Friday, April 30, 2010

Damned If We Do: The Conundrum of Women’s Fiction: A Guest Post by Mary Sharratt

This is, quite possibly,my favorite guest post ever. Thanks so much, Mary!

Amy has asked me to write about an issue dear to my heart: women’s literature. Is women’s fiction taken as seriously as fiction by men?
Is the very term “women’s fiction” part of the problem, shoe-horning women writers into a subgenre—something that does not seem to happen to male authors?
“The fact that a lot of fiction written by women is referred to by the semi-derogatory term ‘chick lit,’ whilst there is no similar term for books by men says a lot,” states Elizabeth Ashworth, author of The deLacy Inheritance. On The Militant Writer Blog, Mary W. Walters points out that fiction by male authors is regarded as just that—fiction without a gendered subtext. The issues men write about are deemed serious and universal, while women’s issues are regarded as only of interest to other women. High end literary magazines often publish more work by men than by women. The latest issue of Granta includes considerably more pieces by male writers, despite the stylized pink vagina on the cover.

Joanne Rendell, writing for the Huffington Post, says that women’s issues and interests aren’t deemed as important as men’s. Upbeat, romantic fiction by women is dismissed as lightweight fluff, yet if women authors dare to address weightier themes, they are accused of writing “misery lit.” Even by other women, such as Daisy Goodwin, a judge for this year’s Orange Prize, awarded to the best novel written by a woman in the English language. Bemoaning the proliferation of dark themes, Goodwin says, “There were times when I felt like a social worker.”
In her Daily Telegraph article, Jojo Moyes observes that Goodwin’s comments “suggest women writers can’t really win. We’re damned for writing fluffy upbeat chick-lit about shoes and cake, damned if we write about domestic violence within a geo-political conflict.”

Critics, Moyes believes, still don’t take women’s fiction seriously. It is underrepresented in newspaper review sections and doesn’t get the same radio time as men’s fiction. As far as book critics are concerned, fiction by men automatically seems to carry more clout, even if they step into traditional female territory such as the domestic novel. So much hype was heaped upon Jonathan Franzen’s novel, The Corrections, that he could get away with snubbing Oprah and the legions of female readers in her book club. Even when male and female authors address the same issues, critics appear to pay more attention to the male author’s book. On Sunday April 4, The New York Times reviewed Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn and Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eater on the front page of the Book Review Section. Both novels center on the Vietman War. But whose book is getting more attention? First released on March 23 of this year, Marlantes’s book is already being hailed as a classic and is climbing the bestseller list. Soli’s novel, while widely reviewed and selling well, does not seem to reap the same kind of ecstatic, slavish praise.

This situation is ironic, given the fact that women readers and book buyers outnumber men four to one. The novel form itself was pioneered by women writers such as Jane Austen. Even today women writers such as Stephenie Meyer and Nora Roberts write blockbusters that prop up a beleaguered publishing industry. “Yet in spite of this,” writes Walters, “our books are often ridiculed, denounced, or ignored.” In his recent Huffington Post article, Jason Pinter goes so far as to blame a “female dominated” publishing industry for the fact that far fewer men are reading fiction. According to Pinter, the abundance of women’s writing turns men off fiction altogether, a situation that could be changed if publishers put out more books about manly subjects such as baseball and wrestling. (My husband, a great lover of contemporary fiction, somehow manages to read voraciously anyway!)

Kate Harding, writing for, reminds us that women buyers regularly put male authors on the best seller list, including Chris Cleave’s Little Bee and Robert Goolrich’s A Reliable Wife—books that—had they been written by women—would be considered women’s fiction, a label that might frighten away male readers.

Apparently men don’t like to read about women while women are happy enough to read about men. This seems to be imprinted at an early age. “There’s a ‘rule,’” says Kathy Connolly Adams of the Valley Bookseller in Stillwater, Minnesota, “even in elementary and middle school that girls will read books about boys, but boys won’t read books about girls. One of my personal goals as a bookseller is to break down those barriers of ‘girl books and boy books,’ but it’s been this way for generations and it’s a very tough sell.”
Which might be the reason why JK Rowling, one of the most successful authors of our times, chose to conceal her gender behind androgynous initials and to write about a young boy named Harry, not a girl named Harriet.

To help turn the tide, we women can band together and use our book buying clout to support each other.

Mary Sharratt’s most recent novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, draws on the true story of the Pendle Witches of 1612. Visit her website:

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