I love a lot of books that we think of as “women’s fiction.” But I absolutely hate the fact that we call them “women’s fiction.” In fairness, many women – including both readers and authors – don’t have an issue with the categorization. But I do. Big time.
A more generous definition of “women’s fiction” is fiction written about and usually by women. This one is slightly better because at least there is some metric for the category that can be defined with some level of success. It’s easier to determine whether a book is about or by a woman than it is to determine if it is for all women.
That definition is still riddled with problems, though. Here are some reasons why “women’s fiction” is a category that’s not just useless, but actually destructive.
It’s arbitrary. Generally speaking, separating books by genre makes sense. It helps mystery readers find mysteries, romance readers find romance, and memoir readers find memoirs. But the term “women’s fiction” tells you almost nothing about the content and formula of the book you’re about to read other than the fact that it’s fiction and there’s almost certainly a woman in it.
It’s sexist: As I said, at best, “women’s fiction” books are about women and written by women. Which, fine. But there’s no “men’s fiction” subgenre for books about or by men. Somehow, booksellers manage to find space for books by and about men in categories like “Humor & Satire” or “Historical Fiction.” Or literally all of the other categories.
While there are female authors in those sections too, many of them get shuffled over to the “Women’s Fiction” section. There’s a big problem with sexism in the literary world, but it’s particularly blatant to take an entire category of books and authors and segregate them this way.
It’s gender-binary: As a society, we’re gaining more and more understanding about the fluidity of gender. We have a very long way to go in furthering that understanding and being fully inclusive of people of all different sex and gender identities. Creating a superfluous sex or gender-specific categorization around books hinders our already slow progress.
Categorization becomes a very real issue for not just sales, but also other kinds of recognition. Richard Russo and Terry McMillan both write contemporary fiction about adults navigating life, work, and relationships, but only one of them gets tagged as a “women’s fiction” writer. And it’s not the one whose book won a Pulitzer Prize.
This is not a hard problem to solve: Maybe every single book that wins awards is better than every single book categorized as “women’s fiction.” But the fact that a book is by or about a woman shouldn’t box it out of the same kinds of consideration as a book by and/or about a man. Maybe not every “women’s fiction” book should be considered “literary fiction.” That’s fine with me. But then let’s actually put them in categories that are based on the content of the book as opposed to whether or not the author or main character is in possession of lady parts.
As it turns out, sometimes man-humans are part of families and communities and relationships, too. Let’s do something wild and crazy and actually sort books in a way that reflects that reality.