The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women

I came across this article while wandering aimlessly around Twitter. I’ve never given much thought to genres. I read the back of the book or the inside cover, and maybe the first paragraph or so, and if I’m interested, I read the book. The same goes for music, actually. I have no idea what genre of music I like. Is everything I listen to the same genre? Is there an umbrella genre that covers most of what I listen to, even if there are different sub-genres?

You can imagine, with my inability to distinguish genres, how difficult it was for me to figure out what my own book could be called when I first started sending out query letters. Of course, the first thing that came to mind was LGBT Lit. But I didn’t want to fence in my book in much the same way that people would fence in my main character, Cinnamin, by putting a label on her. I mean, I’ve never even seen an LGBT section in Barnes & Noble. I don’t want my book to be restricted to LGBT-friendly local bookstores (nothing against such establishments, I just don’t want to be available only there).

I tried to imagine finding my book at Barnes & Noble. Where would it be? Literary Fiction. But that seemed like such a broad genre, I wasn’t sure if I was ignoring some more-appropriate sub-genre. It wasn’t until I started reading through a few agents’ descriptions of what they’re interested in that I settled on Women’s Fiction. My book is about a woman, who says herself: “I was a wife; I am a mother. I used to be your daughter.” I feel that my book appeals to women. There are so many complex issues dealt with that I know a woman’s book club would have plenty of options for in-depth discussions. And obviously, it is written by a woman. So there you have it, Women’s Fiction.

But then I read this article. Am I still alienating potential readers?

My boyfriend was around for almost all of my book’s development. He knew the story. I had read excerpts aloud to him and had asked him to read sections for anything I should think about editing. He admitted that although he liked the story and loved my writing style, he worried that it just wasn’t his kind of book. He put off reading it so he wouldn’t have to tell me this worry.

Well, he finally read it. At the risk of sounding like I’m using him to toot my own horn, he loved it. He called it “expressive” and “emotional.” He says it “tells a story that anyone can relate with, men or women.”

I don’t think that Meg Wolitzer was calling for an end to the genre of Women’s Fiction in her NY Times book review. I think instead she was calling for audiences and critics alike to begin seeing Women’s Fiction in a different way. Just because a book deals with issues that might appeal especially to women, does not mean that women are the only people who will like the book. And it certainly does not mean that the book is not well-written and tells a compelling story with relevant social commentary.

So I’m sticking with Women’s Fiction. For better or worse. And if any of you male readers out there want to help my argument, let me know and I’ll email you my manuscript.   : )


2 thoughts on “Labels

  1. That is a very interesting point of discussion. To your comment on music, I too just listen to what I like. I do not confine myself to a specif “genre” of music. It is either I like it, or hate it. However, this is only my own personal feeling. When record labels are looking for a specific “sound”, it could be influenced with what is the “in” these days and what is popular. The same thing could be said possibly about agents looking for a specific genre of books; because that genre is “in” right now. (Vampire Romance comes to mind…ugh). I wish people like you and I who just like their personal tastes regardless of what label is slapped onto it. Women’s Fiction I am sure is a great label for your book and hopefully, the rightful audience can pick up your book and enjoy the read regardless of whatever label is on it.

  2. Thanks! Have you ever read a “Women’s Fiction” book? Did you like it?

    As for what’s “in” for literary agents, I actually have found very few in my research who are looking for vampire and other paranormal genres. In fact, a couple have called them “fad lit” and request that they don’t get any queries with this at all! I guess it’s all just about finding the right agent for what I’ve written.

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