a more just world

About ten years ago, during the keynote lunch at the San Diego State Writers’ Conference, we were supposed to sit at the table whose center placard best described what we wrote. The choices were Memoir, Sci-Fi, Thrillers, Mysteries, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Women’s Fiction, and more. But not Men’s Fiction.

I didn’t know whether to sit at the table for Literary Fiction (what I hoped I was learning how to write) or at the table for Women’s Fiction (what was that exactly?).

People often ask me what kind of books I write. And, darn it, why is that such a difficult question? Sometimes they give me multiple choices, again like the table placards. A) Mysteries, B) Love Stories, C) Sci-Fi?

Literary Fiction, by the way, is never an option. The people who ask me want to know, and understandably so, about content. What are your novels about? Another hard question. “I write about relationships,” I say. “Oh, love stories,” they say. And I say, “Sometimes. And sometimes not.”

In the April 1st NYT Sunday Book Review, in an essay entitled  “The Second Shelf” Meg Wolitzer answers this question regarding her own books:

“You know, contemporary, I guess,” I said. “Sometimes they’re about marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children.”

In her essay, Meg discusses the big issue of “women’s fiction”:

When I refer to so-called women’s fiction, I’m not applying the term the way it’s sometimes used: to describe a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience. I’m referring to literature that happens to be written by women.

Of course it would be absurd to divide book stores into women’s fiction and men’s fiction. Hopefully that’s not answering anyone’s question. And certainly in 2012, we’re not going to say “relationships” or “marriage” are topics only women are interested in, or that “the wilderness” or “sports” are only men’s topics. My husband reads almost everything I read. And I would read more of what he reads if I had more time to read.

Meg concludes her essay with these sentences:

And will “Women’s Fiction” become such an absurd category it’s phased out entirely? Maybe, in a more just world.

I vote we stop using the term “women’s fiction” now, in an attempt to create a more just world.

Cross-posted at the Contrary Blog

17 thoughts on “a more just world

  1. Pingback: women’s fiction, men’s fiction — Contrary Blog

  2. I second that vote. I like the sound of “mainstream” “general” or “literary” much more than pigeon-holed women’s fiction. It really describes nothing and sounds exclusionary.

  3. Once again, our parallel play, in which our minds go to the same place at the same time. I just had this conversation with a new friend (local novelist) of mine on Friday. Not knowing each other’s work at all, we attempted to get a handle on what we each were up to. How awkward it is to not have an easy term to define the work. Even when using “literary” fiction, we questioned what that term included, or perhaps, we questioned if our work was worthy. Does “literary” mean, the quality of the prose? Character vs, plot? Both? I asked her whose writing hers is most like…Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood? What if our wriitng is like Meg Wolitzer? Is there such a thing as men’s fiction?
    Great post! One way to try and land on a definitive answer is to have conversations like these. Thanks.

  4. Where do we sign up? I’ve struggled with this label for years. It’s hard to say the term “women’s fiction” is sexist, derogatory, limiting because it’s so hazily defined. Meg Wolitzer definition is fine, though, as you say, no one uses the term men’s fiction as a general term for books written by men.

    Romance, chick lit, contemporary, and some literary books are grouped together under the label women’s fiction, so, as you experienced, when you say you write women’s fiction that means nothing specific — and that means the term should be obsolete.

    Great post, Cynthia.

    • Linda, it’s great to hear from you! You’re right that too much is included in the label for it to have any meaning. And I think there actually was some sort of petition to sign but I missed the deadline.

      So I hereby promise not to use the term anymore.

  5. I agree! Probably for the same reason I think college Women’s Studies programs should go to Gender Studies. Men and women are in the same boat, ultimately, I think. We may be different in many ways, but not deep down. Anyway, we’re all human.

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