Friday, May 16, 2014

Genres and Audiences, Women and People

I followed a PW link to this screed at the Guardian today, which makes a few good points but is confused about the core issue.

First: "Women's fiction" is a genre. It may be a genre with a problematic name, but it can line up with Sci-Fi, Mystery, and Romance with their similarly problematic names. Genre names are problematic; they often prescribe rather than describe, and seem to overly limit what goes on in their boundaries.

But, more importantly: "Women's fiction" does not mean the same thing as "fiction written by women." Sidney Sheldon wrote women's fiction. Nicholas Sparks does so today. The Bridges of Madison County, one of the biggest bestsellers in women's fiction history, was also by a man, Robert James Waller. A number of men write women's fiction, because they understand the history and boundaries of the genre and tell stories that the audience for that genre really loves.

Yes, there is plenty of sexism in publishing (as in the world at large). The fact that a major and hugely bestselling genre of fiction with several distinct threads -- the big ones: bildungsroman about women whether serious or comedic, "group of women" stories, and family sagas -- has such a reductive title does show that legacy of sexism. And, yes, maybe this is a genre name that you'd like to change. (At which the proponents of Speculative Fiction laugh a bitter chuckle and the Crime Fiction boosters look only slightly smug -- it's difficult to change what people call something.)

But it's not called women's fiction because only women write it. It's called women's fiction because the assumption is that only women read it -- and that's the gendered behavior to attack. The real issue is that publishing, and the world in general, thinks that the story of a young man growing up and finding love is literature, while the same story about a young woman is chick-lit. That is the real problem: the assumption that women's lives are for women, while men's lives are for everyone. (And that sexism seems to be even worse, and more smug, on Harris's side of the Atlantic than it is on mine.)

Also, as to Joanne Harris's assumption that only women get attacked by ignorant readers, just try googling any random male writer you like and the word "plagiarism" to be proven wrong. I tried it with one of her examples, Neil Gaiman, and quickly got to this page, where various message-board idiots accuse him of ripping off Miayzaki and Douglas Adams. Those idiots are no more correct than the idiots complaining about Harris -- though, as we've seen in other areas, there are likely more idiots complaining about women, and those idiots are more likely to use gendered terms and threats of violence when directly communicating with those women.

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