill my secondary market.
    So limping to my point (stumbling, more like it) I wonder if we are helped by the women’s fiction marketing title. I’m thinking, at least for me, it attracts me. I like reading about women, written by other women. I rarely like female protagonists, written by men. It helps me find the books I want. And I don’t give a feck (good word, Tara) what men think about what I read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 19, 2018 at 9:37 pm

      Too right, Melodie! Neither do I – but I wonder, too, is Women’s Fiction really a necessary label anymore, to find women who like fiction written by women? The title, the blurb and the author name will tell us that – if that’s what we’re searching for.

      But I don’t believe that fans of women’s fiction actually go looking for Women’s Fiction as a label. They’re searching for stories of particular human interest, or romance, or redemption, or whatever it is that isn’t car chases and dead bodies and interminably long descriptions of a trip to the grocery store that include a flashback of someone’s entire relationship with his father. And if we can’t give it to them without segregating it in whatever way into Women’s Fiction, then we should really go back to marketing school, shouldn’t we?

      (See what I did there?!!)

      Like

  9. November 19, 2018 at 4:05 pm

    I read once that women’s fiction should focus on family relationships. Many good works of fiction contain stories of family dynamics, generational sagas or dysfunctional families. I don’t see what’s wrong with any of these. So men don’t want to read it? So what? One half of the population does and that’s good enough for me. Family relationships loom large in most of my novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 19, 2018 at 6:28 pm

      One of my favorite fiction series has, at its root, a generational saga about a large and dysfunctional family… even if it is “just” speculative fiction written by a man. (I can describe just about anything in “mundane” terms if I have to, and anyone who’s read The Chronicles of Amber knows that, without the extreme sibling rivalry and the manipulative parents and all, the story would be very different.)

      I read science fiction, mostly. I can’t stand ‘people live on Mars and spend all their time having sex’ sorts of stories (no more than I can stand ‘people live in Chicago and spend all their time having sex’ stories — perhaps less, because what’s the point making a story sci-fi in the first place if you’re ignore the sci-fi aspects of the setting?), but a good love story in an interesting sci-fi setting… Yeah. (A Civil Campaign a sci-fi romantic comedy, is one of my favorite novels… and sometimes I think I need to track down some historical romances by Georgette Heyer, whose fiction influenced the author of A Civil Campaign as well as a few other sci-fi/fantasy authors I like.)

      My sister-in-law would throw the person across the room if they tried to shove a stereotypical “women’s fiction” novel in her face and insist that of courseshe must want to read it, and I suspect she’s not unusual in that regard. For that matter, there’s a rather famous male sci-fi author who used to, while traveling across the country on motorcycle, stop in every used book store he saw and look through the romance paperbacks for any by his favorite authors that he hadn’t read yet. Classifying what people read or want to read (or what they write) by their sex/gender is stupid.

      Liked by 2 people

      • November 19, 2018 at 9:45 pm

        Hear, hear, Thomas and Stevie both… This harks back though to a particular bugbear of mine – that if men write about love or family, it’s considered literary fiction; if a woman writes about it, at its best it’s Women’s Fiction, at worst it’s chick-lit. The novel I always use to illustrate this is Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, but there are many. If a woman had written Brooklyn, would it have been made into a movie? Of course not… because it would have less appeal, right?

        I love your sci-fi examples, Thomas. We need to hear much more of this sort of thing. And I’m off now to get my hands on A Civil Campaign. Much gratitudinal.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. James Lawless
    November 19, 2018 at 5:18 pm

    Interesting blog post,Tara. It’s a theme I tried to tackle in my novel Finding Penelope examining the chicklit/literary divide. By the way just to give you the other side of the coin as a struggling middle aged male writer with no axe to grind I have been precluded from a number of literary competitions and publishing houses which the powers that be be declare are only for females.

    Like

    • November 25, 2018 at 11:56 am

      Thanks, James. My take on it would be that gender quotas/ prizes are there to address a historic imbalance which was never going to be alleviated any other way, but I think that’s a different argument and one we might save for another day.
      Apologies for the delay in publishing your comment but it went into moderation, as do any comments which include unsolicited buy links or advertising.

      Like

  11. November 19, 2018 at 6:09 pm

    “(because unless a female protagonist is written by a man, most men won’t read it)”

    I’ve heard/read enough men say this about their own reading habits that I assume it must really be true for them, but it still makes no sense whatsoever to me. I don’t ever choose a book based on the author’s sex/gender, but when I look at my bookshelves (both physical and digital), there are a lot of women’s names on the covers of those books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 19, 2018 at 10:14 pm

      Therein lies the difference between us, Thomas. I will only choose a book written by a woman that has shoes on the cover. Wait, no – knives. No, that’s not right either. Is it a book by a shoe with a woman holding a knife on the cover? I get so confused sometimes.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. November 19, 2018 at 7:02 pm

    Some of my very best reviews have come from older men. You can find me with the keyword phrase “women’s fiction,” but only because I had a keyword left. I write mainstream. I aim for a literary quality to the language, but abhor the literary focus on language before plot, or over characterization, or instead of a strong story. So ‘literary’ is another keyword, but I always feel I have to explain I’m on the literary spectrum toward plot.

    When I have time, I’ll do another sweep of the marketing – mainstream fiction does not exist as a category on Amazon any more, if it ever did: stories that can be read and enjoyed by educated and literate adults.

    But being segregated into the ghetto would depress me.

    It helps to have three strong pov characters, two women and one man. Some people even like the ‘villain’ best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 19, 2018 at 10:20 pm

      I hope that in very little time, Alicia, you’ll be sending your books out into the world without explaining the literary spectrum let alone anything more than gender-free genres!

      And I can’t speak for others, but I ALWAYS like the villain best. Especially at parties.

      Like

  13. November 20, 2018 at 12:40 pm

    Maybe all writers should have non-gender specific names?!
    Sx

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 20, 2018 at 5:00 pm

      Maybe writers should have NO NAMES, Scarlet. Think about it. We could change the WORLD….

      Like

  14. November 20, 2018 at 12:46 pm

    That is as well written a blog post as I’ve read. That is with the proviso that I am only talking about blog posts written by women. If you want to be taken seriously by us men, you have to ghost write as a man. Can I suggest a nom de plume? What about Glutes McArmwrestle? It covers most of the bases, the Mc adding a bit of a wild Scottish undertone to the arse and elbow that women authors are reputed to not know from each other.
    Love and kisses.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 20, 2018 at 11:03 pm

      AHA! There’s where I got you, Conor Bofin. Because I am not a woman at all… but an EVIL CORPORATE DRONE!! Hahaha. You people are so easy to fool, with your witty suggestions on gender-based comedy. All this time and you never guessed… ha. Ha. Ha.

      On another note, I’m getting hungry. Just sayin’.

      Like

  15. Jup
    December 7, 2018 at 9:46 pm

    Love this post and the comments also.

    Liked by 1 person

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