I have been querying agents and publishers about my novel, The Steel Lady, and I have come across a category that makes me scratch my head – women’s fiction. It is usually given within a long list of other genres – young adult, science fiction, mystery, fantasy – that the person in question will consider.
It made me think of when I was about sixteen, and I was visiting my grandma. My dad came in to borrow a book – a novel by Georgette Heyer, who wrote romances set in the Regency. When he left, my grandma made a derisive sound, and when I asked what the problem was she said, succinctly, “I don’t understand it. Those are women’s books.”
It’s one thing for someone raised three generations ago to hold that opinion, but it seems problematic that the category remains intact within the publishing industry. The aggravating thing about it is that whenever I see an agent or publisher who accepts women’s fiction, I’m caught between delight and annoyance. I’m fairly certain that my novel falls well within the parameters of women’s fiction, as it has a female protagonist, and focuses on her development, growth, and relationships.
It is a troubling assumption to stamp this kind of fiction as purely of interest to women. Let’s look at two examples of fiction that have stood the test of time: David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, and Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre is easy to label as women’s fiction. It charts the development of the young woman in its title, and a sizable amount of the novel focuses on the love story between Jane and Mr. Rochester. So then, is David Copperfield… men’s fiction? It focuses on the growth and development of a male protagonist, but no one would think to categorize David Copperfield as anything as pejorative as “men’s fiction,” even if such a term existed.
I am no less guilty of this than anyone else. When I have assigned the Classics Project to my students, and they ask which book they should read from my list of suggestions, I have in the past recommended Lord of the Rings, Dune, and Dracula to the boys, and Jane Eyre, North and South, and Pride and Prejudice to the girls. This is ridiculous and needs to stop. All the books on the list are ones that I have read and loved, because they are wonderful, engaging books. The gender of the protagonist was irrelevant to me, and is equally irrelevant to my students.
Then there are the novels that would seem to be women’s fiction, that aren’t. In my own novel, the story is not simply that of one young woman’s life, but also the story of enormous technological upheaval and change. As soon as it includes speculative elements, does it cease to be women’s fiction? This seems odd, particularly since genre fiction is so often where the strongest female characters are to be found. For example, does The Hunger Games count as women's fiction? It has a female protagonist. What about Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles? They, like Jane Eyre, are even named after their female characters. How about James S.A. Corey’s Caliban’s War? Two of its character narrators are Chrisjen Avasarala and Bobbie Draper, pretty much two of the toughest women in fiction. Why are these not pigeonholed as “women’s fiction”?
A term like women’s fiction excludes in both directions. It excludes in what it leaves out – science fiction, dystopian fiction, fantasy, mystery – and in who it leaves out – namely, men. If women should read David Copperfield (and they should, by the way), then men should also read Jane Eyre. There is a wonderful and wide selection of fiction that includes female voices, but it is not enough for these voices to only be heard by women. It is imperative that women read stories of men, and that men read stories of women, and that we all read stories because move us and entertain us. Our stories are how we create empathy, and it does us little good to only empathize with our own side.
Jane Perrella. Teacher, writer. Expert knitter. Enthusiast of medieval swordplay, tea, Shakespeare, and Batman.