Thursday, 8 September 2011
Women's fiction is dead!
The term ‘Women’s Fiction’ will no longer be gracing WH Smith’s shelves after two customers complained to their chief executive Kate Swann, appealing to her ‘in sisterhood’ to remove the term. Teacher Julia Gillick and policy advisor Claire Leigh complained to WH Smith after spotting a stand branded ‘Women’s Fiction’, which they felt was outrageous and offensive. So, is the term Women’s Fiction offensive and demeaning to women or is it a handy label for shoppers to find books they like? (Taken from BBC website)
There was a delightful irony in hearing this discussed on a gender-labelled Radio show but it's a real subject and one that greatly interests me. I don't know exactly which titles WHS used to stock under this label but I note that many literary agents use the term to clarify what kinds of books they do, or don't represent.
We are used to terms like ChickLit and ChickFlick, and they usually seem to be more about who wouldn't like the work described rather than who would. Men are supposed to like thick bricks of books, with tinfoil on the covers, written by ex-SAS men or Navy SEALs, while for women something that hints of shopping (especially with shoes involved) is supposed to press the right buttons.
At the movies, the testosterone-filled want exploding cars and gunfights, while the oestrogen brigade need kisses and tears: The Bourne Ulitamatum vs How to Make an American Quilt. But how did we reach this ridiculous situation? My husband can't be the only red-blooded male who enjoyed I Capture the Castle, Sense and Sensibility, The King's Speech and the TV adaptation of Ballet Shoes ("Why did no-one tell me about this book when I was a child?" "Because you were a boy!"). But I can't put the other side of the picture by being entertained by bloodshed and torture (although I do watch Torchwood, albeit through interlaced fingers).
But I like my fiction a lot more muscular than most of the books that would probably have made it on to WHS's shelf designed to appeal to my sex. The Lacuna, for example, is by a woman - Barbara Kingsolver - but it never occurred to me it might be for women. It's about Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky and McCarthyism in America. And what about books like The Hare with Amber Eyes? Not fiction I know but equally appealing to both sexes I would have thought.
What is gained by this rigid assumed division of gender tastes? One of the contributors on Woman's Hours - Claire Leigh, I think - asked why not group books under genre: Romance; Historical fiction etc as is done with Crime/Thrillers, Horror or SF/Fantasy. A very sensible suggestion I thought.
But the rot has set in LONG before anyone is old enough to choose an adult book in a bookshop or Stationers. Girls brought up on a diet of Rainbow Fairies and similar series would have no problems with a section labelled "Women's Fiction." In fact, you might as well call the shelf "pink books" and be done with it! Likewise, boys who are encouraged to read only titles like Beast Quest, will have no trouble avoiding the books provided for Sisters once they are grown men.
Perhaps this is another area where e-readers will liberate people who are worried about being judged by the cover of the book they are reading? The reading preferences of anyone holding a Kindle remain a secret.