I hate women’s fiction

If I had noticed one of Caroline Overington’s books on a shelf somewhere before signing up for the Australian Women Writers challenge this year I probably would have passed it by. I’ve no clue if they are written specifically for a female audience but they are certainly marketed almost exclusively to women and that kind of thing turns me off. I am bored and disheartened by popular culture’s constant reinforcing of gender stereotypes and my tiny (undoubtedly pointless) rebellion is to actively avoid the things I am supposed to read, watch, wear and think purely because I have a vagina.

But one of my personal goals in taking on this reading challenge was to dabble outside my reading comfort zone and so, early on in the year, I embarked upon Overington’s MATILDA IS MISSING (selected it must be said purely because the library had a copy prominently displayed when I went browsing) with as open a mind as I could muster.

The book tells the tale of couple who should probably never have gotten together and when common sense forces them apart the ugly subject of their young daughter’s custody arises. Overington tackles this thorny issue non-judgementally from numerous perspectives, both parents, extended family and the judge tasked with deciding on Matilda’s ultimate placement, with an equal mixture of drama, sensitivity and intelligence. It is a fine book and the fact that it will hardly ever be read by a bloke is sad. Because one of the things that good fiction, such as MATILDA IS MISSING, can do is provide much needed insight into the complex issues that occupy our real lives, often with a better balance and objectivity than is achieved by factual reporting.

In this book we are shown how each participant in a family break up is affected by that event and I couldn’t help thinking that if we all could have a little more understanding of these complexities we might behave differently when such sad occasions arise in our own lives. Because child custody is not a ‘women’s issue’. Our families, communities and news broadcasts are full of children trying desperately to make a go of living in multiple households, bereft fathers and mothers denied access to their offspring and a growing mountain of murder and suicide victims whose tragic endings can be directly linked to custody battles. The exploration of these issues in any forum is to be applauded and should not, by dint of marketing and tradition’s casual dismissal of ‘family’ as a purely female domain, be marketed to only half of the population.

I had not planned to read multiple books by any author for this challenge but when I saw that the challenge’s creator, Elizabeth Lhuede, had a heartfelt, angry reaction to Overington’s latest novel, SISTERS OF MERCY, I couldn’t resist. In my experience books that make intelligent people angry are almost invariably worth reading.

Not surprisingly I suppose it’s another book that will, largely, be invisible to the male half of the population and, again, it’s their loss. Ostensibly it is about the disappearance of an English grandmother who travels to Australia to meet Snow Delaney, the sister she only became aware of upon the death of their father. But really the book is Snow’s disconcerting, uncomfortable story. Snow was not exactly abused as a child but her mother was cold and undemonstrative which, one supposes, influences the woman that Snow becomes. As a nurse Snow starts out with lofty ideals but the system in which she works and the condition of the people she must care for soon sour her. By the end of the novel she has a number of severely disabled children in her care but her methods for looking after them are…questionable (that’s all I’ll say so as to avoid spoilers). What the book does though is raise another incredibly complex issue that is almost completely ignored in wider society. Disability, especially severe disability requiring around-the-clock care is one of the thorniest ethical issues I know a little bit about. Whose job is it to take care of the severely disabled? Especially those (and there are many) who are abandoned by their parents? What constitutes an adequate level of care and who should pay for it? How much respite should the parent or guardian of such a person be entitled to? And who will pay for that? And how will all of this be monitored to ensure no one is rorting the system and no one suffering unduly? And who will pay for that? And that’s all without even touching on the even thornier ethical dilemmas that occur daily in real life though we may like to pretend otherwise around when medical intervention to prolong the lives of the severely disabled is warranted. And when it isn’t.

Of course in our society the vast bulk of caring for the severely disabled is done by women but that doesn’t, or shouldn’t, make it a “women’s issue”. Surely it is up to us all to take responsibility for society’s most vulnerable people. And that doesn’t mean manufacturing outrage whenever the media highlights some horror case or other, as happens in this book, but actually doing something practical before the horrors happen. I’d like to think that if enough people, of any gender, read this book we would rise up as one and demand better from our politicians, our charitable organisations and ourselves on behalf of the severely disabled and their long suffering carers who, if they are relying solely on the government for their income, officially live below the poverty line.

But such a dream won’t have even have a chance at becoming reality unless we stop labelling and marketing such fiction as women’s fiction, with all the derision and dismissal the term carries. It’s irrelevant whether such derision is warranted. It exists in places that matter: in the reviewing pages of newspapers and magazines, the corridors of academia and in the rooms in which decisions are made about how to sell books. And because it exists there many good books which explore issues that we collectively need to tackle with more intelligence and creativity than we are currently doing are ignored and the issues they tackle remain forever unresolved.

I hate the very idea of women’s fiction and I dream of the phrase disappearing from the lexicon.

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16 Responses to I hate women’s fiction

  1. Pingback: Review: SISTERS OF MERCY by Caroline Overington | Fair Dinkum Crime

  2. Bernadette – I’ve often thought that those labels are far too restrictive and are part of the reason that excellent books don’t get the audience they really should get. Thank you for making such an elegant argument, and you’ve based it in two books that have got my attention and that I really want to read. You put it all far better than I could have.


  3. juliehgordon says:

    Oh, I agree. I also really dislike the women’s fiction label, and I don’t like female-only writing prizes either, talk about placing women in a literary ghetto! Good writing is good wrting; I don’t care about the sex of the author. We need to stop thinking about gender in literature. Thanks for this post, well said!


    • Absolutely-good writing is good writing. But I wonder why, certainly in the case of non-fiction literature, most seems to be by male authors.


      • I don’t read enough non-fiction to know if your premise is true but if it is I wonder if it might be because women who write non-fiction find it much harder than men do to get published. In my limited experience of the industry it seems publishers pigeonhole writers by their gender just as much as they do readers.


  4. Maxine says:

    Over here they’d have pink covers with cartoony images, as well. It is all so ghastly, I agree. In publishers’ eyes, women seem to be mentally challenged, child-like creatures, who only want to read “nice, jokey about dilemmas” books. My daughter has recently been reading some Marian Keyes who is marketed this way, but in fact she says treat issues like depression very powerfully. I liked your reviews here, and may well check out one of these books as Amazon keeps telling me I must read them 😉


  5. Norman Price says:

    I went to a reunion last weekend and a male university friend and I spent most of the time talking about the family problems we had with our children, and grandchildren. The effect broken marriages had on the children etc etc. Men don’t just talk about football, and I agree we need to scrap the idea of women’s fiction and fiction for men.


    • I had a suspicion you guys talked about more than football Norman, just as we women talk about more than shoe shopping 🙂 I just wish that the people who market and sell books would wake up to the fact


  6. I attended a function for Dymocks Penrith last night – wine and delicacies at an Indian restaurant – to discuss Sisters of Mercy. Half the crowd were men. True – half.
    Afterwards, I had the best discussion with Trevor of Dymocks about the issues raised in the book; very heart felt and honest, and I appreciated it.
    Later, I talked to a lovely tattooed girl with a red bow in her hair, and her new fellow, who was getting his first sleeve done, about her experience when her parents announced they were separating. She could remember every detail.
    There was a young couple – just 24 and 21 years old – about to get married. So happy and in love.
    I also talked to Brady, who wants to be a journalist, maybe; he’s an avid reader, too. I won’t mention everyone but it was a good mix.
    I think it’s probably not right to say that men don’t care, or aren’t interested in the issues in my books. From my experience, men are more sensitive inside than they are sometimes allowed to show on the outside.
    They also care very deeply about their families, and get crushed when families break up under the pressure of divorce, or drugs, or some deadleg comes and steals their daughter away.
    Thank you for the debate.


    • Thanks for stopping by Caroline (and for your excellent books). I certainly didn’t intend to imply that men wouldn’t be interested in the themes raised by your books…I know many of them would be. But most of them will never get to know about the books because they’re not sold as something men would read…in the marketing material I read (and to be honest in most of the book stores I visit) your books and those like them are pitched as if they would only be of interest to women…separated physically, surrounded by pink, appearing in mother’s day catalogues but not father’s day ones and so on. It is this notion that men read about important things (e.g. politics and war) while women read about trivial things (e.g. family) that irks me so. I don’t agree with either premise – that politics is more important than family nor that one gender is more interested in one subject than the other.


  7. miffyjf says:

    Reblogged this on Mentone Mif and commented:
    This post is great – and very topical at the moment. I fight this battle with students every day. “Show me where, on this book, it says, ‘For girls’, or, ‘For boys’.” No books ever ‘say’ this on them. but all the clues are they, aren’t they.


  8. Kathy D. says:

    I agree everyone should read everything. But one problem: A lot of men won’t read books written by women. This came up in the British press a few years ago with a woman author questioning a male reviewer who admitted he never read books written by women — and he reviewed books for media. And there is such skewing to male reviewers, male writers, male nominees and winners of book prizes and all-male panels at conferences.
    It’s no wonder there are prizes and conferences for women writers, to try to bring in women’s participation and give recognition.
    It would be great if everyone read every type of book, including on social issues, which you raise above are written about by this thoughtful author. These books sound very compelling, and if I can find them here, I will read them.
    Your comments about society’s responsibility for severely disabled people are excellent. To me, it’s the measure of the advancement of a society, how it treats the disabled.
    Unfortunately, over here, where the budget-cutters are at work nationally and state-wide, a lot of programs for disabled and special-needs children are being cut — in schools and other arenas.
    I remember a friend who was so enraged when a school for special-needs children was closed in my city. And now vans, buses, drivers and escorts have been cut back for special needs school children, so they often have to ride for two hours all over the borough and arrive at school late because there aren’t enough transportation vehicles for them.


  9. Bill Selnes says:

    Bernadette: Thanks for an interesting post. I normally avoid books that feature custody disputes because I deal with them several times every week at work. It is hard and stressful dealing with clients struggling with custoday and access issues. It is difficult enough with the emotions of a client in dispute. When you add the emotions of children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. it is even more wearing. If I pass on her book it is not because it is a “woman’s book”. It is because I chosed to to relive custody and access problems in reading away from work.


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