Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Saturday, 31 January 2015

Women's fiction - should we be ashamed of it?

I was all set to blog about how much we use our own life experiences in our work, when I got diverted by this excellent article in The Huffington Post.  It's an issue that niggles away in my mind all the time.

Last week my publisher released the fourth book in my Heartlands Series,  People We Love. I happened to be in India at the time, in a magical retreat called Philipkutty's Farm in Kerala. It's a homestay - a kind of cross between a B&B and a guest house. I think in most homestays in India you are provided with accommodation separate from the family, but part of their property, and the food is also provided, although you don't usually eat with the family. Philipkutty's Farm follows this model. It's run by a courageous woman called Anu, who took up the challenge of building some traditional Keralan bungalows on her farm to fulfil the dream of her husband, who died tragically young after a heart attack. She does this with the help of her mother. A venture of this kind run solely by women is rare in India, and Anu deserves real plaudits for what she has done.

Anyway, at the homestay we found ourselves in the company of another ten – very interesting – couples. One couple were on their fifth visit, another their seventh. Both couples used it to refresh themselves and to write or work on projects. (If you really want the perfect writing retreat, I promise you, this is it! Just a pity it's 7,000 miles away.) When I learned that People We Love was out, I couldn't resist telling everyone. I was excited! Everyone was really interested, and asked me what kind of book it was.

So then I hit the problem. I don't write literary novels, though I like to think they are well written. I don't write chick lit or romance, though my books have elements of both. I don't write anything that's simple to define, such as crime or thrillers or fantasy or sci fi or historicals. No – unfortunately, I write what is best described (I suppose) as 'commercial women's fiction'. I tell them this.

Cue knowing smiles.

Aha, chick lit you mean.

No.

Body rippers, then.

No.

Romance?

Not according to the trade definition, certainly, no.

What then?

I write multi-layered stories about the complexity of everyday life, primarily the lives of women and the challenges they face in their work and at home, as lovers, mothers and career women. But the moment I add that word 'women's fiction' I can see the men's eyes glazing over and a look of disdain crossing the faces of women who don't like admit they read 'that kind of stuff'.

I feel  their attitudes are degrading and demoralising – but are they right? Is what I write inferior to crime, thrillers, or even 'literary fiction'? Does it deserve scorn? Should it be ignored? Go unreviewed?

Please read Hannah Beckerman's article. And let me know what you think.




22 comments:

  1. I was having just this discussion yesterday, Jenny. Some people seem to assume that anything written in a particular genre is by definition poor quality. (I seem to remember Hilary Mantel getting upset when it was suggested that she wrote historical fiction, though I may be wrong.) Like you I write in a genre (in my case romance) which suffers from these same pre-judgements. Surely that isn't fair or right?

    Glad you came back refreshed!

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    1. There's a lot of prejudice in this world!

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  3. Glad you are back, Jenny, after what sounds like a fantastic break and congratulations on the release of People We Love - on my tbr list. I thought the Huff Post article was excellent and wish them success with the campaign, which we should all join. I hate the way reviewers are so sniffy about women's fiction as if it is something lesser than fiction written by men. You are right about the attitudes you describe being degrading and demoralising but you should not be ashamed of writing the books you write. Maybe we should follow JK Rowling and Lionel Shriver abd use men's names - even the Brontes did it - so it's not a recent problem.

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    1. I'm not ashamed, Mary, but I do find it hard to find the best way to describe my books. I'll need to keep thinking about that one!

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  4. I agree with Mary. Lots of pen names out there. It's interesting that a lot of male writers of romance write under female names. :)

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    1. Sure. I know a few, including the late lamented Hugh C Rae, who wrote as Jessica Stirling. I've just finished listening to Middlemarch, by George Eliot - brilliant, brilliant book. And written by a woman too! Maybe I will just invent a male pen name ... thinks ...

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  5. My second attempt at commenting! Completely agree with all you say Jenny and thanks for the link to the Huffington Post article. I had an almost identical experience to yours when I was staying at a very posh villa in Italy last autumn. I had just signed for Accent Press and was very excited. When I mentioned this and that I wrote contemporary women's fiction a number of people went out of their way to tell me what a wonderful writer Ian McEwan was and that they only read books like that... I am not a fan of Ian McEwan and even if I was wouldn't use it as a badge of my - intelligence? snobbery?

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    1. I have friends like that ... sadly...

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  6. I commented on this on Facebook. In summary,

    Literary Fiction: A good story, poorly told. Written for the writer.

    Commercial Fiction: A good story, well told. Written for the reader.

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    1. I love it! And I will remember it. Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

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    2. Brilliant definition! Thanks.

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  7. Excellent post and so pleased you had a great time away. I never know how to answer the question about what I write either. But my sister-in-law summed it up nicely for me ....'you write what women like yourself want to read' ...and I'll settle for that.

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    1. I completely agree, Linda - but it's still a hard sell.

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  8. I had to think about this for a couple of days before I commented. When asked what I write, I answer, "I write to sell." I don't feel pulled to impress anyone. I get out of the way of snobs. One can write fiction or non-fiction. I write novels labeled romance. Even inside writer's groups, I get, "Oh, I don't read romance." My reply, "Fine with me, because thirty-five million women world-wide do read romance." In thirty-five years here are the two people who have never sneered at my romance novels: My banker and my accountant. Works for me. As for the Literati reviewing my books. Not interested. Reviews are considered an affirmation that an author can write or tell a story or tell of an event. Literary folks are not my target audience. Linda summed it up nicely: I write what women like myself want to read. Thus: Reviews from those readers are what I hold dear. Here is a fact: Commercial fiction does get reviewed. My titles are commercial fiction aimed at a certain demographic community within the reading public. I publish both digital and paperback. If one is published by a small press or a large, it is the publisher's job to get those reviews. Online publishers don't take that very necessary step, thus leaving the author to scramble for reviews for the targeted audience. Literary reviewers seldom review a digital book. Bottom line: Reviews don't sell books. Promotion does. A review helps a reader decide among books. The best sales tool for a book is a well-constructed book description and a decent cover. There always has been and will continue to be snobbery in the literary universe. Snobbery makes them feel good. I try to avoid those folks. They are vipers. Most don't think for themselves. I do. That is my best suggestion to any woman who puts pen to paper or sits at a keyboard.

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    1. Words of wisdom, as always, Jackie. I'm not too bothered by the snobbery, but I can't help allowing myself to get irritated by the sweeping assumption that books written by women are not worth reviewing. I think the HuffingtonPost article put it well - it's when you compare books on similar themes and of similar quality (eg David Nicholls Us and Jo Moyes The One Plus One and it's the one written by the man that gets all the attention and plaudits that the way the world works rankles. Of course, it's best not to get distracted and just get on with promoting one's own books - a path you are so good at directing us down.

      Thanks for commenting.

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  9. One of my blogger friends was also talking about this article, Jenny, and about the lack of reviews for certain types of books. I said it probably wouldn't change until there are more women reviewers!

    Glad you had a good holiday - sounds wonderful.

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  10. I suppose it's not a huge deal - there are plenty of eager readers for our kind of work out there, after all. It's just the blanket dismissal that irks me. And thanks - the holiday was terrific.

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  11. Rosemary's suggestion is interesting -I wonder what the stats are for male/female reviewers? And yes, I think women have to be prepared to review as often as possible.

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    1. I guess when it comes to online reviewing, women do pretty well. As for newspapers and magazines ... yes, I wonder?

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  12. I only came across your work through Facebook, Jenny, and then to your blog. There are so many interesting comments here. I write sagas. I think of my work as 'commercial women's fiction' as well, although I know I have male readers as well. if asked what they are about I say 'people and people's lives - with a bit of history thrown in.' I write because I can't help but write, I've always written, though it took me until ten years ago, and with a lot of courage, to put my work out there. Now I don't care, good reviews/ not so good reviews; it's all subjective to the reader. I'm writing what I want to write. Let the detractors raise an eyebrow; could they do it?

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  13. I find that, equally, people who write commercial fiction are sniffy about literary fiction. I love literary fiction. I don't think it's better, it's just different. And I don't think you can say literary fiction as a whole is "poorly told", though some literary writers may be less successful in what they are trying to achieve. Instead of the emphasis on an entertaining read, as in commercial fiction, the story often offers layers of meaning, language to savour and provokes thoughts of a more philosophical nature. I like this. I read commercial fiction now and then and have at times marvelled at how the writers have managed so many characters or structured such an intricate story or been moved by the writing. It's just not my first choice of novel. I don't believe commercial fiction is easier to write, or not as worthy but literary novels nurture me in a different way, that's all. Perhaps some people don't 'get' this about the the literary novel, I don't know. I don't see why women should feel they need to use initials or mens names - there has to be a better way. And I would like to see the demise of the pink cover. After all commercial fiction is about people and for people in general to enjoy, isn't it? PS Myslexia magazine from what I remember suggests there are far fewer women reviewers than men.

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