“Women’s fiction” is a term that has always bothered me. In the publishing industry, this refers to fiction written for and usually by women, addressing “domestic” issues such as childbirth, marriage, and relationships. This type of fiction is often more commercially driven and is perhaps the equivalent to a romantic comedy or Lifetime drama in the movie industry.
I am not against light, commercial fiction—although it is true that I prefer more serious, literary novels—but I do believe classifying this sort of fiction as “women’s fiction” is a mistake. Both men and women enjoy lighter fiction, yet no fiction (For example, more men than women stereotypically enjoy spy or thriller novels) is ever referred to as “men’s fiction.” Works such as these are simply called novels.
Although women writers are not limited to writing women’s fiction, I believe as long as this term exists women writers will never fully be included within mainstream literature. While there are many more serious women writers than there once were, many are writing this kind of light-hearted novel—or they are not appreciated or recognized when they do write more serious novels. I think we should be encouraging women to write award-winning fiction and not saying that they are limited to a particular genre or area of literature. Using the term “women’s fiction,” seems to suggest this is where women readers and writers belong.
Perhaps I am entirely wrong about this, and women are being treated as serious writers, along with men. I don’t think Toni Morrison’s work could be classified as “women’s fiction” nor would Nadine Gordimer, Marilynne Robinson, or Zadie Smith’s. Still, when I look at my bookshelf I still see many classic novels by male writers and only a smattering of ones by well-known women authors.
It seems even the best of fiction by women is sometimes still classified as “women’s fiction” with the expectation that this is for women, not men. For example, I believe Jane Austen is one of the best novelists of our time, and yet some men and women seem to suggest her novels are only for women. At the same time, women and men alike are expected to read Cormac McCarthy, Graham Greene, or Ernest Hemmingway—great novelists who arguably address more “male issues” in their work.
While I do not necessarily believe women should begin modifying their work (issues such as childcare and relationships are important), I do not believe they should be limited to a particular topic or genre. I believe we need to get rid of categories such as “women’s fiction,” as they place limits on women readers and writers—and perhaps on men as well. More women writers need to be read and appreciated. While I believe this has begun to take place, we still have far to go—and appreciating women writers as writers who just happen to be women is the first step in letting go of these antiquated ideas.