Why Not Women’s Fiction?


What genre do you write? That’s a question I was asked many times at this year’s Pennwriters conference. When I describe my current project to people, they say it’s historical fiction because it takes place in the 1940s, it’s YA because one of my central characters is ten years old, or it’s women’s fiction because it has to do with a conflict between a mother and daughter. Which is it, they want to know.

I know I have to name my genre if I want to get published. Authors promote themselves by genre to attract agents. Agents pitch books to publishers according to their genre. Publishers need to classify a book by genre so that they can attract book buyers, who need to know how to shelve or catalog a book to attract readers. And readers want to know that what they spend their money on is similar to the other books they tend to enjoy reading. Genre identification enables the industry to sell product.

But the definitions of current genres are confusing. Consider “women’s fiction.” Is it fiction written by women, for women, and about women? I’m not sure. The Women’s Fiction Writers Association say that they are “An inclusive organization of writers creating layered stories that are driven by the main character’s emotional journey.” The avoidance of gender in this statement stands out. If women’s fiction may be written by men or women for men or women about male or female characters as long as they have an emotional journey, why call it women’s fiction? Don’t men (writers, characters, and readers) have emotions too?

Findmeanauthor.com is more explicit. They say “Women’s fiction taps into the hopes, fears, dreams and even secret fantasies of women today. . .  They are usually written by women, are addressed to women, and tell one particular story about . . . ‘the modern female experience’, whether that is single life, married life, office politics, playground politics or all of the above.” So . . . women’s fiction is about finding a mate, getting married, bearing and raising children, and sustaining and supporting a family. Hmm. Are women (authors, characters, and readers)  really tied to such a very narrow range of “hopes, fears, and dreams”?

There are questions of definition here. Is the genre defined by who writes it, who the main characters are, what the central conflict is, or who reads it? There are also questions of value.  Does the genre signal that the industry and the reading world recognize and value the lives women lead and the art women writers create? Or, does the genre reinforce the segregation of women’s art and a set of gender expectations we might be better off without?