The Wacky World Of Genres




Following on from my piece about Book Snobs, I’ve decided to wade into the murky pool that is ‘Genre’.  Genre is what keeps us innocent readers from picking up the wrong kind of book by accident (God forbid), but do we really trust the ‘genre police’ to get it right?


Some genres are easily determined, like taking a novel’s length for example or if the content is fiction or non-fiction.  However, some categories and sub-categories are more loosely defined and end up creating a very vague grouping of books with tenuous links.  If you are a female author writing about a contemporary female character, chances are you will be shoved into the ‘Women’s Fiction’ genre.  It has taken quite a few years to appreciate how the term Chick Lit really devalues what is a popular and entertaining genre.  These books are contemporary fiction and should have been labelled as such.  Why was there a need to create a separate category for ‘Chicks’?  Ah, well that’s all down to the marketing department.  It’s a label that says ‘don’t take this author too seriously’, which trivialises the authors and the subject matter, giving the entire genre a bad reputation.  Nowadays, calling a book ‘Chick Lit’ is like the ultimate put-down, which is such a pity because so many talented female authors have found themselves quarantined in that sub-category, never to escape.  I can see the same thing happening now with Grip Lit – it seems to be losing its originality as the publishing houses churn out more and more imitations.  The marketing is simple: they want the same thing, but different.

So Women’s Fiction is the new pigeon hole for female authors.  But did you ever stop to wonder why we have Women’s Fiction but not Men’s Fiction?  Booksellers might say it’s simply a marketing tool, a way to help readers find what they want, but why make women a sub-category?  Women’s fiction includes books that have absolutely no relation to each other and span a dizzying array of styles and subject matter.  The only common denominator is that they are written by women.  In an article by Alison Flood in The Guardian, she questions the relevance of the genre:

I’m bewildered by how titles make it into these categories. The mix of books is so broad as to be meaningless, united only by the authors’ gender. But the fact remains the categories are there, and there are no equivalent “Men’s writers and fiction”, “Men’s literary fiction”, and “Men’s popular fiction” sections. They are just “fiction”, I guess.

Regular readers will know that I love a good scientific study to back up my claims, and this week is no different.  So I went to the great trouble of looking up some of my favourite contemporary reads on Amazon to see what genre ‘the genre police’ have put them in.

David Nicholls – One Day  ‘Twenty years, two people, ONE DAY.’

Genre – Fiction

(A contemporary romance, by any other name…)

Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Effect  ‘Love isn’t an exact science – but no one told Don Tillman’

Genre – Fiction > Humour

(eh… a contemporary romance?!)

Jojo Moyes – Me Before You  ‘Neither of them knows they’re going to change the other for all time’ 

Genre – Women’s Fiction > Romance

(Contemporary romance.  Hang on, why’s this listed under a different genre?)

Marian Keyes – Rachel’s Holiday ‘They said I was a drug addict. But my occasional drug use was strictly recreational. And, hey, surely drug addicts are skinny?’

Genre – Women’s Fiction > Humour

(So here’s a darkly funny look at addiction.  What genre should that be in?  Is it written by a woman?  Just stick it in women’s fiction)

Wikipedia describes Women’s Fiction as:

an umbrella term for women centered books that focus on women’s life experience that are marketed to female readers

Which begs the question: Why don’t we have an umbrella term for men-centered books that focus on men’s life experience that are marketed to men?  Oh no, hang on.  We do.  It’s called fiction.  Shouldn’t we be moving beyond this?  An author is an author, regardless of their gender, and a book is a book.  Why do readers need warning signs that the book might be about women’s issues or written by a woman?  Is all this marketing and categorising just limiting people in their reading lists?  Understandably, some readers might prefer a book with a male or a female protagonist, but is that not what a blurb is for?  To inform the reader of what lies between the pages?

So who created the category of women’s fiction anyway and how did that conversation go?

*A boardroom clad in mahogany, somewhere posh*

Head of marketing: “Hate to be the bearer of bad news old chaps, but it would appear that the women are trying their hand at writing books.”

*One board member faints.  Another hurls himself out of a window.*

Second in command: “Say it isn’t so!”

Head: “I’m afraid it is so.  Now brace yourselves; it looks like we might have to publish them.”

*Two more exit via the window.*

Head: “Pull yourselves together men!”

Second: “But how will we know which books to read?  I mean, isn’t there a danger that we might mistakenly buy a book written by a woman?”

Head: “Ah, yes, now I’ve considered this frightening consequence and come up with an idea.  We will label their books ‘Women’s Fiction’, so there will be absolutely no confusion.”

Second: “Splendid idea!  Proper fiction will still be written by men and we can funnel the ‘ladies’ into their specialised sub-category.  For women.  Who read about other women.  Who write about women’s things.  Which have no bearing on our world.  The end.”

*All characters are fictional, any resemblance to the real people behind the women’s fiction label is purely coincidental *

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8 thoughts on “The Wacky World Of Genres

  1. We did have ‘lad lit’ as personified by Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons and their ilk in the 1990s – although, their books do have crossover appeal to female readers too (I enjoy Hornby in particular). However this term is largely defunct these days.

    1. Indeed, Lad Lit came hot on the heels of the success of Chick Lit, but I think ‘the mens’ realised much quicker how stupid and dismissive it sounded and while it may be a good marketing trend, trends don’t last. Love Nick Hornby and just like Marian Keyes, I believe his books belong in contemporary fiction > humour.

  2. Even in our modern world where we like to think that we see everyone as equal, women still use male pseudonyms in order to be published. Seems not a lot has changed in the past 300 years!

    1. This is exactly it. Had a bit of a “debate” with a guy on Facebook who said there was no gender bias in publishing (this was despite the evidence put forth by the VIDA count and various female authors adding their own experience to the discussion). How can you fix something when the majority of people involved don’t see the problem? Thanks Liberty, always love your comments 🙂

  3. Haha how ironic, he displays his bias even with the facts stated plainly. I do make assumptions myself too when it comes to selecting fiction based on the author, I feel women and men write differently and I’m always sceptical of a woman writing from a male protagonist’s point of view and visa versa. I think it’s most helpful when authors are honest about their identity. Here’s an interesting artical I read prompted by a search after reading yours:
    This quote by JK Rowling speaks volumes! “I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me, so a male pseudonym seemed a good idea. I am proud to say, though, that when I “unmasked” myself to my editor David Shelley, who had read and enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling without realizing I wrote it, one of the first things he said was, “I never would have thought a woman wrote that.” Apparently I had successfully channeled my inner bloke!”
    I wasn’t sure whether to be proud of Rowling or annoyed at Shelley after reading that!

    1. Oh, annoyed at Shelley – no contest!! Sometimes I think we would be better off if we could remain anonymous and let readers judge the book rather than the author’s gender. There are too many preconceptions around female penned books. Interestingly, that same man went on to talk about Anne Tyler and what a great author she is (as in, see? I’ve read a book by a woman!) – he then qualified this statement by saying how well she writes male protagonists! I mean, it’s true – she does – but I wonder if her protagonists were female, would he have bothered reading her? The message I’m getting is that a lot of male readers just don’t see the value in reading about women or reading books by women. And that makes no sense to me.

  4. I agree, mostly! I think if a book is labelled ‘chick lit’, readers know they’re getting light and frothy, cupcakes and high heels, romance and HEA. I can’t think of anything worse, personally, but I’m in a minority – I won’t go into my theory that chick lit puts the women’s movement back 50 years, of course….. A few years back I discovered that a male writer I know thought that ‘chick lit’ meant any book written by a woman. Makes me wonder how many others think that!!!! I discovered this after he described my books as such, which they most definitely aren’t.

    I will just say that on Amazon exists the genre ‘lad lit’, for the David Nicholls type books, though it doesn’t appear in bookshops. The labelling of books as ‘women’s fiction’ might be because women read books that are traditionally male orientated subjects (war, adventure, etc), but few men read books with female main characters about relationships. I guess. But I know what you mean!

    1. Actually, that’s the crux of the problem. When Chick Lit first came about, there was a very specific type of plot that fitted into this genre – young, working women exploring relationships and careers with happy ever afters and lots of humour along the way. They were fun, character driven books that seemed completely relevant in that time (the nineties and noughties). But then, they just started shoving every kind of book written by women into that genre, which made absolutely no sense, but the genre was so lucrative at the time, I guess everyone was happy enough to go along with it. I had the same experience as you – I told a male friend that I was writing a book back in the mid-2000’s and straight away he assumed it was chick lit (it was historical fiction). But times are changing and I think female authors are tired of having their work put into a category that really doesn’t reflect their writing. You’re right though, you can’t beat men over the head with female-penned books and make them read them (but I’m giving it a good go!!) It just frustrates me when I see male writers who write contemporary romance novels categorised as fiction, but if a woman writes the same kind of book, she’s put into a different category. WTF?!

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