Genre Discrimination with Women’s Fiction

June 20, 2011 | By | 17 Replies More

There’s lots of talk about self-publishing discrimination, and more about gender discrimination, but it’s “genre” discrimination that is on my mind

Genre” is your book’s category.

Tess Hardwick, author of Riverson

If we want to ever make any money writing, being associated with a certain genre is especially important in helping first time authors find their audience.

My debut novel, Riversong, is labeled either women’s fiction or chicklit depending on the reviewer. It certainly has a different audience, for example, than a spy thriller.

Fortunately for novelists, there are as many varieties of readers out there as there are writers. As my daughter’s school librarian says, “I don’t care what you read, as long as you read.”

Where I get into a bit of a snit is when women’s popular fiction, genres like romance, cozy mysteries and chicklit, are labeled as less important, or the writer, as less skilled than those writing literary fiction.

Sure, those of us who write in these genres may never win the Pulitzer but it does not mean that our writing isn’t as good. A well-crafted story is still well-crafted no matter the genre. Compelling descriptive writing still draws the reader in, no matter the genre. Fully developed characters make you believe the story is real, no matter the genre.

And yet…

The cover of Riversong, a novel by Tess Hardwick

As a writer in the women’s fiction genre, when I’m asked at dinner parties, the gym, in writer’s circles, and even at my own book signings, what ‘kind of book’ Riversong is, I feel apologetic, as if the book I slaved over for years and that I get daily fan mail about, is somehow not ‘important’ enough. As if I’m not a real writer.

I often answer with a tilt of my head or wave of my hand, as if I’m dismissing myself and my book:

“It’s just a chicklit book about a woman who triumphs over tragedy. Don’t expect the Pulitzer or anything.”

In 2001, my full-length play, My Lady’s Hand won first place prize for new works at a small Seattle theatre. In the review by the Seattle Times of one of the subsequent productions (which I also directed) the reviewer dismissed the play as, “Something you’d see on Lifetime”. My own father said something about how he could see it on the WE network.

Last week a review on Amazon said that Riversong reminded the reader of a Lifetime movie. For some ridiculous reason, these comments bothered me. And why, exactly? I mean, I should be so lucky to have a producer buy the rights and make a movie of Riversong for Lifetime. It’s only one of the most popular cable networks in the world. And, I might add, makes great movies on all kinds of subjects.

For women.

And, there is the crux of the issue, my writer friends. I had to ask myself, last week in the middle of the night when I was obsessing about this very subject – was I ashamed of writing books that appeal to women? Had I bought into the subtle message that my ‘audience’ of women meant I didn’t have anything important to say? And if so, what is the matter with me?

That’s when I had to have a serious talk with myself. It was a stern talk, a take myself ‘to the woodshed’ type of talk.

I am a woman after all. The women in my book are like so many of the strong resilient women I know in real life who juggle aging parents, children, relationships and careers without complaint, day after long day. Should I apologize that I wrote a book for them? For us?

By allowing myself to judge Riversong as unimportant because it’s not written by a man for men, I’m literally dismissing myself and my readers.

Riversong is about an ordinary woman thrown into an extraordinary situation, just like so many of us in real life. The way she gets out of it, is heroic. And yes, there’s a love story too, which apparently is decidedly unliterary. This is ironic, when you consider most of us are in a love story of our own and if we’re not, we certainly want to be. Isn’t that what we talk about during our girls’ nights out?

Genre fiction, commercial fiction, is important. It entertains, it moves, it illuminates the human experience. All of which is our job as novelists. Our readers are counting on us.

So, at the next dinner party, when someone asks me, “What kind of novel is Riversong?” I will answer proudly.

Riversong is Women’s Fiction, literature that reveals the intelligence, resilience and courage of women just like you and me.

That sounds pretty important, now that I think about it.

Like what Tess writes? Make a connection. Follow Tess on Twitter. Subscribe to Tess Hardwick’s blog. Like Tess Hardwick’s Facebook Page. Leave a comment letting her know what specifically interested you about this piece.

*Editor’s Note: See The Guardian – Alison Flood’s June 13, 2011 post about the response to Nobel laureate Naipaul stating women’s writing is inferior.



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Category: On Writing, Women Writing Fiction

Comments (17)

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  1. I can so relate to that ‘only’ writing for women feeling!

    I think the trouble is that we women have had so little official voice in the past that our deepest conflicts and concerns are not part of our culture. They are invisible, like so much of women’s work and women’s lives. Domestic, is the word. The word that often dismisses Jane Austen. But human nature is the same whether it’s within a community or a family or shown on a wide stage with battles and cool hardware.

    The only thing that’s going to change it is women writers plugging on until we are heard, and the things we write about are seen for what they are – at the centre of all our lives, woman or man. Women read fiction with a male protagonist – why don’t men read about women?

    Keep on writing!


  2. Robin Nolet says:

    Truly enjoyed this, Tess. I’ve written ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘cozy mysteries’and understand the feeling of being somehow less than a legitimate author. Because my protagonists are women with issues other women could relate to, are their stories somehow less worth telling? I don’t think so. I was still nervous, though, when I heard a man had been assigned the task of reviewing my book for a review site. But I was delighted when I saw the title of the review: “Is It ‘Chick Lit’ If a Guy Likes It?” You left me wondering, were she writing today, into what genre Jane Austen’s book would be pegged!

  3. A very interesting post. While I personally rarely read that which is classed as *woman’s Fiction*, it’s not because I think it is inferior to what I like to read, just different. I also worry about how women are seen if they write in a genre not usually considered as being for women, e.g. SciFi. Many women have made a success writing in crime fiction, but the list of female scifi writers is fairly short. Even JK Rowling hid her sex when she first was published lest it put off young boys from reading about Harry Potter.
    There is much work to be done to advance women’s position in the literary world and kudos to you for being successful in the genre you have chosen to write in. You are to be admired.

  4. Really interesting post, Tess. Reading this very late but like your daughter’s school librarian, I believe the reader experience is everything. I recently read that the young Amanda Hocking (of Kindle Million fame) writes her “troll” books in between 2-4 weeks. It doesn’t seem very long to produce a work of substance (I’ve not read them, so certainly cannot judge), but her hundreds of thousands of fans love her and that’s who she’s writing for 🙂

  5. megan noelle says:

    This post struck me two ways! Like you and others have mentioned, learning to stand up for yourself and and your work is a huge lesson for many of us, and certainly was for me. And, I also agree that there is a sort of lesser standard out there for authors who “just” write good stories. Frankly, good stories are about all I care to read. I’m often turned off by the pieces that take themselves so seriously they come off as prententious. Not that literary fiction writers can’t also tell good stories, but for me, at least, they have to have more than a literary style to capture my attention.

    I write Young Adult fiction, and I believe it’s another genre that tends to get put into the “requires less talent” category. I say let ’em think that. If I can please, entertain, and inspire a twelve year-old, I take that as a far greater triumph than having my book considered “important” by the literary elite.

  6. Ute Carbone says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful article, Tess. You’re right to be proud of your work. I write what’s been called “women’s literary fiction” and have often wondered why there isn’t “men’s literary fiction”. Does a book with a strong female protagonist at its center mean that men aren’t and won’t ever be interested? Seems silly to me.

  7. A lovely post about courage and self awareness.
    Everybody’s a critic ignore the Lifetime commenter,
    the person is jealous they can’t write a novel.
    Keep your head high!

  8. Kerry says:

    Tess, what an amazing article. Your thoughts and insights definitely resonate with me. At times (well, most of the time), I have to remind myself to get out of my own way.

  9. Tess, I met Kristin Hannah at a reading and she proudly lauded herself as writing books “about women, for women”. The comments on her Facebook page say it all … people love her writing and her stories. No one can write to please everyone … so keep writing what you love and enjoy the journey!

  10. jeleystorey says:

    Tess I thought I would have to lecture you! So glad I don’t and that you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps. I still have yet to get out and buy your book but I know from your posts that it will be excellent. I wish I could convey my admiration for you but alas, I am not gifted with the written word!

  11. Ann Werner says:

    Wow! You said it all. I was at a writers conference several years ago and a guest speaker who who wrote historical biographies said that “your book must be important.” And I thought: by whose standards? I write thrillers with strong female characters and I suppose that author would have called me a hack. But I like to read thrillers and so do a lot of other people. We read to escape for a little while as much as we read to learn – perhaps even more. When I think of the difficult times I’ve gone through in my life and how I managed to forget them in the midst of my troubles by simply losing myself in a good story, I know what “important” really means. And, by the tone of your blog, so do you. You go, Girl!

  12. Women buy more books so if they are your audience, numbers are on your side. I’m also wary of anyone who dismisses so-called genre fiction (mine being crime) as somehow lesser than literary fiction. To my mind the best genre fiction has depth of character and beautiful writing, while the best literary fiction also has plot and story. A book that lacks either is less than one that has both, right? Great post. Be confident about your book–it sounds great and I am both recommending it and will read!

  13. Sheila Deeth says:

    I love the way you end your article. Indeed, women’s fiction is important.

  14. Tess, whatever your genre, if you have a readership following your work has value. If it happens that you write more about women, I won’t say for women, and more women read the work doesn’t lessen it’s value in any way.

    The reason I don’t say write for women is that I don’t think you can exclude the males sex from any kind of book…..and nor should you as reading anything is important . If your work seems to have appeal to women and appear to be something that appears suitable for a TV channel, I’d take that as a compliment, we should all be so lucky as to get that kind of remark. Write within your comfort zone and keep entertaining people Tess,as we say in the UK, more power to your elbow !

  15. You are so right! Thank you for sharing such an insightful post.

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