Women read statistically more books than men. “When it comes to fiction, the gender gap is at its widest. Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market, according to surveys conducted in the U.S., Canada and Britain.” In NPR’s “Why Women Read More than Men,” Eric Weiner goes into some psychological explanation about how women can relate to fictional characters more.
But isn’t this a case of the chicken and the egg? Women read more fiction, so they benefit from the reading of literary fiction to become more empathetic.
If you’ve ever been to a book club, they’re dominated by women. The stereotypical book club is a circle of ladies drinking box wine in a suburban living room. Women and book clubs are such a hallmark that there is advice on the internet about how to get men to join. Such nuggets include making your leader a man so you’ll get more men to join.
(Because, you know, men don’t get heard enough. Those ladies at the Silver leaf Book Club invited Patriots’ player Malcolm Mitchell to join the conversation they were already having. They didn’t change their booklist to include football manuals.)
Although women are doing most of the reading, men still dominate the field of writing. Men get published more. Men get more awards. Men get read more. Which means women are reading male writers.
Go to a writing circle and you will be asked your genre as well as your name. What can you say if you are a woman?
The canon is defined by male writers. So, the default definition of literary fiction is high literature that fits into a canon that has been historically male-dominated. Everything else is “genre fiction.” Therefore, you’re either aspiring to write high art, or the other stuff, and most women are writing the other stuff.
Women are writing.
It may be that the genres that women are writing in are female. Women will read male writers, but men aren’t going to read female genres.
The argument sounds vaguely familiar to sports fans. Nobody, they say, wants to watch female sports. The reality is that whoever they are, it’s, again, a chicken and the egg scenario: no one sees women’s sports because they think we don’t want to watch them.
Hmmm. In 2016 Olympics made some nods to gender equality by labeling women’s events and men’s events. It looks like we are moving away from having women’s sports noted as distinct from sports while men’s sports are referred to as just sports. It helps that women’s sports at the Olympics dominated the ratings. Too bad Rutgers, my alma mater, insists on calling the women’s teams “Lady Knights.” But I digress.
By pigeonholing female genres, we all judge women’s work as second class. Women readers, too, will scoff at and dismiss chic lit even as they read it.
There is a longstanding issue that men (with some notable exceptions) can’t write about women because sometimes they don’t see women as people. Male authors have been known to write two dimensional female characters. Meanwhile female authors have a tendency to stick to female protagonists, choosing to write what they know best. According to Michele Willens writing for the Atlantic, “Authors of both genders have long experimented with narrators and protagonists of the opposite sex—but there’s still debate as to whether either sex can do it right.”
Why do women allow themselves to be subjected to bad writing from male writers, but readers of both sexes will not forgive the same missteps in female writers?
Women continue to read male writers. Male readers just don’t read women writers as much. Perhaps men are more prejudiced against certain genres, not just the author’s names.
The main difference between genre fiction and literary fiction has its roots in the dead white male canon, which has been in hot debate for decades. Literary fiction is an elevated term, and everything else, is well, not literary.
Bookstores set us up, labeling the shelves by genre. Even on the Kindle, what is marketed to us is based on genre. On Goodreads, when we review a book, we are invited to recommend it to our friends according to genre. Even libraries are dropping the Dewey system in favor of a more book industry classification system. The impetus behind it is to give patrons free range to browse the shelves like they do at the bookstore.
The excuse is always that such genre distinctions are useful to readers.
Evie Gaughan in her post “The Wacky World of Genres” questions labels like “Chick Lit” and “Women’s Literary Fiction.” She goes on to describe when we look out how bookstores arrange books by genres, we should wonder why there is women’s literary fiction yet no men’s literary fiction.
There might as well be such a thing as men’s fiction.
Men’s fiction could be defined as those novels that look at specifically male experiences. I took a course on the novel once which could very well have been called men’s literary fiction. My fellow students and I remarked (okay, it was probably me) that every one of the dozen books featured a male protagonist dealing with either literal or figurative impotence. Come to think of it, I would steer clear of that section of the bookstore.
How can we determine when so many books overlap? How do I know what I’m writing? When author Diana Gabaldon was getting Outlander published, she settled on it being marketed as a romance rather than facing the possibility of the publishers dropping it altogether. Good for her! Of course, romance is only one of the five genres it could have fit into.
Literary fiction reeks of the whole canon question: who decides?
Literary fiction isn’t really something you get to decide to write. It more likely happens after the fact, when someone elevates a book to art, decides it has more meaning than entertainment. But who is that someone?
Meghan Lewit from the Atlantic has a lot to say about how female authors “dominate” YA fiction. She doesn’t really answer the “why” except to remark that a male reader is more likely to read something with a dystopian cover than something more akin to a romantic novel. Women are writing on the fringe.
Young Adult fiction is another example of a “lesser” genre, one that is often sneered at, one critic going so far as to say adults should be embarrassed to read it.
Blogger Kristin Twardowski defends Young Adult fiction in Depriving Youth and Defending YA Literature against genre criticism that calls YA fiction “dangerous” because it might preclude kids from reading something else.
I prefer Stephen Colbert’s take on YA fiction: a “regular novel that people actually read.”
Women have been writing science fiction all along. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a book published anonymously and rumored to have been written by her husband, may have been the first science fiction book. It intersects the genres of science fiction, feminist fiction, and young adult. It is notably one of the few female works that has been in the literary canon fairly consistently.
Mary Shelley also wrote The Last Man, this time under her own name, which, as the name implies, is a very early entry into the world of post-apocalyptic fiction, was only rediscovered in the 1960s.
Genre is a funny business.
Within the realm of fiction, most of us aren’t aiming for high art or literary fiction. However, once writers begin to intersect three or four genres with some good writing, the definition is inevitable, if not immediate.
Happy Reading! Happy Writing!