Obviously, “women’s fiction” in the broadest sense would be any fictional piece written by a woman or for women.  This is too broad a definition for me to adequately wrap my reading and writing around.  I love books like AS Byatt’s Possession, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale, and Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series as well as Austen, the Brontes, Eliot, Gaskell, Wharton, and Woolf.  I don’t really read books that are packaged as “chick-lit” and romance novels aren’t my thing, unless we’re talking Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, and besides, Becke and Melanie have the romance genre covered backward and forward. 


So I guess my personal definition of “women’s fiction” is one that consists of literary fiction written by women; this is a guideline I use when creating the voting shortlist at “Literature by Women” and it seems to work fairly well.  I don’t want to completely exclude male authors from a “women’s fiction” definition (cf. Jasper Fforde above) but it seems that some of the best female characters come from female authors (can you imagine Sethe from Beloved or Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale being created by a man?  I can’t).  It’s hard to define “women’s fiction”, particularly since we don’t define “men’s fiction”, without sounding like an egotistical, sexist snob.


However, that’s generally what I’ll be blogging here at Unabashedly Bookish – literary fiction by women. 


Now that I’ve talked around myself and about myself and quibbled over whether I’m a snob it’s time for me to go off and read some more of The Poisonwood Bible (this month's scheduled read for "Literature by Women" ) and metaphorically bite my nails over next week’s post.


What about you?  Do you make "women's fiction" a distinction?  Or is it all bunk and you prefer just "fiction"?


Melissa W. has degrees in biology and epidemiology from the University of Iowa.  She is a research assistant in hospital epidemiology, Barnes and Noble bookseller, dancer, knitter, blogger, and just happens to inhale books, too.  She lives with two spoiled cats, Chaucer and Dante.

by Rosei on ‎03-12-2010 08:56 PM

Hello Melissa! I love women's fiction and, yes, I do a distinction for sure. Although I love fiction of all sorts, I find important to give women's fiction an essential specification. I think that this distinction can be found not only on structure or character construction, but also in theme, writing style itself, use of language figures and narrative complexity. Both Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, for example, constructed great and totally different narrative techniques to express female thoughts and insights. I can't see Jane Austen's female characters irony developed by a male writer, because Austen understood and experienced this irony. I think that writing style is so much related to life experience, point of view, knowledge and sensibility about the theme. That is, in my own opinion, what makes men and women writing style differ and that's what is so interesting about fiction.


I'm reading two dystopian novels this moment, The Year of The Flood by Margaret Atwood and The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and their writing style is completely different from each other even if they are writing about the same theme. Characters are obviously different, because Atwood points out two female characters and McCarthy a father and his son. Also, language and writing categories selected by Atwood are widely amplified and delayed and McCarthy's choices are short, fast and somehow dry (in a good sense, because we are able to like it). I'm enjoying both narratives so much mainly because of those peculiarities.


Loved your post!

by Downunder-reader on ‎03-15-2010 05:18 AM

Hi Melissa,


I am enjoying your ideas regarding What is Women's Fiction?.  Can a man write a novel under a female's name and get away with it re authenticity? I believe that the answer is yes and the example that I would like to use is Norman Rush's 'Mating.'  Do you know this tome?  Written about 20yrs ago and set in Botswana.  A brilliant read.  Now can a woman write a novel under a man's name and get away with it re authenticity.  I believe that the answer is again yes, and perhaps the best examples are from Victorian literature IE George Elliot, (Marianne Evans) the Bell Brothers (Anne, Charlotte and Emily Bronte) and many more.  Perhaps it would be best to also ask Lionel Shriver (We Have To Do Something About Kevin).  I recall a conversation with my father many years ago in which he said that 'The Loved One' was written by Evelyn Waugh, but that he knew that Evelyn could not be a female as the book was actually very funny and women are not funny.  Dad had passed on, but I would like to give him a copy of Shipping News and ask him, 'Dad what sex is the author?'  I believe that my point is that good fiction of a certain type may be 'genderless'.  Perhaps a better category than gender would be 'flexibility' and perhaps 'freedom of expression' without being attached to a gender specific name. For example, how one can interpret an experience and represent it on paper may not have anything to do with gender.  I work in a field where I am sometimes the manager of a predominant male group, or a female group, or a mixed sex group.  And, I find that if among the male group there are say a few who are multi-lingual then those few are the most easy going when it comes to change and getting a job done.  Let me say, more like a group of women who are perhaps used to having to adapt more readily to a dominant idea and will also but not always be more flexible.   And, I find that men of a single experience are more linear in their ideas and objectives.  So, I think that there is a difference but it comes down to experience, and I definitely believe that the more experienced the person the more able are they to portray the best characteristics of either sex and can thus produce writing that may be of a masculine or feminine style and yet this characteristic might not have anything to do with the writer's gender.   Sincerely Wendy

by dnDN on ‎03-15-2010 06:57 AM

i totally disagree with this assumption-that there is an inability for men to write about women's experience-----i agree with wendy---an excellent example is authur golden's  memoirs of a geisha----he writes extraordinarily prescient dialouge and plot regarding women---members of my women's book club insisted that he must be a nome de plume---becasue of his incisive renderings of women and their emotions and lives. a good writer can inhabit characters and make them sing in any voice.--cormac mc carthy writes as he does because he chooses to write of men and their situations.-he is an excellent writer, who if he wanted, couild probably write insightfully about a woman's situation.-

by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎03-15-2010 02:55 PM

Thanks for all your comments :smileyhappy:


@Rosei The Year of the Flood is in my TBR - have heard wonderful things about it


@Downunder-reader I haven't heard of Norman Rush's Mating - will have to check that out


@dnDN thanks for your thoughts, I'd forgotten about Geisha - I'm not excluding all men from consideration, just trying to come up with a working definition (I keep pointing at Fforde - his major creation, Thursday, is a kick-butt literary detective)

by Moderator Sarah-W on ‎03-17-2010 11:06 PM

I just discovered the work of Penelope Lively, whose recent title Family Album deals with the nasty things that lurk beneath the family romance. She's written dozens of books and has even won the Booker, I'm shocked I haven't heard of her before.


I've always assumed that 'women's fiction' refers to fiction in which women's lives and concerns count for something narratively. By that definition, I think I would have to include the 'pink books' that chic lit is known for... I adore romantic suspense like: Mary Stewart, Barbara Michaels, etc. I also find that Georgette Heyer's regency romances are not only of a very high quality, but have a way of unexpectedly uniting reading women from all over the world!


That being said, we all have our prejudices and for years, through some unknown bias, I thought Byatt was a man!

by crzynwrd4lf on ‎04-09-2010 08:52 PM

Genre's are important when it comes to literature. It helps people find books that suit their own tastes and personalities, however, to classify a book simply because of a characteristic of the author takes away from the book and more importantly-- the author. By saying "Women's Fiction", it not only pushes women to read those books it deters men and even young adults (girls included) from reading those books. That being said, what if the particular book isn't supposed to be women's fiction? What if the author's intent was to make the book enjoyable for all readers but because it gets such a limited classification it gets overlooked or the true meaning of the book is misconstrued?


My Antonia, by Willa Cather for example, was written by a women in a time where there wern't many female authors. Yet, the book is written through the eyes of a boy growing up in pioneer times, and even though the story focus' on his admiring a girl (Antonia) you can't really call that women's fiction can you?


Or what about Nicholas Sparks? Sure, he writes romance novels but the targeted group is women.  I think if you have to define the classification it should be that the contents of the book relates to the reader not the preference of the author. If we start classifying books by the author instead of the content then a really good science fiction book might be overlooked because the author was a catholic or romance novels will be overlooked because it was written by a man. It's hard enough getting people to read in the first place and subcategorizing books in a way that has nothing to do with content will only make reading more unappealing.

That's just my opinion though, anyone disagree?

by CMarion on ‎01-15-2011 07:21 PM

As much as part of me hate labels, i.e..: "women's" or "men's" fiction, I long to be able to search for just women writers. I could then pick and chose without having to wade through lists of "must reads" that are 80-90% male authors.

I read both men and women's writing, but enjoy the female point of view much more. The dearth of female characters, or fully realized female characters in much of the male generated fiction is appalling.

I took a look back to some of the older science fiction recently and was amused by the presence of one, and only one spunky intelligent girl (not woman). Most the other female characters were barely there or very traditional wife types. This often holds true in much of the best sellers today.


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