The gender of books and does it matter?

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.

14 Replies to “The gender of books and does it matter?”

  1. It’s too bad so many women authors get so little recognition. If someone is reading, I think that should be celebrated. And romance novels are incredibly successful. They make a tone of money and make up a good portion of any book store. You’d think that would indicate that most awards go to romance novelists.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, you’re right, romance novels account for a large portion of the book industry so it’s surprising that romance is not given the same respect as other genres. Fortunately, romance writers are very supportive and wonderful organisations like the RWA (Romance Writers of Australia and America) exist to support writers and they usually have a host of awards for members to recognise their efforts.

  2. I think ‘marketing’ in the wider sense (cultural brainwashing!) plays a huge role. I’m probably not a typical guy and I read very widely – action/romance/sci fi/vampires/cereal packets etc.
    Having said that I would generally steer clear of ‘chick lit’ principally because of how it looks. Is that logical? Probably not but my social conditioning warns me away from things that are too obviously pink and fluffy!
    I completely agree that we shouldn’t have (need) a prize for female authors. We should all be judged on our merits.

    1. Thanks Huw, I agree, marketing plays a huge role. I can see both the benefits and negatives (as a marketing person myself). The genre guidelines are there for a reason, but at the same time, generalisations and labelling play into predefined social norms which aren’t always accurate. Nice to hear from someone who reads so widely (and I won’t hold it against you that chick-lit was one step too far. Those covers are definitely fluffy!)

  3. Really great post. I cringed a little when I had to describe my first novel as women’s fiction as it is really just fiction in my mind, but if it helps people find it easier on the shelves, so be it.

  4. Thank you for writing this. It is disturbing, but not surprising news. I hate to think of what men are missing by not reading fiction – which is, in my opinion. much closer to significant truths than non fiction. Non fiction’s recounting of events as in the news, or current books, tends to be about what happened to happen. Strong fiction is about what universally happens. It is strange and unfortunate that women writers get less attention than their male counterparts. Isn’t it true that more women than men are agents and work in publishing?
    I was pitching a novel whose protagonist is a young African-American headmistress of a girls boarding school to an agent, when she interrupted me and asked my why I, an almost elderly male, had any business writing such a story. I replied that I have worked in such schools all my life, was a headmaster for years and had several close friends who are African-American colleague heads of schools, and that, besides, literature is about empathy, about, living in someone else’s life. She just shook her head. I found her reaction very disturbing, and am glad to report that it is not widely shared.

    1. Hi Stephen. Thanks for reading my blog and for your thoughtful comment. It’s sad that your manuscript was received with that attitude. As you say, literature is about empathy and living someone else’s life. I know in the romance genre, the best authors (and most enjoyable books) are the ones that write the male lead authentically, which can of course be done even if you are a female or vice versa! And yes, I think you’re right, a lot of publishing is made up women, although I don’t know at what level this trend reaches to. Thanks again for reading!

      1. Nice to hear from you, Belinda.
        The eventual outcome of the event was that, while I continued to disagree with the agent, her remark made me reconsider the first-person pov I was using. I loved writing in the feisty, take-no-prisoners voice of my protagonist headmistress, but I realized that if I used multiple thirds, I could get into the head of her antagonist, a right wing radio jock who tries to bring the school to its knees by broadcasting a scandal involving a student-teacher affair. So I re-wrote and it is a much more interesting novel.

      2. Writing is an interesting journey, isn’t it Stephen? It sounds like while the critique may have been poorly delivered, you were able to take something constructive out of it which was of benefit to you. All the best.

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