Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Women's Fiction: What's the appeal?

Women’s Fiction:  What’s the Appeal?
(Originally appeared on the now defunct Libraries Unlimited's Reader's Advisor News online newsletter:)

I was chatting with a male patron recently, and he wanted to know what makes a book “women’s fiction”.  As a non-librarian, non-book industry person, he wanted to know, was it simply books about women?  It’s a little more nuanced than that.

As we talked, one of the points that came up was that the majority of readers seem to be female.  This may simply be a generalization, but it’s held true at the libraries I’ve worked at.  And one thing you’ll notice – women read across the board, while men don’t.  You will often see women reading a Harlan Coben thriller, a recent nonfiction blockbuster, or a hard-boiled detective story, but you’d be hard pressed to find a male reader who counts Nora Roberts, Jennifer Weiner, or Sophie Kinsella among his favorite authors.   

So, if women will read just about anything, what’s the special appeal of Women’s Fiction?  

Women’s Fiction is that catch-all term that covers fiction focused on the trials and tribulations of modern women.   It’s difficult to call it a genre, because the scope of the story can cover so many other genres – there can be mystery or suspense elements, it can take place in a different era, it can be funny, or sad, or often both.  

The appeal really is that when a reader picks up a Women’s Fiction novel, she is looking for a sense of recognition.  As a reader, I love being able to identify with a character.   From sad moments to happy celebrations to “thank goodness that never happened to me” – it’s pleasurable and comforting to escape into a story that you connect with on a certain level.  If I had to boil it down, I would say - we read nonfiction to learn something; we read suspense to get a thrill; we read science fiction and fantasy to take ourselves to another world; we read Women’s Fiction to identify and feel recognition.  

As I explained some of this to my patron, he of course then wanted to know, “So, what makes something “Men’s Fiction?”.  That’s a little harder to pin down.  Is there such a thing as “Men’s Fiction”?  I jokingly told him that everything else was men’s fiction, women just chose to read it as well.  I would be interested in hearing your responses.  Is there anything that holds the same appeal to male readers, and almost exclusively to male readers?  All the books I could think of right off the bat were books that I know have female readership as well.  Is there a sense of recognition in typical “male” books?  Are our male readers even interested in that factor?

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