How likely is it that a man goes to a bookstore and purchases a pink book with a picture of a stiletto on it? Or a little girl on a farm? How likely is it that a woman goes to a bookstore and purchases a red book with bold, black typeface and some kind of faraway landscape? The fact of the matter is people really do judge books by their covers. And if that book seems remotely feminine and has a female author, a man will likely move on to the next shelf.
According to this important essay in The New York Times, “women’s fiction” consists of books that are written by women. But they’re not necessarily for women. And they certainly aren’t always “chick lit.” But many tend to lump women’s fiction and chick lit together — identifying these books as silly, quick reads about women and their romantic relationships with men as well as their friendships with other women. Essayist Meg Wolitzer uses Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot as an example of the exception to the rule — a book that has mainly feminine themes, but is written by a male. It’s been hugely successful, but women write books with similar content and themes all the time and don’t get nearly as much recognition. Is it simply because they’re women?
Furthermore, women’s fiction and chick lit are not the same. Women’s fiction can be as serious as any man’s book. And whereas a woman tends to be open to reading a book written by a man, men aren’t necessarily as inclined to read books written by women, as Meg Wolitzer explains.
Recently at a social gathering, when a guest found out I was a writer, he asked, “Would I have heard of you?” I dutifully told him my name — no recognition, fine, I’m not that famous — and then, at his request, I described my novels. “You know, contemporary, I guess,” I said. “Sometimes they’re about marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children.” After a few uncomfortable moments he called his wife over, announcing that she, who “reads that kind of book,” was the one I ought to talk to. When I look back on that encounter, I see a lost opportunity. When someone asks, “Would I have heard of you?” many female novelists would be tempted to answer, “In a more just world.”
Wolitzer explains that women’s books are actually less reviewed, according to statistics gathered by a women’s literary organization called VIDA. She talks about the length of books, their covers, their jackets. But ultimately it all comes back to who has written the book. Wolitzer goes into incredible depth with this essay, and I urge you to read it in its entirety. While I often don’t think much about who wrote the book I’m reading, it’s something I’ll begin to consider now.