What Stace had to say on Wednesday, January 12th, 2011
Women’s Books

Before I start I want to make something really, really clear. This post is NOT about any specific review outlet/magazine/blog/website. It is NOT claiming this is the case for all reviewers, in all places, or that this is a constant. And most importantly it is NOT saying reviewers can’t feel about a book however they want to, or view it through any lens they want to, or whatever else. I also want to make it absolutely, positively clear that I am thrilled beyond words at how readers and reviewers in general have taken to my books and characters; this isn’t about some sort of personal grudge on my behalf, not at all. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and I’ve seen several other people discussing it recently, so wanted to stick my nose in.

I also want to mention something else, because judging from a couple of comments I need to clarify. The story about bookstore shelving was one small indie bookstore. This has nothing to do with where books are shelved. It’s about the perceptions of those books once purchased/the standards by which they are judged/the dismissal of them. But it’s not about where they’re shelved at all.

What kinds of books do women write?

I know, I know. Women write all kinds of books. But it seems–from a very extensive search I’ve done over the last few weeks/months of various bookseller sites/review sites/magazines/databases/blogs/whatever elses, that books written by women are far, far more likely to be categorized as romance, reviewed as romance, and judged by romance standards, than are books written by men.

In a Twitter discussion about this (Twitter use update: I’ve been using Hootsuite the last few days because Seesmic has a slight tendency to balk when I leave it up all the time, which I do; it’s always the second tab in my browser. I do miss the little crunch noise, though, and will be going back to Seesmic; I like switching back and forth between them, but Seesmic is the main one I use) someone told me about a bookstore near them where any books written by women that have any sort of romance subplot or whatever–including sci-fi and of course urban fantasy–are shelved as romance. Period. SFF written by men is SFF, no matter how big the romance subplot is. But if the author has ladyparts, it’s romance.

I’ve talked before here about the frustration of women’s books–urban fantasy in particular–being categorized/called/dismissed “chick books” just because there are sex scenes in them or just because finding love/romance is part of the story. And how romance is often a subplot in books written by men, too, but those books are not dismissed or judged as romances, and why it is that women’s books are denigrated as “not real fantasy” if they contain stronger romance elements but those written by men aren’t.

Neil Gaiman’s STARDUST, for example, is still called and reviewed as Fantasy, despite its incredibly strong romance plot/subplot. But I’ve seen Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series called and reviewed as Romance. Why? What’s the difference? Carey calls her books Fantasy. Gaiman calls his book(s) Fantasy. Why is his categorization honored and hers isn’t? More to the point, why do reviews of his book–including reviews written by women, too–focus on the writing and story, whereas reviews of Carey’s books focus on the romance?

In her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ–herself a fantasy/sci-fi author, among other things–uses as one of her methods “False Categorizing.” She says:

It is bad faith that stands behind what I shall call Denial by False Categorizing, a complicated now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t sleight of hand in which works or authors are belittled by assigning them to the “wrong” category, or arranging the categories so the majority of “wrong” Glotolog fall into the “wrong” category without anyone’s having to do anything further about the matter.

Later, she elaborates a little further:

The assignment of genre can also function as false categorizing, especially when the work appears to fall between established genres and can thereby be assigned to either (and then called an imperfect example of it) or chided for belonging to neither.

Does this sound familiar?

Again, reviewers have every right to bring their own tastes, thoughts, and opinions to a review; honestly, this really isn’t about reviews or reviewers as such. It’s more about genre itself. But what’s happening is, every time a work of literature, or a work of fiction in a genre that is not romance is reviewed as a romance, that author is being denied her agency; she is being denied the right to have her work seen on its own merits, and is instead being forced back into a particular box. In other words, her work is being denigrated not because it isn’t a good or worthwhile example of what it is, but because it’s not a good or worthwhile example of something it never claimed to be.

This is akin to giving Schindler’s List a bad review because it isn’t funny enough, or complaining about Caddyshack because the viewer didn’t find it scary. That these films never claimed or set out to be funny or scary doesn’t matter; the work isn’t being judged by how well it is what it’s supposed to be, but by the standards of something completely alien–standards which may even be totally unknown to the filmmakers.

Is this a way of suppressing women’s writing?

How many books by men do you see re-categorized in this fashion, either as women’s fiction or romance or whatever?

I often see Lolita discussed when the topic of underage sex comes up in regards to romance. And the very correct argument is made that Lolita is not a romance, and therefore should not be judged by romance standards. But do you think the difference would be so clearly and carefully mentioned if Lolita was called Laurence, and was written by Valentina Nabakov? Do you think people would avoid mentioning how sad and saggy Humbertina Humbertina was, how desperate to recapture her youth, how sexually useless she was, being past her sell-by date?

Of course, I am chiefly talking about genre fiction here, since it’s where my experience is and what I read, so it’s what I pay more attention to. But I honestly can’t recall the last time I saw Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels dismissed as “chick books” or downgraded in reviews because the reader didn’t fall in love with the main love interest in whatever story. I don’t remember seeing Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels treated that way either. But I see lots of urban fantasies by women being downgraded for exactly that reason.

It’s not just the romance or lack thereof, though. It’s the “unwritten rules of romance” which are applied to women’s books but not men’s. And they’re applied not just by reviewers, not by a long shot (like I said, this really isn’t about reviewers) by society in general, who insists on shoving books into certain boxes or classifying them/their main characters as “good” or “bad” according to a strict set of rules.

It’s about how male characters–in any genre–can sleep around and their exploits are cheered; it even makes them more desirable, but a promiscuous heroine–again, in any genre–is looked down upon. Not only is she disliked for her sexual escapades, but it’s automatically taken as a sign of some intrinsic weakness in her character, i.e. she obviously needs sexual approval to feel whole, or she obviously has no self-respect.

The promiscuous heroine is unlikable–and worse than unlikable, she is unworthy–simply because she likes sex, and likes to have it with whomever strikes her fancy, at any time she feels the urge. Again, whereas the promiscuous hero is applauded; he is an object of desire. Getting him to settle down is the chief achievement of the heroine in those romances or romance subplots, in fact (of course, it should be in a genre romance). Every woman’s dream is to make him settle down, and if any negative mention is made of his bed-hopping past it’s made with a sort of wink, a boys-will-be-boys sigh. Either that, or his past promiscuity is made much of, but it’s made clear that this sort of prudery is part of the heroine’s prim/uptight character. She’s generally a virgin, or someone who’s only slept with one or two men, and she generally has other very straight-laced views and thoughts.

The hero’s promiscuity is an aspect of his character, which may or may not have consequences. The heroine’s promiscuity is a flaw, one she usually must answer for.

It’s also about how male characters can be distant or cold, even in some cases borderline psychotic/sociopathic, but they’re still regarded as likable and appealing. Whereas a cold and/or distant heroine is regarded with hostility and suspicion, because women are “supposed” to be kind/loving/feeling/friendly/caring.

Male characters can be intrinsically violent; shoot first, ask questions later, and readers approve. When female characters are like this they’re called “too angry” or “flies off the handle too fast” or, again, just plain “unlikable.”

A man whose morality is relative is morally relative. A woman whose morals are relative is morally vacant.

And yes, when male characters have drinking or substance abuse problems very little mention is made of it–the hard-drinking detective is a genre staple, in fact–but for a female character to do the same makes her a bad or unworthy person, one who should be ashamed of herself.

Does whether or not the author is a man or a woman make a difference as to how these characters are perceived? What do you think?

What about if the main character is a man or a woman? I haven’t seen any reviews of K.A. Stewart’s A Devil in the Details (which is excellent, btw, and has a male MC) called romance or put down for being UF, but J.F. Lewis’s Staked was dismissed by quite a few people simply because it has a woman on the cover, regardless of the fact that the MC is a man; and some people who did expect it to be a romance judged it rather harshly because it isn’t, although, again, it never claimed to be..

How much of a difference does it make if the reviewer or reader is a man or a woman? I see far less slut-shaming coming from men/male reviewers than I do female ones, but I also see men/male reviewers as quicker to dismiss books by women unread because it “looks like a romance,” or to cast it aside as a romance because there is a sex scene in it or a romantic subplot, as if romance isn’t a valid genre in and of itself or one that may have some worth to men (again, I discussed all of that this summer, and how I don’t understand male dismissal of romance or of UF by calling it romance, or the sort of “eeew cooties” mentality which seems to often go along with that dismissal). Again, that may simply be where I’m looking.

How much of this do you think is because of the blending of genres? Perhaps because the genres have blended a bit to a certain degree, readers/reviewers/whomever are paying less attention to authorial intent/classification (although again, it seems men’s wishes/thoughts in that regard are taken more seriously and heeded far more).

I just find this all saddening, and disturbing. I find the way women tend to put down other women for not conforming to be very disturbing, and always have; it’s been an issue with a direct effect on me my whole life, quite frankly. And while I stopped caring about shit like “fitting in” or being accepted by people who were essentially unpleasant, or whose entire achievements were that they had very shiny hair, or people who were narrow-minded that anyone who had a different viewpoint or opinion on an issue was automatically worthy of insult or simply stupid/lying/whatever–people who felt they had a right to judge others and/or the choices of others based on the presumption that everyone had the same privileges, possibilities, educations, finances, lives, cultures, etc. as they did–it still disturbs me. (In fact, I read a fantastic quote the other day that summed up my feelings on it exactly. It’s from Destroy All Movies!!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (which is tons of fun, btw, and the authors definitely know their shit) which reads: Acceptance from the fascist hierarchy is death of the spirit.

This sums up pretty much my whole life.)

I certainly don’t intend to blame anyone for this. My thought is more to examine it. Is this something we do, consciously or unconsciously? How guilty are we all of doing it? It’s not something isolated; it’s pretty widespread. And I believe that the person ultimately hurt by this is the reader, because they’re not being given accurate pictures of what the books are and are not; the romance reader who grabs a book from the romance shelf in the bookstore mentioned above, only to discover it’s not in fact a romance, will be pretty angry, and they have every right to be.

And is this inevitable? Are we all going to judge a main character according to our specific 21st-century Western middle-class/upper-middle class standards, with no regard for time period/world/adversity suffered/whatever else? (This is part of another discussion, actually, the one about characters in historical novels being surprisingly PC or about books written hundreds of years ago being rewritten to make them more “acceptable” to modern audiences.)

What do you think? Have you see instances of this lately? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

15 comments to “Women’s Books”

  1. Krista D. Ball
    · January 12th, 2011 at 6:10 pm · Link

    Here, here!

    I admit that I don’t generally like main character that sleeps around – male or female. Though, I admit, it’s more about the character paying attention to what’s between their legs, then what’s going on around them that bothers me (I want them to solve the bloody murder already! Stop eyeballing everyone who walks by and kill the vampire!!!)

    When I first sent my (unpublished) high fantasy novel out to a few in my critique group, I was promptly informed that my female lead a) was a bitch b) drank too much c) should cry more. I laughed and laughed, and laughed some more.

    I’m still on the fence about what I think about my current, “Harvest Moon”, being classed as a romance. I wrote the novella to explore the identity of gender – what does it mean to be female? what does it mean to be male? – and instead the romance is generally focused on more than the fantasy and theme of the story.

    I even questioned myself at the beginning. Did I write my story wrong? Was I the only person who saw the theme? Am I a bad writer? Did I accidentally turn myself into a romance author?

    But now that I read your post, I’m thinking, perhaps, there might not have been anything wrong with my end of things :)

  2. Amanda
    · January 12th, 2011 at 6:46 pm · Link

    That bothers me a lot, the judging of a book because it’s a woman writer. The sleeping around doesn’t bother me as long as it pertains to the story, but I’d rather not have a female character be ashamed because of her sexuality, whether or not she sleeps around in the book with one man or more.

    There’s no reason she should be.

    It annoys me that male writers aren’t forced into a catagory like women writers are. When the same things are happening, just in a male POV.

    Most of the stories I write, are told in the female POV (unpubbed at the moment). In one series, there’s very, very little romance involved, and what there is has to do with the main character and the plot. In another series, there’s a bit more of a romantic plot, but still not heavy. I would hate to think that because there’s even a little romance in my books, my stories will be thought of a ‘romance’ instead of ‘horror’.

  3. Missy Ann
    · January 12th, 2011 at 6:47 pm · Link

    Kinda the point of my tweet. Because you’re a woman making this points you’ll be written off as “on the rag” or being too sensitive.

    Anyway, you’re correct. You know you’re correct. What can you do? Just keep fighting the good fight.

  4. Lisa
    · January 12th, 2011 at 7:04 pm · Link

    Ooooh, I am so glad you wrote this. I ran into this kind of thing repeatedly. At the risk of blog wh0ring, I wrote about it here. To sum, I had some reviewers who focused on my MC’s “potty mouth,” drinking and “sluttiness” to the exclusion of the actual themes of the book. At the time I wrote that post, those were primarily men. I think now the male/female response has evened out somewhat.

    The astounding thing to me was the “slutty” characterization. The MC sleeps with three men in the course of the book (and two of those are over a period of time in a lengthy flashback). Her lack of deep emotional connection to two of them I’m guessing is the reason (then for contrast there was the reviewer who referred to the MC as “sexy” — so not my intention! — and yet, “curiously chaste.”)

    In that post, I talked about another book I read that received some reviews that absolutely floored me. I’ll C&P some of that here because my jaw is still on the ground when I reread it:

    “STILL MISSING deals with a 30ish realtor, Annie, who is kidnapped by a sexual predator and held captive in a mountain cabin for a year. We know all this and we know that she escapes on the first page, because she’s telling the story to her shrink. We find out that her during her year in captivity, she was horrifically abused, beaten and raped. Much of the story is about her life afterwards, how the trauma affects her, how she is and is not able to heal.

    What I found admirable about this book is that it in no way eroticizes her ordeal—there’s nothing prurient about it. The story is brutal and unpleasant, and it doesn’t hide the unpleasantness under a veneer of “Happily Ever After.” Annie will never be the same, and the central question of the book is, how does one mend after an experience like that? Is recovery even possible?

    You can definitely argue the plusses and minuses in STILL MISSING—what works and what doesn’t, is it misogynistic or isn’t it, lurid or no? I am not going to get into any of that. But I will mention a few statements the (male) reviewer made that had me flabbergasted.

    First: “Early in the novel, I wondered if its intended audience was mostly men, because, let’s face it, men are more likely to rush out and buy a rape fantasy than women.”


    I don’t even know what to do with this statement.

    But I will try to unpack it.

    First, I’ll go out on a limb and say that rape fantasies—emphasis on fantasy here, people—are popular among some women as well as some men. Not not NOT actual rape, but fantasies of dominance and submission.

    And, did I mention the “not erotic” aspect of the storytelling in this book? I mean, we all have our kinks, and it’s possible that I just don’t have this particular one, but, at no time during my reading of STILL MISSING did I go, “Oh! This is a rape fantasy that I’m sure many men would enjoy!”

    Please, men, read the book and tell me if you got off on it. I know I didn’t. And I really don’t want to think that men rushed out and bought the book because it’s, you know, “sexy.” You could make the case that it’s an examination of a certain kind of sexual kink, but STILL MISSING goes out of its way to make that kink the opposite of “sexy.” Even if you bought the book with an expectation that it’s going to be good, kinky fun, I can’t believe you’d feel that way after reading it.

    And if you did, I’m calling the cops.

    The next thing that flabbergasted me: the main character, Annie, is described as having “a potty mouth.” The reviewer concludes that his main objection to the book was, in fact, its “gratuitous profanity,” and, I quote: “I am far from a prude (ask anyone), but even in this world of dirty talk I think there are words we’d rather not have to wallow in when we’re curled up at home with a book…Is this deluge supposed to make us think Annie is hip or cool or sophisticated? Do Stevens and her editors think this stuff (a synonym they should have considered) sells books? Not to me.”

    Oooh-kay. We have a main character who was abducted, imprisoned, raped, beaten, starved, otherwise abused, and finally escapes to find that her entire life is in ruins. She’s, you know, just a tad pissed off about all of this. What is she supposed to say? “Oh, phooey! My life is really stuffy.”

    Yeah, that works.

    I ask myself, if this were a male character, would his use of profanity be called into question? Would it be considered inappropriate expression? Or is it somehow worse if women are the ones dropping the F-bomb?”

    Sorry for the huge comment but this subject really fascinates me, and I am so happy to see discussions of it.

  5. Elaine Corvidae
    · January 12th, 2011 at 7:56 pm · Link

    I knew that I wanted to be an author from a relatively young age, and throughout college and my first couple of jobs I was always working on a book on the side. Whenever–and I do mean every time–I would mention this to anyone, I would inevitably be asked “Oh, you’re writing children’s books?” When I said no, the next sentence would be, “Ah, romance novels, then.” Because clearly a woman would never want to write anything else. :roll: Nowadays, I always specify out of the gate that “I’m a fantasy and science fiction author.”

    Even so, I’ve found it much, much easier to get reviews on sites that primarily review romance novels. Apparently, a romantic sub-plot is enough to satisfy many romance readers, whereas it’s enough to squick out many sf/f readers. (Not, I hurry to point out, all of them, by any means–I’ve had excellent reviews for sf/f sites, but I’ve also had the “eww, cooties!” reviews from them as well.)

    I’ve never found the man-slut hero to be attractive–quite the opposite, especially as he’s usually depicted as having zero respect for women. He sees them only as an object for his desire, with no other redeeming traits (or, in fact, denigrates them for indulging his desires!).

    Controlling bullies whose bad behavior is excused as “oh, he’s an alpha male!” are a part of this same spectrum of disrespect for women. Having grown up in a situation with such a bully in the household, and the domestic violence that comes with it, the abusive behaviors some so-called “heroes” engage in horrifies me because it reinforces the idea that this is sort of behavior is normal, or even admirable.

    Well, it isn’t admirable or normal, even though society sometimes seems to do everything in its power to convince both sexes that real men screw anything that moves and “take charge” of a situation (usually via physical violence of some sort). I like to think that, as writers, we have the opportunity to show something better and more hopeful. If we have a heterosexual romantic subplot, we can try to depict how a real partnership works between people of different genders who respect one another’s strengths. And, to bring this back to the original point of the post, we can keep chipping away at the idea that women only write romance or children’s literature by drawing attention to the problem whenever we can. The deck is stacked against us, but maybe someday our children, sons and daughters alike, will look back on this era and wonder why anyone ever thought it was all right to divide the world into real literature and women’s books. :)

    Wow, that was really long and rambling. I apologize, but you tapped into an issue I feel strongly about. :)

  6. David M.
    · January 12th, 2011 at 8:32 pm · Link

    First, I think the only categorization for books that has any true meaning is the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Everything else is marketing. By that I mean that when I walk into a book store, the entire point of genres and sections is to help me, as a customer, find books that I will have the best chance of liking. Are there good books in the sections I don’t visit? Yes, but the design is about increasing my odds of finding a book that I will enjoy…which increases the odds that I will return to the store/publisher/author for another book. Even if the cover is accurate (yes, covers mean something), the blurb is interesting, the author is known, or whatever sells me on a book, there is STILL a chance I won’t like it.

    Now I am a male in the 35+ demographic who mostly reads UF/F/SF (in that order). I have been reading heavily for the past two years. In that time, I would guess my female/male author break down is 75% female/25% male. (This is probably due to my focus on Urban Fantasy, among other things.) I do not like romance books, and I prefer to read books without romance. They are not icky. There is nothing wrong with romance books. There is nothing wrong with people who read romance books. I just don’t find them entertaining. It is my time and my money, so I get to choose what a read, just as the author gets to choose what they write.

    So what is a “romance book”? When this male vs. female authors topic has come up before, I realized that almost all books I’ve read have romantic relationships in them (the one I could think of that did not was Ender’s Game). A romantic relationship does not make a romance book to me. It is when the romantic relationship BECOMES the story (or a significant portion of it), versus being an aspect of the MC’s story, that the book falls into the romance category. (For example, I think Unholy Ghosts and Unholy Magic are not romance books, whereas City of Ghosts is a romance book to me.)

    Now, of all the UF books I’ve read that are written by women, I would guess the majority of them are what I consider romance books. Is this because they are written by women or is it a UF genre trend? I don’t know but I suspect it’s the latter. Still, I have yet to read a book by a male that I would consider a romance book. This doesn’t MEAN anything, in and of itself. It’s just my experience. Remember though, it’s about marketing and increasing my odds of picking a book I will like. I would guess most readers like me would switch to a more safe set of criteria if they kept picking books they didn’t prefer.

    Still, from a marketing stand point, that is a horrible statistic. If I walk into a section of a book store that supposedly interests me, and half of the books available I will potentially not enjoy, how does that help the store? Or the publisher? Or the author? What ends up happening is I read the book expecting one thing (and remember, the reader who LIKES romance is looking in the same section as me since B&N puts SF/F/UF in the same section) and I get something else. This is the scenario described in the post.

    I don’t know the answer. I think you are right, the genre has blurred to the point where different audiences are shopping in the same section. Maybe that causes people’s expectations to be skewed away from reality.

  7. DebC
    · January 12th, 2011 at 9:09 pm · Link

    Yes, yes, yes! Good stuff and well-said. I am continually bemused by the conflating of urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Yes, there are overlaps, but basically UF and PR come from different roots (aside from fantasy, which of course they both draw from).

    Though now that I think of it, the conflating almost always applies to UF written by women and not James Butcher or Simon Green. Hmm…

  8. Krista D. Ball
    · January 12th, 2011 at 9:33 pm · Link

    Like Elaine said, I immediately just say “I am a spec fiction author” because, otherwise, folks say “So, you write romance?” I have never met a male author and said, “So, I suppose you write thrillers?”

  9. jim duncan
    · January 13th, 2011 at 7:50 am · Link

    Well, I’ve certainly fallen into these screwy categorizing traps before. I used to believe UF was pretty much paranormal romance and not a seperate category unto itself. This was loosely based on shelf browsing and being a member of RWA, where the bulk of what I see and talked about is romance oriented (not all, but mostly). I would say I was mostly a fantasy/thriller reader and when I wrote my debut, I was setting out to write a paranormal thriller. It did not occur to me until well after it was written that my book was actually an urban fantasy. My cover is square in the middle of “typical” for the UF genre (woman on the cover, carrying a gun, with a spooky background).

    This kind of annoyed me at first. I had hoped for something a bit more noir’ish or thriller looking in a cover. After I settled down, I kind of became annoyed with myself for what really bothered me. People might pick up the cover and think paranormal romance. I don’t read paranormal romance, even though it’s not far removed from what I’ve written. I prefer stories where the central focus is on the paranormal and not the romance, which is perhaps a bit hypocritical because I truly do like stories with a romantic thread in them. I honestly can’t speak for male readers in general, but if I were to guess, they like romantic threads in their stories too. As Stacia and some others have said, male writers have romance in their stories too.

    I agree that this sort of denigration of romance as a genre is bullshit. How is it that writing about a central element of human life is not worthwhile literature? You can’t say it has anything to do with the writing, because there are some damn good writers who write romance. My wife, author Tracy Madison is a romance author and in some ways, she’s a better writer than I am. Perhaps it’s a history of male reviewers not reviewing romance or thinking it’s worthy of review. Perhaps it’s more a gender bias, wherein because romance is read mostly by women it must therefore be inferior because men don’t read it. Whatever the case, it’s asanine and unfortunate.

    It could be some of this has led to the notion that if it’s got romance in it and it’s written by a woman, then it must be a romance. I don’t get this. Sure, some of this is a shelving/perception issue. Women read more than men, and they buy more romance than anything else, so marketing folk are going to lean in the direction that gives the publisher a greater chance at sales. On a practical level, I guess this makes some sense, but it sure does lead to genre confusion when you have things blending and crossing over all the time. You put a romantic suspense in the thriller section and I’m far more likely to pick up and perceive it differently than if I saw it on the romance shelves. I think my book will be perceived differently and have different expectations coming off the UF shelves, than if it was sitting with the thrillers. It’s kind of funny and sad that the same reader might enjoy or take issue with my story based on where they pick it up in the bookstore.

    Anyway, getting a bit rambly here, and I’ve not had any coffee yet. Great topic, Stacia. I hope it leads to more discussion. This is fun, interesting stuff.

  10. Karen
    · January 13th, 2011 at 11:12 am · Link

    As an avid reader of UF, I have to say I get annoyed when books that should be in the sci-fi section are mislabeled as Romance. I seriously want to move them to their proper spot in sci-fi.

    A good example – Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series. I, in no way would categorize that as a romance series. It’s about a young woman discovering truths about herself as she tries to figure out who murdered her sister, while around her all hell breaks loose. There’s violence, manipulation, empowerment, and horror — but romance? Not so much. But there it is in the Romance section. (And its heavily promoted as a romance, too.)

    I think part of the problem is the picture on the cover of a book and the blurb on the back and/or excerpt. How many excerpts of UF by women are the romance scenes? A lot! And the romance scene might be the ONLY scene in the entire book and not so much about romance as about character development. It’s frustrating.

    Other books that I think are misfiled romance? Lori Handeland’s Apocalypse series, Angie Fox’s Accidental Demonslayer series, Allyson James Stormwalker series, Jocelyn Drake’s Nighthunter series (I mean, come on! Anyone who’s read those books would know they do not belong in romance.)

    Another mislabel that annoys me … Kim Harrison’s Dead Witch Walking series? I don’t understand why, but it’s in HORROR. That makes NO sense.Is it because it’s mostly action? DD Barant’s books, L.A. Banks, Laurell Hamilton and a few others are all there, too. In no way would I categorize any of these series under horror. They’re UF (which, in my opinion ought to have its own category in bookstores).

    Yet, all the books I’ve read that are written by men are right where they’re supposed to be – be it Horror or Sci-Fi or Mystery/Thriller. I don’t know if its the bookstores or the publishers or what, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where various books belong.

    I think maybe as a society we haven’t evolved enough. When you think about what we teach our daughters vs. our sons?? Girls are supposed to get married and have babies – even with most of us having careers, our success in life is about the husband and kids. Men? Their success is based on their job/athletic ability. Seriously. That’s still the case. (Look at the toys we buy our kids – dolls, dollhouses, dress up princess crap, etc. for girls – Legos, sports stuff, fighting toys, etc. for boys). We are not equal no matter how much we pretend to be.

    And so books written by women are assumed to be books about love and romance and making babies and having families even if the heroine is a kick-ass and there isn’t a drop of romance in them.

    (The Kushiel’s series, BTW, in my local stores is in Horror. I haven’t read it, so I can’t say if it belongs there, but I suspect probably not.)

    • jim duncan
      · January 13th, 2011 at 12:26 pm · Link

      Kushiel is in horror? wtf? Not even close. It’s epic fantasy, through and through. That’s some pretty clueless shelving imo.

  11. BernardL
    · January 13th, 2011 at 2:48 pm · Link

    It’s a double standard for sure. Worst part is it cuts into sales and that’s where the real damage is done.

  12. Michele Lee
    · January 13th, 2011 at 7:39 pm · Link

    I just want to say as a bookseller (and I rambled more on my own site) that the placement comes from the publisher almost always, and corporate for the few that don’t (like all our Mark Twain books are in fiction/lit, even the nonfiction ones, just to keep them together. And when Ann Rice started her Jesus books she was moved from horror to lit/fic so her books could all stay together.)

    As far as the actual, physical placement of the books in bookstores (which I know is only a side shoot of this conversation) it’s rarely the fault of the people actually manning the store. Chance are we’re just as agitated with it as you.

    As for everything else I’m sure it happens all the time, but often in the stores I don’t see that as much as I see all female names in mystery and SF/F side by side with the male names. I could just be blissfully, blindly hopeful right now too :)

  13. Betsy Dornbusch
    · January 14th, 2011 at 9:44 am · Link

    Kushiel is fantasy, through and through, and NOT romance. Sex does not a romance make. Sheesh. That sort of classification makes me nuts.

    One of my reviews for my recent horror (classified by the pub as erotica because of the graphic sex, which I was cool with) touched on the “lack of passion” between my hero and heroine. It really wasn’t structured like a romance–there was very little of the relationship coming apart at the seams–but purposely structured like horror. I wonder what the reviewer would have said if I was a man…? That said, my penname is Ainsley, chosen to be deliberately gender-vague.

    The other thing, as a related aside, that makes me crazy,is the insistence that UF requires a female protag. This is slowly changing, but I’m having trouble finding books written by women with male protags. Sometimes there’s one that has multiple POVs and one of them might be male…

  14. krupke
    · January 17th, 2011 at 7:05 pm · Link

    As a reader, I’ve found that the books/series that are my faves “have it all.” That is, they have a good balance of romance, world building(or what I consider world building), nonromantic plot and character development (although character development comes with all the aforementioned elements). I’ll read straight up romances (not as much as I used to) and I’m starting to read more books that have very minor or no romance elements. Categorization is problematic and helpful at the same time. Problem: if it limits an author ‘s exposure to potential readers(and I do think it tends to limit female authors more so than males). Helpful: if it leads me to a good UF or romance depending on which I’m in the mood for.

    I’ve also found that I have a low tolerance for relationship-hopping (serial monogamy) and love triangles. To me bed-hopping is different. Bed hopping to me implies a protagonist sleeping with a character that isn’t very developed. IOW, I’m not that invested in the relationship (and usually the characters in the relationship) and therefore if the protagonist decides to have multiple flings/one night stands so be it….as long as there are other stronger story elements. I don’t like reading about romantic interests for the protagonist that are “developed” then discarded after a few books, or ongoing love triangles. That pushes my button and these days if I get even a whiff of that from a series I don’t even start it. There’s nothing wrong with it and there a some exceptions that I’ll read, but I just don’t like it and avoid it when possible.

    I do notice that women can be much more judgmental of female characters than male characters.

    “It’s also about how male characters can be distant or cold, even in some cases borderline psychotic/sociopathic, but they’re still regarded as likable and appealing. Whereas a cold and/or distant heroine is regarded with hostility and suspicion, because women are “supposed” to be kind/loving/feeling/friendly/caring.

    The promiscuous heroine is unlikable–and worse than unlikable, she is unworthy–simply because she likes sex, and likes to have it with whomever strikes her fancy, at any time she feels the urge. Again, whereas the promiscuous hero is applauded; he is an object of desire.”

    This bothers quite a bit. I admit to having a tendency towards liking “alpha”-type flawed men and in the past I do feel like I’ve judged the female protagonists in some novels (romance and otherwise) more harshly than the male. However, them’s days are over. I’ve seen on message boards and in reviews from female posters/reviewers very harsh remarks towards heroines. It might not bother me as much if these remarks weren’t juxtaposed to remarks from the same people fawning over heroes that were anything but perfect.

    I don’t like perfect characters regardless of gender. I’m much more invested in characters and couples that are flawed. I don’t mind if characters make mistakes (and learn from them). I do mind if I find a character consistently or increasingly irritating or I can’t follow or don’t agree with their internal flow of logic.


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