Blogger Barbara Vey recently polled a variety of people on a potentially controversial question: "What is women's fiction?"

Some of the most measured responses to the question came from men. One said women's fiction is "anything that women write, and that appeals to women." While one woman said she considers Virginia Woolf "women's fiction," many seemed to think the term implied a therapeutic or unrealistic bent. Women's fiction is "anything that touches your soul and makes you feel better about life," said a female interviewee. A man said women's fiction is "anything they want to read" (also Barbara Vey's definition), but then added that it's what they read "for escapism."

On the other side, another man defined the genre as fiction "dealing with women and the sorts of things they're facing in all aspects of their social and cultural lives [...] things that take women's lives seriously and aren't afraid to show them to other people, sometimes warts and all."

Is it true that women want to escape into books more than men do? Aren't traditionally masculine genres, like the spy novel, escapist too? For that matter, plenty of women enjoy Michael Crichton and Ian Fleming — does that make them women's fiction too?

The distinction seems a little artificial, but the fact remains that many women, even serious readers, continue to make it. While I'm always angry when a man refuses to read Alice Munro or Charlotte Brontë on the grounds that they're too feminine, I also have to confess to avoiding a few authors (Philip Roth is an example) because they think of them as being "for men." Usually I've gotten the idea that these writers are misogynist, but sometimes I've accepted this idea without actually reading their work. And when I think about it, I'm not convinced that a misogynist book — while obviously deserving of criticism — isn't worthwhile reading in other ways. In my reading life, the distinction between women's and men's fiction may simply be limiting. What about in yours? Are there ways this distinction can be liberating?

What Is Women's Fiction? [Publisher's Weekly]