Does Women’s Fiction Need a Shelf of Its Own?

In News by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

Yael Goldstein Love is  Cofounder and Editorial Director of Plympton

Yael Goldstein Love is Editorial Director of DailyLit

Years ago, when I helped manage a small literary bookstore in NYC, there were many debates held among the store’s employees on whether “gay fiction” should be its own subsection.

I always argued against the idea — why a book ghetto? And besides, what exactly is “gay fiction?” Is it a book by a gay author, no matter what the subject matter? (Gore Vidal’s Lincoln? Proust’s In Search of Lost Time?) Is it a book with gay characters? How does one define it? And why would one want to separate it from all the other fiction?

And apparently, the idea of dividing literature into various subsections continues.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Yael Goldstein Love looks at the same question when it comes to women’s lit. The literary website she helps to run, DailyLit, recently went through a redesign. And as she said, “In the first few days after we rolled out the new site, the change our readers were most vocal about was the absence of the ‘women’s fiction’ category.”

Which raises the same question that I applied to the notion of gay lit: What makes a piece of fiction women’s fiction?

“Does it have to be by a woman,” Goldstein Love asks, “about women, about domestic issues? Is The Scarlet Letter women’s fiction because its protagonist is Hester Prynne rather than Reverend Dimmesdale? How about Frankenstein by Mary Shelley? Surely no one would call that tale of scientific hubris ‘women’s fiction’ but if it were published today, with its 20-year-old female author, would the cover bear a delicately drawn scene in girlish colors?”

The feedback that she received was interesting; with a number of female readers commenting that “they no longer felt welcomed by the new site. One reader wrote that the absence of a separate women’s fictions section mad her “feel that there was nothing for me here.”

There was a brief discussion as whether to resurrect the category. But while Goldstein Levy briefly considered it, the more she thought about it “the bigger a deal it seemed to me. It was a big deal because women were saying they didn’t feel welcome on a literary website without a ‘women’s fiction’ category.”

The problem, she decided was this: “If some subset of fiction is ‘women’s’ then the rest is…not for women? This was the implicit message that at least some of our readers had received. The category had convinced them that literature is male by default.”

“The message,” she added, “only seems to reinforce what we’ve already agreed we know. We know, for instance, that literature about erectile dysfunction and male masturbation is fiction for and about humans. No one would think to market Ernest Hemingway or Philip Roth as ‘man’s fiction.’ We know that a Nobel laureate can say no female writer is his literary match and shock people but not confuse them. Imagine if a female writer said the equivalent, the profound confusion that would greet the remark, and you start to see what I mean by ‘default.’”

But are book covers part of the problem, perhaps unconsciously delineating the difference between women’s fiction and everything else? If, Goldstein Levy writes, “as Meg Wolitzer claims, the bold, typeface-dominated design you find on men’s book covers, but rarely women’s declares, ‘This book is an event,’ then you can see why publishers might shy away from pairing that design with a woman’s name. Sweetness and light is a better tact to take, rather than risk putting off readers with a promise they might find presumptuous before they crack open the book.”

In fact, “to the extent that we care about good fiction getting written and provoking the pleasure it warrants, the consequences of viewing literature as male by default are getting in our way…

“Fiction is, of course, a thoroughly subjective business. Not only does it explore subjectively, but our reactions to it engage our own subjectivities…The mere fact that we find the ‘women’s fiction’ category so natural shows up one of these biases, and taking a stand against the category may well be the first step toward ridding ourselves of it, in the literary world but also beyond.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.