Women read women. Women also read men. In fact, women read fiction, period. Surveys conducted several years ago in the US, Britain and Canada suggest men account for only 20 per cent of the fiction market. Non-fiction seems to be the genre of choice for men.
So why then are male writers more than 400 per cent more likely to be reviewed in major literary publications? (according to an analysis conducted by VIDA – Women in Literary Arts).
Apparently men are more likely to win literary awards and in Australia we now have something called the Stella Prize (for women). By her own admittance, Sophie Cunningham who is the current chair of the Literature Strategy Group of the Australia Council, told the Guardian:
“We prefer if this award didn’t have to exist – if writing by women was regarded and valued on its own terms, with equal merit to the way that work written by men is.”
We only need to take a look at the way in which women’s books are classified. ‘Chick-lit’ for instance. Look it up in the dictionary. It’s defined as ‘Literature that appeals to young women.’ The use of the term ‘Literature’ is promising, yet look a little closer: noun informal derogatory. Hmm, isn’t that contradictory? (Thanks to Tara Moss’ wonderful new book, The Fictional Woman, for bringing this one to light).
Jennifer Weiner, a successful novelist of women’s fiction has much to say about the way in which commercial success doesn’t to equate to respect in the industry:
“If you write thrillers or mysteries or horror fiction or quote-unquote speculative fiction, men might read you, and the Times might notice you. If you write chick lit, and if you’re a New Yorker, and if your book becomes the topic of pop-culture fascination, the paper might make dismissive and ignorant mention of your book. If you write romance, forget about it. You’ll be lucky if they spell your name right on the bestseller list.”
The gender of romance and women’s fiction
I think it’s safe to say that women are the main consumers of romance and women’s fiction. Should this be a problem? Honestly? I don’t think it matters. Women are prolific readers and if women’s fiction is satisfying a demand, that’s wonderful. I think we need to accept that the majority of men are not eager to sit down and read a historical romance or a contemporary story about a young woman trying to make their way in the world. It’s not sexist, it’s just who we are (the same way that I’m not always interested in my husband’s non-fiction books).
What does matter however, is how women’s fiction and romance is viewed as a whole. If this style of fiction is celebrated by women, why does it still receive so little acceptance, regard and reviews generally speaking? Intelligent women read this style of fiction, yet we are led to believe we are not intelligent for reading it.
Tough guys have feelings too
I was interested to read that last year Esquire magazine was launching a a line of e-books called ‘Fiction for Men.’ Predictably the usual male v. female furore broke out (you can read the article here). Mr Granger the editor in chief came to the defence of the move, saying,
“You almost always have to defend yourself when you tell people that you’re reading a new tough-guy novel. People look at you as though you lack seriousness when you profess enthusiasm for writers whose novels depend on plot, whose main characters recur again and again, and who write violence artfully.”
Could it be, that man or woman, we are simply making a cry for respect about our reading choices? Tough guy fiction, romance and chick-lit: these are all extremely well-read and commercially successful genres. Yet, often we feel as though we have to hang our head in shame for reading it.
Does gender matter in books and writing?
Yes and no.
Yes: because it’s only fair that men and women writers receive equal respect for their writing. Female representation in literature is currently inequitable and organisations like VIDA and authors such as Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult and our own Tara Moss should be praised for addressing this issue.
No: calling something ‘women’s fiction’ or even ‘fiction for men’ doesn’t need to be considered offensive. It’s simply a way of classifying fiction to recognise our tastes and differences. In saying that, we shouldn’t restrict ourselves by a classification: if I sometimes read action/adventure and a man wants to read some chick-lit, who really cares?
And just as importantly, readers shouldn’t be criticised for their choice of reading matter, nor should writers be disregarded for writing genre fiction.
Did you know August is Read-A-Romance month? Find out how you can celebrate romance novels and the romance genre here.