How women's fiction won the fight against misogyny

Recently I came across one of Roxane Gay's essays in her collection Bad Feminist titled "Beyond the Measure of Men" in which she laments what she calls the "trickle-down misogyny" that has pervaded the publishing world resulting in that evil-of-all-evils, women's fiction. While I love a good social injustice to rise up against as much as the next liberal, try as I might I simply can not see the injustice in the women's fiction genre.




Oh, that an obnoxious patriarchy exists in the publishing world exists cannot be denied. The aged group of white, button-down, Presbyterian men who lunched with luminaries such as Bennet Cerf still cling to some semblance of control (and their oxygen tanks) whilst trying to instill their antiquarian views on their sons and nephews, but their days are undoubtedly numbered. They matter little and are on the official Endangered Species list even as I type this.

What matters - and what women authors such as Gay and Wolitzer and Messud tend to forget or altogether ignore - are factual statistics. According to multiple surveys taken in the United States, Britain, and Canada, men make up only 20% of the fiction readers market (See NPR article). That's right. 20%. This would be why author Ian McEwan once said, "When women stop reading, the novel will be dead."

Is it any wonder that the marketing departments of the great publishing houses created the so-called Chick-Lit genre? Dear God in heaven, bankruptcy would have ensued had they not desperately catered to their largest market: women. Whether a woman prefers literature (Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Jennifer Egan), mysteries (P.D. James, Janet Evanovitch), romance (Nora Roberts), historical fiction (Hilary Mantel, Diana Gabaldon, Sarah Waters, Geraldine Brooks), Fantasy (Margaret Atwood), Sci-Fi (Ursula Le Guin), or Non-Fiction (Mary Roach, Laura Hillenbrand), as an author I'd sure as hell want my work sub-categorized as "Women's Fiction" so the damned thing would sell to the one audience who is buying......WOMEN. 

Is it more important to be publicly lauded by a questionable human being such as Franzen than it is to out-sell the bastard? Do we really - as a gender - need validation from men to feel important? I'm left feeling worse than when I simply thought women were being held back.

As a woman who works in an industry fraught with misogyny far worse than the publishing industry, I understand the underlying frustration expressed by Gay and her fellow authors. Really, I do. But after over a decade fighting it, I've also learned this: a woman has to learn what it is she is fighting against. I don't think these intelligent, bright women understand - at least not quite yet - what they are fighting against. 

Because they don't realize they've already won.

10 comments:

  1. The whole marketing and labeling game makes my head spin! You bring up so many interesting points in this post. Thanks for writing it and giving me something to think more about.

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    1. Genre fiction makes my head spin a bit, too. Because I think "the critics" have taken it too far. When genre fiction was about pocket mysteries and Harlequin romances, I got that. But when they started using the label to insult writers they didn't want in their little cliques, well....fuck 'em says I.

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  2. You know what I dig about you? You make me think and think. I'm going to be pondering this.

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    1. I suspect I make you roll your eyes more than I make you think. But I'm good with that, too. :P

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  3. I actually hardly ever read anything labeled "women's fiction". One, I find it patronizing. Like I can only handle something designed specifically with my delicate little gender in mind. Two, because I apparently don't like stories that cater to my gender. A lot of it is married women with families or single women looking for love and I just don't care most of the time. What I do care about are women rebelling against the status quo or women looking to make a difference in the world or in their culture or in their community or in their family. Something. But not just day to day stuff, that bores me.

    Now, publishing is a man's world, and books are a woman's world, the marketing of the books by the publishing world is where the disconnect lies. I don't know if saying women's fiction as a category is misogynistic or simply repetitive since we read most of the books anyways, but I know it is an imperfect term. Not sure if I care much about it either way, other than I tend to read a lot less of the books labeled women's fiction.

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    1. What makes me giggle is that if a publisher wants a book to sell, they almost have to label it women's fiction. The Goldfinch was labeled women's fiction, lol. Meaning, in my world, that it didn't have men with explosive devices a la Tom Clancy. Ha.

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  4. You bring up some really interesting points that I hadn't thought of! But even though women "win" in terms of sales numbers, there are a few things that bug me about women's fiction.

    1. The term "chick lit." "Chick" is so NOT a respectful thing to call a woman. It's infantilizing and demeaning. Maybe if we called it something like "lady lit" it would sit better with me?

    2. I don't like the assumption that "this narrow genre is what women want to read." But I do wonder this: Are women's fiction and chick lit synonymous? Or is women's fiction a broad genre that encompasses all fiction about women, and chick lit is a sub-genre that could also be called romantic comedy? I wonder what difference that distinction would make to people discussing this topic.

    3. If women buy 80% of all fiction books sold, it seems we're pretty good at finding books we want to read. Would that really change if there wasn't a genre specifically targeting us? Would we really buy fewer books? It feels patronizing that there's a women's fiction genre but not a men's fiction genre. I also think labeling a book "women's fiction" might turn off men who might have been interested in reading it if it didn't have that label.

    This was a really thought-provoking post! Thanks!

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  5. Great post and gives food for thought. The real problem in publishing is that even though only 20% of books are read by men, the vast majority of them seem to be written by men.

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Fire away!