Women’s reads, or reading women?

One for the sisterhood. A complaint to W. H. Smith has brought about a change to the way some books are labelled. Books by and for women – ‘Women’s fiction’ – will no longer be labelled as such. Books by and for women, in W. H. Smith, are now, ahem, ‘fiction’.

This separation, this discrimination and ghetto-ization, of course, originally came from good intentions – it was, as the US military would say, ‘blowback’, the law of unintended consequences.

Women were being squeezed out of the market, with books by men predominating. So ‘women’s fiction’ shelves were created. But did that mean that Charlotte Brontë and Mary Shelley, or even Joan Didion and Anne Patchett, were moved there? No, the first two went to ‘Classics’, the second to ‘literature’, or even ‘poetry’. Toni Morrison to ‘Fiction by women of colour’. Others went to ‘Gender studies’. Until, finally, of course, ‘Fiction’ was entirely inhabited by white males (usually heterosexual: don’t forget ‘Gay fiction’).

And ‘Women’s fiction’ had pink covers, lots of gold embossing and the odd picture of a pair of shoes.

Women write more books, women read more books, they make up the audiences at readings by possibly as much as 10 to 1. But they get less space: physical, in the bookstores, and mental, in reviews, both as reviewers and reviewed, and I suspect from a quick look (subtext: don’t hold me to this one, please), many literary festivals.

W. H. Smith has taken a step towards, if not giving them more space, at least removing them from a tokenist shelving ghetto.

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