Rethinking “women’s fiction” – Kim Hooper

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By Kim Hooper

Whenever people ask me what kind of books I write, I say, “Slice-of-life stories, general fiction.” That’s been my go-to, pat response for years. So imagine my surprise when, sometime after the release of my first book (People Who Knew Me), I was told by a trusted industry professional that I was a “women’s fiction” writer. The context in which I received this designation was even more unsettling. I was pitching a second novel with a male protagonist and the response was, “A male character will never fly. You’re a women’s fiction writer.” ♥

I’ve never liked the term “women’s fiction”. It implies there are certain stories that are just for women. As if we have special needs. As if we aren’t interested in the same things as men. Or, furthermore, as if men aren’t interested in the same things as us.

If you want to know the assumptions the publishing industry makes of women, just peruse the “women’s fiction” aisle at a bookstore. You’ll see lots of “light, easy” reads, lots of stories of women falling in love, lots of happy endings. There’s nothing wrong with these stories, but the assumption that this is the extent of women’s interests does a grave disservice. If it were up to me, we would get rid of the “women’s fiction” designation and categorize fiction by topic, like “Love and relationships,” “Family dramas,” “Mystery and crime,” etc. Gender should have nothing to do with what people read, or what they think they “should” read.

Just like female readers shouldn’t be put in a box, neither should female authors. There is no reason women can’t write male main characters. I would argue that women are especially adept at putting themselves in others’ shoes, which is essentially the crux of writing fiction. Women are raised, for better or worse, to be more attuned to what others think. We are expected to be the traditional caregivers, aware of others’ needs. Society encourages us to be sensitive and empathetic. Many of us spend years trying to understand men (again, for better or worse). All this goes to say that WE CAN WRITE MEN.

Of course, men write female main characters all the time. And they don’t always do it well, which was the basis of a recent Twitter challenge that asked women to describe themselves as male authors would (the responses were hilarious).

Often, though, men win prestigious awards and enjoy wide critical acclaim with novels starring women. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, Little Children by Tom Perrotta, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb are just a few examples. These are all categorized as “general fiction”. Sadly, it goes without saying that there is no “men’s fiction”. Whatever men write is assumed to be of interest to the masses.

Back to my novel that would “never fly”. When I professed my love for my male protagonist to the industry professional, she suggested I try to publish the novel under another name, a man’s name.  This seemed absolutely ridiculous to me. It is 2018, not 1955. Were the above male authors told they should publish under a female’s name? No, I don’t think so.

There are many female authors who write under their initials, to keep gender out of it. JK Rowling’s first name is Joanne. Her publisher encouraged her to use her initials instead of her name for the Harry Potter books. Interestingly, she writes a series of crime novels with a male main character under the pen name Robert Galbraith. And she’s JK Freaking Rowling. She should be able to do whatever she wants. To be fair, maybe she wanted to write under a man’s name. If that’s the case, I would ask her why. Did she think the books would sell better with a man’s name? Would they sell better with a man’s name? I’m afraid the answer to that question would disturb me.

The thing is, I didn’t plan to write a book with a man’s voice; it just came to me that way. This story, like most of my stories, started with one line: “I have eight months to live.” And the character saying that line in my head just happened to be a guy named Jonathan. For a while, I tried to write a “women’s fiction” novel. I tried to fit the mold. But, it wasn’t authentic. I missed Jonathan.

I trusted my instincts and found an indie publisher who loved Jonathan as much as I did. Cherry Blossoms will be released by Turner Publishing on October 30, under my own name.


Kim Hooper is the author of People Who Knew Me, hailed as “refreshingly raw and honest” by the Wall Street Journal. Her second novel, Cherry Blossoms, will be published by Turner on October 30. She lives in Southern California with her husband, daughter, and a collection of pets.

kimhooperwrites.com

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