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Does Writing by Women get Sidelined?

I think there’s a definite tendency to make fiction by women girly.
A man can write about family matters and it’s serious fiction about
life. But when a female author writes about family, people say “Oh,
she’s got domestic subjects to talk about…” It drives me crazy

These are words from one of the most respected literary agents working today, Nicole Aragi. (Read the linked interview for a great many other interesting insights on various writerly issues). I often hear about the gender bias against women today, which has been an ongoing controversy that flared up in April. I came across this article,What’s In A Category? ‘Women Novelists’ Sparks Wiki-Controversy” where novelist Meg Wolitzer says:

“We’ve seen first-rate novels by women sometimes sort of thoughtlessly
grouped together as ‘women’s fiction.’ ” Wolitzer says. “And that’s a
phrase that can make me a little crazy. I mean, what is women’s
fiction? Do these books have anything in common, or is it just that the
authors were all at one time or another in possession of a uterus?”

 Since gender discrimination is pretty much par for the course in fiction and media, it is natural that women writers face it in the publication process as well. I haven’t faced it personally that I’m aware of, I’m too green a writer to be discriminated against, I guess, but I agree with Nicole Aragi when she describes her cure for gender bias:

“Just fighting like hell for an equality of attitude. If I feel, when
someone’s talking to me about my list, that they’re not interested in
the women writers, then I go into overdrive. I go crazy. Someone once
said to me, “Oh, you only represent men.” And in fact it’s pretty much
fifty:fifty. It’s just that they’ve only noticed the men on my list. And that’s their problem.”

Have you faced gender bias as a writer or know someone who does? What have you done about it or what do you think should be done?

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her next literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and was published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • Nas says:

    I do believe women's writing gets sidelined and put in neat little boxes with labels.

  • This is not new. Today I was reading a book that was supposedly to help us "gain" the education we missed out on in school. It listed Harriet Beecher Stowe's profession as "Housewife". Excuse me? Excuse me? She was the main breadwinner in her family because her husband didn't make enough money as a pastor. PLUS if she was "just a housewife" it was the sneering down the nose of the authors that makes me so angry on behalf of women writers everywhere.

    • Damyanti says:

      Yes, that's the sad bit. It has been going on. I hate folks sneering and saying, "she's just a woman', and from there it stretches to 'woman author.'

  • Julian Gallo says:

    A recent example: "Swimming to Elba" by Silvia Avallone. Saw this book by chance and what caught my attention was the fact that she was a new Italian author – not a WOMAN Italian author. What struck me as interesting is that the American edition of the novel is marketed in a very "Chick-lit" way. The cover art, and even the blurb on the book would give a reader the impression that the book is something it's not. It's a very powerful SOCIAL novel yet the publishers in America seem to think because it was written by a woman, it should me marketed as a "Female Literature." Had this book been written by a man, it would most definitely had gotten the attention it deserves. (It was up for the Strega Prize in Italy). And yet I've not seen it reviewed anywhere, talked about, discussed, which is a shame because Avallone is a very powerful author and this was a very impressive debut. The fact that it was a woman who wrote it should be irrelevant.

    I think men in particular tend to shy away from women authors because they're under the assumption that all women write about are "women things" which isn't the case at all – and even if they did, this doesn't mean it can't be a wonderful novel. Take a look at some of the "controversy", started by some male critics, over Rachel Kushner's new novel "The Flamethrowers" (which I just started and am enjoying greatly so far). All this nonsense about "Mansplaining" and whatever that means. Again, an extremely talented author with a very unique voice. Not a very talented "Female author".

    • Damyanti says:

      Thanks Julian. I have nothing against chick-lit and I think it is a genre that is deservedly loved, but I don't see why a lot of books written by women are labeled as chick-lit when they are clearly not.

  • Jo says:

    Gender discrimination in any walk of life makes me mad.

  • Pk Hrezo says:

    Interesting topic. I've found that the women's fiction and chick lit categories are there cuz men don't wanna read that stuff. Men don't typically care for the romance and friendship tales–not to say ALL men, but most of the ones I know would never pick up a Jane Austen book or something like The Devil Wears Prada. As a women writer, I'm pretty comfortable with the categories. That being said, neither category is any less of a work of art than a story any man has written.

    • Damyanti says:

      The problem is not with Devil wears Prada being called chick-lit or a work by a female author. But I've found books like Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch shelved under chick-lit, where as it is somewhat of a historical adventure story, only because the author is a woman.

  • I've always wondered about the 'women's fiction' tag, because all the genres seem to be catered for within it. And, as other's have noted, there's no 'men's fiction' tag. I am against anything where one gender is singled out over another or where the direct opposite would be seen as sexist… including women-only fiction awards and female only gyms.

  • I'll admit, I've never thought about it. Hmm. Wonder why Men's Fiction doesn't exist as a category, or maybe that's a good thing.

    • Laura W. says:

      I'm not sure the absence of "Men's Fiction" is a good thing…the fact that "women's fiction" exists implies that there's normal fiction and then women's fiction — men being the normal people who don't need a gender label on their fiction.

      The gender label serves a purpose — it tells you that you should expect all books that fall under "Women's Fiction" to have some unifying characteristic. So far, all I've seen is that they're all written by women. Meanwhile, everything that doesn't fall under women's fiction gets better, more apt and descriptive labels like contemporary, thriller, etc. "Women's Fiction" doesn't really make much sense in terms of the books it tries to describe.

    • Damyanti says:

      "Women's Fiction" doesn't really make much sense in terms of the books it tries to describe.

      That is exactly my gripe, too.

  • Thank you for bringing up this subject. I am working on a non-fiction proposal for my memoir and I mentioned that I don’t think many men will read it. I hope they do, but men discount women’s experiences in so many ways. My subject matter may just push a few of them over the top, I can only hope!

    • Damyanti says:

      Well, there is nothing wrong with a book targeted at women being marketed to women.

      My peeve is that books which are not really targeted at women as marketed as Women's fiction, and thus not given the attention of the entire readers' market.

      Men discounting women's experiences makes my blood boil– when it is their stuff they write about, it is supposed to be 'human', 'universal', whereas all women's interests are 'girly' and not worth their time.

  • I've read about this before and I definitely believe writing by women gets sidelined.

  • Ice Girl says:

    If you look at the covers of books, the male authors get relevant covers and the women get pictures of females with the name of their books on the shirts.

    What email should I use to add you as an author for guest posting?

  • I've read about several instances of science fiction authors being snubbed for being women. (Posted about it on my blog.)
    What's ironic is most of the authors I know are women.

  • Marian Allen says:

    Barbara, I can think of some exceptions: J. K. Rowling's The Harry Potter novels, Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. Of course, those were written for kids and young adults, who are, in general, more interested in the book than in the author.

    • Laura W. says:

      Yes, but JK Rowling used her initials because she was a woman writing about a male protagonist. She/her publisher were worried that boys in the target age range wouldn't want to read 'Harry Potter' if it had been written by a woman.

      In fact, I was in elementary school when I first read the Harry Potter books…all my young friends and I assumed JK Rowling was a man. I was on 'The Prisoner of Azkaban' before I learned that "he" was in fact a "she." Same thing for K.A. Applegate, the writer of the sci-fi series Animorphs — which again, all my friends and I read like crazy, but which we thought were written by a man. I was in my teens before I learned that Applegate was a woman, haha.

    • Damyanti says:

      I thought J K Rowling was a man too. 🙂

  • I don't know about discrimination in publishing but I've noticed that "women's" novels tend to become the lifetime movie of the week and "men's" novels become blockbuster movies with big budgets. That bugs me, because I would love to see some of my favorite and very successful author's books made into big screen movies. If they sell as well or better than the men's novels, why doesn't hollywood think they are worthy enough material?

    • Damyanti says:

      Barbara, possibly because some recent "men's novels" accommodate special effects, which seems to be the current Hollywood secret for blockbusters?

  • D.G. Hudson says:

    There are still those who discriminate. It occurs in every other field, why should publishing be different? I just ignore it, and concentrate on the story. Somewhere there might be a un-discriminating ear and eye that is attached to an intelligent mind, in the body of an agent or publisher. Who knows?

    We could also say scifi writers are discriminated against if they are women, but there have been some fantastic scifi women writers, they just don't get the press of the males writers. So what else is new?

    • Damyanti says:

      I don't think things will change by ignoring them. My protest may not change the way things are run, but I will protest, because ultimately, enough protests will turn the tide. Some day.

  • Although there used to be vast discrimination in women getting published, achieving literary awards, sales numbers, etc I don't see that's the case now. In fact, ebook sales especially are biased toward women! I think the discrimination comes in genre classification and some women don't like their serious literary efforts being labeled as "women's fiction" and "domestic fiction." If we did away with all the specialized genre labels that are out there now it might help.

    • Damyanti says:

      I read across genres and find the categorization a waste of time, really. But I can understand why breaking into categories might be important for those who buy books or sell them, because the genres tell them what to expect– for instance, if you pick up a romance, you can be certain it would end in love winning it all and happily ever after.

      I'm not sure tho that fiction should be labeled as 'Women's' simply because it was written by a woman. Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison and Hilary Mantel wrote/ write very differently, so slapping the 'women's' label on them makes no sense. A reader wouldn't be able to gauge what she's I'm for.

      It is a long way indeed for women to be seen as just authors, and not 'women authors'.

  • Marian Allen says:

    Here in America, books by women which, if written by a man, would be called "literary" or "mainstream" are called "chick lit" and dismissed with a wave of the hand. If a male writer specifies how someone dresses, what they drive or what they eat or how they cook, it's deep characterization. If a woman does it, it's because she's superficial. !!??

    • Damyanti says:

      Marian, I agree. The challenge for women might lie in getting taken seriously. The instances you quote are classic examples.

  • Beth says:

    Fortunately, women do really well in YA so I have not been discriminated against. But a popular male YA writer had to publish with his initials because his agent was afraid he would be discriminated against!

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