What is “women’s fiction” and why do some people consider the term “sexist and contemptuous” is the topic of an essay by Roxana Robinson in the Books section of the Chicago Tribune, Sunday, August 21, 2005, section 14, page 1.
In her essay “A Simpler, Acrimony-Free Definition of ‘Women’s Fiction,’” she argues that everyone uses the term “women’s fiction,” but no one agrees what it is. Some would point to mass-market romances. Robinson describes the formula for many paperback romances, telling how they are escapist yet serve a societal purpose. She then describes thrillers and wonders why no one ever calls them “men’s fiction.” She claims that the thrillers are every bit as shallow and predictable as the romances, yet they seem to be admired. The hunt that leads to death seems to be regarded more highly than the hunt for love.
Literary fiction written by women also gets lumped into “women’s fiction,” according to Robinson, and is dismissed by men. Robinson points out that a majority of the readers of Updike, Cheever, and men are women. Why aren’t their novels “women’s fiction?”
As a librarian, I hope I never use the term “women’s fiction.” I know women who would never consider reading a romance. Some women read a lot of thrillers. I know women who read only nonfiction. I know men (including me) who have read literary fiction written by women. In fact, a lot of my favorite authors (Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark, Ursala LeGuin, Anne Tyler, and Edith Wharton) are women. Our readers are individuals not limited in their reading by gender. The term is not the least bit helpful in reader’s advisory. Let’s avoid it.