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“Women’s Fiction” – A Sign or an Answer to Sexism in the Book Industry?

Karin Kallmaker Business of Books 1 Comment

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British novelist Joanne Harris’s Capitalize. This. is a blistering blog about sexist assumptions she routinely receives about her work. Women writers have heard them all – from the suggestion that if you write about a topic that was ever touched by a man, you’re capitalizing on the man’s involvement, to, of course, that you slept or in some way partnered with a man to get any success that you may have. Even lesbian writers get these belittling, dismissive statements that our careers somehow revolve around men.

There was one aside in her brilliant rant that would likely not have disquieted me all that much had not Guardian writer Alison Flood picked it up for further examination, and then blown it up into a larger discussion. Harris’s comment was

It doesn’t help when “women’s fiction” is still considered a sub-category. (Amazon; Goodreads; Wikipedia; take note.)  … “Women’s fiction” is not a genre. – Joanne Harris

Flood (and/or The Guardian) headlined and interpreted these statements as

Joanne Harris says the book industry is sexist. Why else are there categories for ‘women writers’ and no equivalents for writers who happen to be men?

That’s the headline that made it into the publishing industry airwaves. And that’s when my hackles rose. Because that’s not what Harris said…not quite in that context.

History of Women’s Fiction as a Category

Further, Flood’s discussion was unquestionably uninformed about the history of “women’s fiction” in categorization. She asked for an explanation from Amazon (got none), received further quotes from Harris, and included feedback from a bookselling representative who brought up the valid perspective of readers needing to find the books they want and how categories like “women’s fiction” help them do so.

Harris’s blog is certainly worth reading, my sisterfriends. You will recognize the echoes from your own life. The Guardian article is also worth your time because of the perspectives. It’s important to note that there are some differences in how books are categorized for sale at Amazon and in bookstores. “Women’s fiction” is a category at Amazon, while bookstores (at least in the U.S.) use various subject headings such as “Fiction-Contemporary women,” and “African American-Contemporary women.” Note that these categories for the databases are about the books, not the writers of the books, and the categories are almost always chosen by the publisher/author.

Open Quote Mark featuring Starry NightThe question before us, then, is why are there categories for “women’s fiction” and not for “men’s fiction”?  Flood’s restatement of Harris’s words is the claim that the entire industry is sexist because of the existence of a category highlighting minority writers and the lack of an offsetting one for the prevailing class. To me, that seems dangerously close to the argument that Women’s History Month is sexist because there is no Men’s History Month.

Giving Minority Writers Visibility

To bring the issue to our shores, I guess that an African American category would make the industry racist because there is no Caucasian category. We would have to believe that women are not oppressed as writers – a fact that Harris’s entire blog disproves – to think that the writing by and for women did not need emphasis and visibility.

I have to stress here that just because a book has been categorized – by the publisher or author – as “women’s fiction” that does not mean it is not also categorized at least two other ways, and perhaps a dozen other ways as well. The categories for bookselling purposes are not the same as the slings and slurs used by critics who dismiss women writers and women’s books in the many ways that Joanne Harris captured in her blog.*

“Women’s Fiction” is not the Work of the Patriarchy

Therefore, I found Flood’s framing of the discussion naïve, as if the category “women’s fiction” fell from the patriarchal sky and women lack any agency in its use. By looking only to Amazon as an example of cataloging and only at “women” vs. “men,” the discussion had no thoughtfulness about how categories for minority writers and readers, that is, Women, Gay, and Lesbian writers and readers use “sub” categories as a way to be SEEN in a marketplace that until very recently did not reflect their existence at all. This is the same visibility that African American, Latino and Native American writers and readers claim with categories as well.

Open Quote Mark featuring Starry NightThe creation of these diversity categories within the bookselling catalog system, on shelf labels, and on distribution headings addressed systemic sexism and racism by creating visibility where none existed before.

Yes, Harris is right – “Women’s Fiction” is not a genre. It is a signpost.

So, for me, The Guardian‘s simplistic framing of Harris’s comments left a lot to be desired. After finding myself disquieted there, I went back to more fully read Harris’s blog. While I yet again cheered her many recitations of the ridiculously casual sexism women writers face, I found more pinpricks of uncertainty of exactly what it was that Harris was calling out in regards to the phrase “women’s fiction.” I believe that Harris has conflated the idea of coding and categories that allow writers and readers to claim space in the marketplace for themselves with the pejoratives that are heaped on women writers.

The Signpost is a Vital Necessity

I share her ire at the latter, but am truly puzzled that she doesn’t see the need for the former as a necessary economic counterbalance. Perhaps her market is large enough now that she connects without using “women’s fiction.” But I believe that a number of women writers who also sell a great deal better than I ever will, right down to women writers in a small niche like myself, know that “women’s fiction” – and other diversity categories – are a vital necessity as a simple matter of bookselling.

Ultimately, from both Harris and Flood, it suggests a lack of understanding of where “women’s fiction” as a catalog category actually comes from, hence the irony. The patriarchy may have come up with the phrase as a scourge, but feminists reclaimed it. In a world where women writers were virtually invisible, publishers believed the only women who bought books were housewives after pulp romances. With notable exceptions, a book with a woman author’s name on it was cataloged as a “romance,” end of story.

It was feminists, busy building the Women in Print movement which would unleash thousands of books by women writers, who insisted on the “women’s fiction” category as separate from “romance” to connect women to women. They also argued for codes to show that women main characters existed (e.g. a code for women sleuths, which is still used today).

Readers Want to Find the Books They Want

As diversity for women’s writing showed that readers found the books they wanted, categories for African American, Gay and Lesbian, and eventually Hispanic-Latino writing appeared. As book sales supported the tracking, these categories have persisted. Readers use them to find the books.

Open Quote Mark featuring Starry NightReaders are the people who put money into the system, so the categories remain. I would even say that for those readers who use “women’s fiction” (or another diversity-based category like “lesbian fiction” for example) those categories are a treasured part of their relationship to their books.

No, none of the other categories are referred to with the casual contempt and seething rage that women’s writing receives. Well, lesbian writing gets the extra added bonus of being dismissed as porn, just written by women, and often presumed written as porn by women for male readers because everything is about men, even what lesbians do.

“Women’s Fiction” Shouldn’t be the Only Category for Women

Harris feels that the categorizing of books, in part, as “women’s fiction” contributes to the sexist attitudes toward women’s writing, and I don’t disagree that it has that potential. I feel that it’s our job not to let men turn the phrase against us. If some people say “women’s fiction” with a sneer, then in the parlance of the three-snap, That’s Ms. Women’s Fiction to you. I understand why she finds the categorization of her person as “woman writer” demeaning – and I applaud her and Flood’s call to action that we not allow “writer” as exclusively the descriptor of a man’s status!

Let’s Not “I Got Mine, You’re On Your Own Now”

But do away with the category that creates visibility for the writing by the largest minority, women? What message does that send to the disenfranchised women everywhere when – I must point out – women privileged enough to be writers for at least part of their living decide they are no longer minorities? I fear it jeopardizes all the other diversity categories as well in a world eager to claim we are post-sexist, post-racist, one big happy family.

In that eventuality how are readers to find little old me, now that the women’s and LGBT bookstores have all but gone? I’m not an MBE with ties to BAFTAs and Oscars. My fate does indeed hang on digital coding in the great morass of online cataloging. Let’s not mix that up with being disrespected by the boys.

Open Quote Mark featuring Starry NightLet me be extra clear: I choose my community and my identity. I live where I please. But I will not be told what is my place, and that is all the difference.

We do indeed have a very, very long way to go and Harris is dead right about that. Read Harris’s blog again about the pervasive attitude of men who simply won’t read anything written by a woman. Nothing changes until parents read their boy children books about girls and boys equally from the cradle onward, and everything from Muppets to Legos have girls holding up half the sky.

The sneering attitudes Harris talks about have to be confronted continuously.

* Harris references Wikipedia probably because of this situation last year. Wikipedia made several changes since then. For example, Joanne Harris is categorized as an English novelist and an English woman novelist, among many other things.

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Comments 1

  1. Thank you for a wonderful and very thoughtful blog.
    More than twenty years ago I began reading books by female authors almost exclusively. I wanted to read books with strong female characters and male authors, for the most part, did not write such characters. If I had to search through thousands of titles for the ones I find appealing to me as a reader I would not be a happy camper.
    I like the fact that “categories create visibility”. Is it fair to all writers that books are categorized? No. But better to be visible in a niche where people know to look than invisible in a warehouse of titles where it is almost impossible to find what you are searching for.
    You're right that attitudes have to be confronted continuously. I hope that things will be better in the future and that the toddlers of today look at the sneering attitudes described by Ms. Harris and shake their heads in wonder and disbelief that such attitudes existed.

Thoughtful and Congenial are welcome visitors. Disrespect and Spite will be shown the door.