What the Hell is “Women’s Lit”? Garine Isassi Asks the Burning Question

Garine Isassi  start-withe-the-backbeat

When I was pitching my novel to agents, the first line of questioning after my initial one-sentence summary went something like this: “What is the genre of your book? Is it romance? Is it about the girl?” I would begin an answer, saying, “Well, yeah. It’s about a woman in the music industry, and I guess the romantic subplot means it has romance in it, but that’s not the main point of the story. . . .”

That is as far I would get before the agent would make an announcement on whether I could continue or not. Either they’d say, “Oh, then it’s Women’s Lit,” and we would keep talking, or, they would condemn my pitch with, “I can’t sell Chick Lit anymore.” End of conversation.

A few times, I tried to argue that the book has more to it. It’s about authenticity. It’s about race relations. It’s about the love of music.  The quickness to pigeonhole my work left me deflated. Here I think of myself as a modern woman in a world where women have come a long way away from being shoved to the side. The line of questioning was solely based on my gender and/or the gender of my protagonist, not on the level of writing talent or storyline. They had barely even heard my pitch – just that it was a story told from the point of view of a woman. The most disheartening part of that experience was that most of the agents I spoke with were women.

It wasn’t always like this for authors.

In 1847, the epic romance Wuthering Heights was published. The author listed at the time was Ellis Bell. The dramatic love story is complete with crazed jealousy, paranormal heroines, and mansions set under stormy skies. Later that year, Jane Eyre came out, supposedly penned by Currer Bell. It became a bestseller.  No genre was mentioned in the reviews.

As we know now, both of these books were written by women — Emily and Charlotte Bronte, respectively – and about women.  They were read, analyzed, reviewed, and praised. There was no doubt that the complicated romantic content was appreciated by the men of letters at the time. (Remember, at the time, novel writing as well as novel reading and reviewing, was a man’s endeavor.)  Hailed as classic masterpieces, these books have been a mainstay in literature class syllabi for a century and a half.

Today, it is highly likely that both of those books, and countless other classics written by women, would be placed directly into the Romance section of the bookstore and probably never reviewed at all by the current version of “the men of letters.” Why? Because the publishing industry has ventured so far into marketing categories that today these classics would be considered “Women’s Lit.” The category has become a catch-all label umbrella over all novels involving romance, family relationships between women, any mom, women’s friendships, or — my favorite — simply because it was written by a woman and includes at least one main character that is a woman.

I suppose that the sheer number of books that are published every year makes it necessary to classify them. Many categorizations make sense — Mysteries, Political Thrillers, Science Fiction, Paranormal Romance; these are somewhat specific genres where authors buy in to the idea that they are writing according to the genre’s standard.

Fine.

I get it.

But, what if I’ve written a story that does not neatly fit into a genre? For the male author, there is no question — the book is categorized into General Fiction or maybe Literary Fiction. But if you are a woman? No way is it that easy.

Take, for instance, Jodi Picoult. Jodi is firmly entrenched in the “Women’s Lit” category as an author. She’s done well under that branding. But one of her recent novels, Nineteen Minutes, is about a school shooting and the havoc it wreaks on the relationships around a violent event. It got great reviews. It’s a bestseller.  On Amazon, the category is Women’s Lit. Compare that to another book about a school shooting and the havoc it wreaks on the relationships around a violent event, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (who is also a woman, despite the male first name). This novel is considered Fiction or Contemporary Fiction.  Both books are about the same thing. Both have a woman as the main character.

Consider this example: Chris Bohjalian. He’s written several novels, many of which center on women and what they do. They are great books.  His thrilling family saga, The Light in the Ruins, puts forth not one but two women protagonists, one of whom is a detective, set against the backdrop of World War II, and is categorized in Literary Fiction.  Meanwhile, The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah, a family saga with two women protagonists, one of whom is a spy, set against the backdrop of World War II, is — you guessed it — Women’s Fiction.

This annoys the hell out of me.

Not only does this “separate but equal [maybe]” sham perpetuate the critical oppression of women’s talent, it doesn’t give the books a chance of making the sales impact that might be possible.  Men are half of the potential audience for fiction. Men don’t want to be seen reading a Jennifer Weiner or Jodi Picoult novel no matter how great the story might be. The branding effect makes it like buying tampons for your wife at CVS — only the few and brave will even consider it.

Even in retrospect, the industry is applying this label. A novel about the lives of several Chinese women and their relationships, set in the mid-20th century, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, is now called Women’s Fiction on Amazon, while a book about the lives of several Japanese women and their relationships, set in the mid-20th century, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, is called Literary Fiction. They are both richly-written, best-selling novels with fantastic plots. Both were made into movies. At the time that they were published, these books were simply labeled Fiction. What changed? Did we suddenly discover that Amy Tan is a woman and Arthur Golden is not?

If we want to get even more indignant about the this last one, I would like to point out that Amy Tan has much more authority on her subject of Asian culture in this situation. Yet she is shoved into the realm of the soft world, the women’s section . . . but that is a-whole-nother rant on the nature of diverse voices in publishing.

Allow me to point out some classics that would fit neatly into a Men’s Lit category, if it existed. A Picture of Dorian Gray. The Catcher in the Rye. Anything by Ernest Hemingway.

The point here is that the labels all seem to be at the whim of the publisher and how they decide to market the book. The content seems to have little bearing on the label. At best, it’s a bit lazy on the part of the publisher and the readers. At worst, it is an attempt to relegate women and their talent to second-class status. The Bronte sisters, all those years ago, seemed to have it easier than we do. After all this time and great strides toward equality, we still have not reached the point where a woman doing the exact same thing as a man is not explained away somehow, as if there needs to be a justification for her existence in the arts. We stopped saying “a lady doctor” and “a female executive.” Why do we still say “a woman author”?

Although recent surveys show that most people working in the publishing world are women and most readers of fiction are also women, this is still happening. From the 10,000-foot view, we seem to be doing it ourselves. In order to buoy ourselves against losing confidence, we “women authors” buddy up and create our own spaces, practically authorizing the separation.

My publishing company is called She Writes Press. And guess what category my book is under? Yup. Women’s Fiction.

The irony is not lost on me.

~ ~ ~

Garinè B. Isassi is the author of the novel Start With The Backbeat, available wherever books are sold.  Like her Facebook page and follow her on twitter @garineisassi.

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Top 10 Popular Woman Authors I’ve Never Read

Today’s Top 10 Tuesday topic, suggested by the lovely Jamie at The Broke and the Bookish blog, is popular authors you (somehow) have never read. Since my blog is about women authors, I’ve limited my list by gender. I’ve encountered several pieces like this in recent weeks; the gist seems to be that even well-read people (including famous writers) have not read everyone people assume they’ve read, and in fact have many key gaps in their personal reading history. As many authors and books as I’ve read, there are far more I haven’t read. And that’s the way it will always be. I’ll be interested to read your comments and suggestions.

Julia Alvarez

1. Julia Alvarez — While I have read other Latina novelists, for some reason I have yet to read a book by the highly-regarded Alvarez. I recently picked up a copy of what is said to be her best book, In the Time of Butterflies, which sounds like a gripping read (it’s set in the Dominican Republic in 1960 during the Trujillo dictatorship and is based on the true story of the three Mirabal sisters, who were murdered for their part in a plot to overthrow the government). Everything I know about Alvarez and this book tells me I will love it.

Margaret Atwood

2. Margaret Atwood — I’m mystified by this omission in my reading history and somewhat ashamed to admit it. I’ve had a copy of Alias Grace on my living room bookcase for well over a decade. My wife read and loved Cat’s Eye many years ago (I think I gave it to her). I’ve read so much about Atwood’s recent speculative fiction trilogy (Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood, and Madd Adam), but have yet to dive in to what sounds like a series I would love.

Emily and Charlotte Bronte

3. Emily Bronte and Charlotte Bronte — This is a two-fer! What can I say? I studiously avoided Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre as “women’s books” for ages, even though I was an English major. (Same for Jane Austen.) I read Austen for the first time in the last five years and loved her writing. I know how great WH and JE are supposed to be, and I trust the judgment of many people who swear they are two of the greatest books ever written. So I WILL read them.

Joan Didion

4. Joan Didion — Unless you count her famous essay, “The Santa Ana” from her early essay collection, Slouching to Bethlehem, I am still a Didion virgin. I haven’t read Slouching or her recent bestsellers, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and Blue Nights, about the illness and death of her daughter, Quintana Roo. I need to remedy that, don’t I?

George Eliot

5. George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) — Like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Eliot always seemed daunting in terms of both her writing style and the length of her books. If I were going to read one of her novels, it was going to be a serious commitment. (Ironically, I didn’t feel this way with the works of Dickens, about whom the same things could be said.) Then I read that Jane Smiley thinks Eliot’s Middlemarch is the best novel ever written. And I keep coming across other writers raving about Eliot and this book in particular. So I need to make a commitment and read Middlemarch at long last.

Jane Hamilton

6. Jane Hamilton — At one point in the 90s, everyone seemed to be reading and talking about Hamilton’s A Map of the World. The plot sounded compelling but perhaps too intense for someone who loves babies and children too much. Just thinking about the premise made me shudder and say, “Could you imagine?” Her previous novel, The Book of Ruth, also caught fire. My wife read both books and recommended them. I’ve sort of lost track of Hamilton in recent years, but I probably need to reconsider her work.

Shirley Hazzard

7. Shirley HazzardThe Transit of Venus is a modern classic, and many writers speak glowingly of her writing. Someone gave me a copy of Great Fire when it came out, and I intended to read it but never got around to it. Recently, author Roxana Robinson exhorted me to read Hazzard, starting with Venus, so I picked up a copy. So I’m one step closer to reading her!

Grace Paley

8. Grace Paley — I wasn’t even familiar with Paley’s name until a few years ago. Recently her name seems to be everywhere. She is listed as an inspiration by several writers whose books I’ve read in the past year (as diverse as Ann Patchett and Leora Skolkin-Smith). Her name shows up in book reviews and interviews on a regular basis. And my wife just bought her Collected Stories.  From what I’ve read, I have every reason to believe I will both enjoy and admire Paley’s writing. Just gotta get to it!

Carol Shields

9. Carole Shields — Shields came to my attention when her novel The Stone Diaries was published to great acclaim and sales in 1995. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize that year. As with Jane Hamilton, I was always aware of her but never read her. Then she seemed to fall below the radar in the last decade or so. But with my newfound love of fellow Canadian Alice Munro, I became interested in Canadian literature and Shields came to mind. I just bought her Collected Stories and plan to read a couple stories in between each novel I read. I suspect I’m going to regret taking so long to discover her writing.

Alice Walker

10. Alice Walker — As with Joan Didion, I’ve only read a single story by Walker (“Everyday Use” is in the sophomore English textbook I teach). I know all about The Color Purple but never read the book or saw the movie. And while I know she is well-regarded as a novelist, feminist, and civil rights activist, her subsequent novels haven’t caught my attention. If you’re a Walker fan, which book should I read as an introduction to her work (Once, Meridian, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Possessing the Secret of Joy, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down)?