Defining Women’s Fiction

Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, Yael Goldstein Love examined the question of categorising fiction into various subsections.  How does one define women’s literature? “Does it have to by a woman, about women (or) about domestic issues?” she writes. Rebecca Vnuk in an article featured in Booklist Online last year described the field as “novels that explore the lives of female protagonists, focusing on all kinds of relationships, be it lovers, spouses, parents, children, friends, or members of a community. The common thread is that the central character is female, and the main thrust of the story is something happening in the life of that woman as opposed to the overall theme being a romance or a mystery of some sort.”

In her essay, “The Second Shelf”, Meg Wolitzer brilliantly argues against the genre tag of women’s fiction for books which deal with topics such as romance and family while similar subjects explored by male writers earn the more gender neutral label of “literary fiction”. The genre of a book is meant to either encompass its subject matter or its author and the marketing of a particular genre is one way of connecting a book with an extensive audience. However, these arbitrary categories are in many ways restrictive as amongst women’s fiction alone there is such a variety of styles ranging from the comedic Bridget Jones who in many ways combined many of the concerns, joys and events which characterise the lives of twenty first century women to issue-led emotional drama in many different settings: contemporary, historical and fantasy.

Publishing is a business and it certainly makes a title easier to market if published works all subscribe to the same genre. I can understand why it is necessary to make use of sub-genres in bookshops for instance. A typical reader may not have an exact novel in mind. Instead, they may browse under the more general headings of ‘romance’ or ‘science fiction’ and gradually their search for a book narrows. Readers have particular expectations of authors and I would argue that if an author submits works under various genres, they run the risk of ‘diluting’ their audience.

That said, if a trend has come and gone, it may make sense for an author to venture in to new territory. Conversion to digital may well bring changes to the way in which authors are categorised and as ebooks are typically sold at prices on average 50-60% lower than their paperback counterparts and with the added benefit of ebook purchases not incurring additional shipping charges, readers may well be encouraged to buy more books on a broader range of topics. Amazon for instance often makes tailored book recommendations based on previous purchases.

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