Women's Fiction – What message does it send?

By Carol / May 1, 2014 /

Consequences of segmenting the author/book market

As a college student in the 1960s, I took a class called “Black Literature.” “Black” being the culturally accepted term of the day for African American. We read works including Native Son by Richard Wright and poetry by Langston Hughes. Though the class was taught by a female professor, we did not read anything by black women authors.file2621283662773

During that same time, courses in women’s literature were offered in the gender studies program.

My thinking at the time was that both “black literature” and “women’s literature” were special and worthy of study. I did not consider that by shining a light on a particular group of authors, the courses may simultaneously elevate and demote those authors.

An article titled “What does ‘Women’s Fiction’ mean?” by Randy Susan Meyers has me thinking more critically of the unintended consequences of segmenting the market.

Meyers observes that: “… to publish on Amazon, you must pick a category from a list of wide ranging possibilities that include ten sub-genres of Women’s Fiction and, zero that are labeled Men’s Fiction. The message is clear. Men are the norm. Women are a sub-category.”

From a marketing standpoint, which given a thirty-year career in marketing is how I think about many things, segmenting the market is a good thing. The closer I can get to finding readers who are interested in my specific product (fiction, World War One-era, United States, family, women), the more efficient my marketing and the more likely I am to achieve a sale.

Amazon marketing is sophisticated, and I’ve benefited greatly from their ability to know that “if you liked this author/book, you’ll like that author/book.” I wouldn’t want them to stop.

At the same time, I know that if Go Away Home is considered “Women’s Fiction,” by default the implication is that men may not find it as interesting. But we can go down the list, if it’s World War One-era fiction, people who do not care about that era may not find it appealing. If it’s United States based, people who want to read about Asia may not choose to give it their time. If it’s fiction, people who only read non-fiction are likely to pass it by.

There is a wealth of good literature out there. How do any of us decide? I admit I’m torn on this topic. I’m not fond of the idea of labeling anyone if it somehow makes them “less.” I am fond of knowing who the reader is because if you market to everybody, you market to nobody.

What do you think readers? Is “Women’s Fiction” denigrating to women authors and even women readers? Or is it a reasonable function of market segmentation?


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  1. Chuck Robertson on May 1, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    I think they’ve gone too far with segmenting literature, or other things for that matter. “Women’s Literature” implies only women would want to read it. Since I’m a man, I stay away from it. Maybe that’s wrong. It seems to me that if you have Women’s literature, Black literature, and now even Gay literature, what you’re actually doing is dividing people and pitting them against each other when you should be doing the opposite. I’ve always wondered why they can’t just have “Literature” and be done with that.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 1, 2014 at 3:27 pm

      That’s the problem exactly, Chuck. Once we label something, the implication is that someone who doesn’t own that label personally won’t want anything to do with it. Sorting literature into categories is one way of helping readers find quickly the topic areas they’re most interested in. I like the efficient use of my time. However, once we have the categories, it’s too easy to just go to that category and in so doing miss all interesting writing going on in other areas. It distresses me to miss out on so much. There’s a balance in there somewhere, I’m sure.

  2. Mary Maddox on May 1, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    As a marketing category women’s fiction makes sense. For me it evokes certain subjects and approaches to storytelling, an emphasis on relationships and emotional conflicts rather than action and physical conflicts. I guess that’s why many male readers stay away from it. Readers do have expectations. A reviewer of Talion remarked that she was surprised it was written by a female because the violence is so graphic.

    As a literary category women’s fiction does create a kind of ghetto with the implication that the best and most serious fiction is written by and for men. The same kind of argument can be made against Black fiction and Gay fiction. Yet courses focusing on these categories are still taught in colleges.

    I think people will always pigeonhole books (and plenty of other things as well). It makes the world so much easier to understand.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 2, 2014 at 8:05 am

      There’s the rub, Mary. There is a tendency to stereotype by gender what and how people will write and what people (by gender) will be interested in reading. If there wasn’t some truth to the stereotype, it wouldn’t exist. Based on your own experience with Talion, you can see why women sometimes chose and choose to write under pen names or using only their initials.

      There is the ability to choose the “Literary Fiction” tag without appending “women” to it. I don’t see that tag on Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, for instance. We (neither women nor men) don’t all write literary fiction, yet it’s the women who seem to suffer most from the gender tag. It’s a dilemma.

      I agree with you – it’s a complex world and we seek ways to make it easier to understand.

  3. Shirley Hershey Showalter on May 1, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    Great question, Carol. You know the value of niches for marketing. If your book is not being shelved in a bookstore, the issue of naming is a moot point. We know that women make up the majority of readers in the U.S.

    I would probably avoid the label “women’s fiction” if I wrote fiction — unless I knew it would help me find the right readers. 🙂

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 2, 2014 at 8:19 am

      The bookshelves are real and virtual these days, and the virtual bookshelf is probably more difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate without niches. Choosing the most appropriate tags for a novel is a challenge, and the reality is we need to get in front of the right readers. We wouldn’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face by avoiding “women’s fiction” if that got us there.

  4. Veronica Arnold on May 2, 2014 at 10:19 am

    I like the idea of categories. As you said, it helps readers make the best use of their time and money. We have to trust that people can get past the labels if they want to be a bit more adventurous now and then. I hadn’t thought about the idea that labels make certain categories more or less. If you’re inclined to let that sort of thing get to you, I imagine you can find any number of reasons to feel denigrated. The current bru-ha-ha about Mr. Sterling’s private conversation is a prime example. Certainly what he said is reprehensible. But it was a private conversation. Let it go, for Pete’s sake! Judge him on the basis of his actions in the marketplace. I understand there were a number of those that went relatively unnoticed and un-dealt-with. In the same way, labels for literature seem to be valuable for both marketing and readers. I say let them stand, and let the readers choose the labels they want to explore.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 2, 2014 at 10:59 am

      Having someone challenge the labels, as Randy Susan Meyers did, often leads to discussions such as this one. And perhaps to new, broader, and deeper ways of thinking about something. Ultimately, each person chooses what they do or don’t do with this new way of thinking about a topic. Thanks for commenting, Veronica.

  5. mary gottschalk on May 5, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Having just published a book in the “Women’s Fiction” category, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it identifies at least one segment of its target market, and the narrower category (narrower than literature) means it’s easier to get noticed based on sales. On the other hand, two of my earliest reviews (one yet to be published) were from men who liked the story and the suspense that surrounded the women.

    Go figure?!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 5, 2014 at 3:54 pm

      Congratulations on publishing your novel A Fitting Place, Mary. Well done.

      Your experience gets to the heart of the dilemma. Your content may be as relevant to men as to women, yet the marketing need to target with tags sets men up to think they wouldn’t necessarily be interested. I hope that by getting early male reviews you’ll have a chance to escape total typing. Good luck!

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