ReadWomen2014: What Is Women's Fiction Anyway?

In much the same way as a book by a male author about relationships or 'the domestic' (whatever that means) would never be given a pink cover, neither would it be described as anything other than 'contemporary fiction'. Why can't the same be true for books by women?

Over the past few weeks a new Twitter hashtag has been doing the viral rounds, turning up in timelines and graduating from the Twitterverse to mainstream media.

The hashtag is #readwomen2014 and it was started by writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh as an attempt to counteract what she describes as the marginalisation of women in top literary journals.

Walsh has a point, and a very good point at that. Last year when the Guardian surveyed the percentage of books written by women or reviewed by women across print media, the results should have been enough to resurrect the Suffragettes. That great bastion of the literary elite, The London Review of Books, managed less than 10% of reviews by women or books by women. Most newspapers didn't fair much better. Given that statistically women read more than men, the imbalance is not just irritating or unjust: it's entirely unrepresentative of the market.

So why do books by women achieve less review coverage than books by their male counterparts? And why are there fewer book reviews by women, even though it's women who do more of the reading?

There's been much discussion already about what is wearily referred to as 'the pink cover issue': the fact that books by women are given 'feminine' covers which marginalises the audience. Last year another online post took off when author Maureen Johnson showed how books covers might be treated differently depending on whether the author were male or female. The reason the posting went viral was because it was so depressingly accurate.

But while the pink cover issue is something that needs to be addressed (and what most publishers will tell you is that it's pink covers that shift copies of books from supermarket shelves up and down the country), there's another issue which is adding fuel to the gender-book-debate fire. And that's the over-classification of books by women.

From the hotly-debated (and often much derided) chick-lit to chick-noir, it seems that books by women are given a level of categorisation that books by men simply aren't.

Take chick-noir, the newest commercial genre on the literary block, used to group together titles such as Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, Lianne Moriaty's The Husband's Secret and Lucie Whitehouse's Before We Met. A read of these books will tell you that they are, very simply, psychological thrillers. And the truth is, if they'd been written by male authors, that's how they'd be classified with no attempt by anyone - not the publisher, not the press, certainly not the author - to sub-categorise them further.

Yet with female writers, there seems to be a need to pigeon-hole their writing into the smallest niche, as though writing by women is not as clearly defined as writing by men. At best, female authors are divided into 'literary fiction' or 'women's fiction' - the latter, of course, shorthand for 'books about domestic stuff that no-one need take seriously and men would never want to read.' Hence the pink covers or the fact that you'll never see popular women's fiction - never one book by Jojo Moyes or Jodi Picoult or Miranda Dickinson or Sophie Kinsella or any of the other bestselling women authors who write novels about things most of us actually care about - on any broadsheet list of best books of the year.

In much the same way as a book by a male author about relationships or 'the domestic' (whatever that means) would never be given a pink cover, neither would it be described as anything other than 'contemporary fiction'. Why can't the same be true for books by women?

All this gender-specific sub-categorisation does nothing for anyone: it doesn't help the reader - male or female - who simply want to immerse themselves in a good story, well-told; it doesn't help author who just wants their book to reach the widest possible audience; I'm not sure it helps the publisher who's in danger of tying themselves up in genre knots. The only people it really helps are journalists because it gives us something else to write - and argue - about.

So in this year of #readwomen2014, let's read books by women across multiple genres; let's review them with equal representation (and yes, that goes for commercial as well as literary fiction); and let's not pigeon-hole women's writing into ever smaller niche categories as though the writing can't speak for itself. Because, in the end, what all of us want from a book is not to know at the outset what we're going to get, but to be intrigued, provoked and surprised along the way.

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