Lately, I’ve been engaging in many online discussions about the much maligned genre of Women’s Fiction. Many of these conversations have been sparked by Emily Henry’s delightful novel Beach Read, in which the protagonist, a romance novelist with writer’s block, states:
“If you swapped out all my Jessicas for Johns, do you know what you’d get? Fiction. Just fiction. Ready and willing to be read by anyone, but somehow by being a woman who writes about women, I’ve eliminated half the Earth’s population from my potential readers, and you know what? I don’t feel ashamed of that. I feel pissed.”
My own feelings about Women’s Fiction as a genre have evolved over the years. If you’d have asked me a few years ago, I would’ve told you that having a separate genre “for women” was absurd. As I’ve delved into the publishing world as an author, and reflected on my own preferences as a reader, my thoughts have shifted somewhat.
In a recent conversation I had about this topic, a participant lamented the existence of WF and asked if publishers were simply unable to market fiction written by women?
My response? The OPPOSITE is true. Publishers are incredibly able to market fiction written by women. That’s why women’s fiction exists as a genre.
Numbers often get left out of this conversation. In 2013, 60% of book buyers were women, 65% of book units purchased, were purchased by women, and 58% of dollars spent were spent by women. Another important stat? Women are more likely to read fiction, while men tend to prefer nonfiction. According to a review of the literature on gender differences and reading preferences by Kate Summers, “Genres of books most frequently cited by males as preferable were adventure (81 percent), humor (64 percent), and horror and science fiction (57 percent each). The most frequently chosen genres by females were romance (68 percent), realistic fiction dealing with relationships (65 percent), mystery (59 percent), realistic fiction dealing with problems (57 percent), and humor (51 percent).”
So respectfully, no, publishers are not unable to market fiction written by women. They are purposefully and effectively marketing women-driven stories to women readers. Despite the wealth gap in the publishing industry, most of those who work in the book publishing industry are women.
Think about it. When I, as a reader, hear the term Women’s Fiction, I know exactly what sort of story I’m going to get: One about women, that deals with the emotional journey of a women. It’s not romance, though it may have romance. It isn’t sci-fi. It is likely character driven, but with a commercial plot. Having WF as a separate genre helps me as a reader to locate these stories that I enjoy. It’s similar to the romance genre. When a story is labeled a romance, I expect a central romance plot with a happily ever after. I know exactly where to go to find these stories and fork over my money.
I agree with Henry, and with many of the people I’ve spoken with, that “eliminating half the Earth’s population” from reading a specific genre is the real problem. The existence of a sub-category of fiction for these stories isn’t the issue, if you ask me. I would love if there were a different name for Women’s Fiction, because I believe that the genre can welcome and appeal to all genders. With a term like “Women’s Fiction,” where does that leave those who don’t identify as women? I’m not sure.
No matter what any of us things of the term, I can’t see the name of this genre changing in the near future. Why? Because marketing books as Women’s Fiction pays the bills. Romance, which is primarily marketed to women, makes the industry $1.44 billion dollars a year, and I’d guess that targeting women with a term like Women’s Fiction is similarly lucrative. Think about the big celebrity book clubs out there — you know what genre most of their picks seem to be? Well, an awful lot of them seem to be Women’s Fiction. Just check out Reese Witherspoon’s list.
So like I said. I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I don’t like the message a term like Women’s Fiction sends that stories about women and their emotional journeys can’t be enjoyed by men. However, I think having this genre is incredibly effective in connecting these books to the readers looking for them.
Where do you stand on the Women’s Fiction debate? Drop a comment below!