What is a Feminist Novel?

The internet has some funny things to say about it

“A feminist novel is one which addresses the plight and agenda of the females.”

This is a weird definition, right? This is what I found when I was thinking about how to describe my novel, a work-in-progress about two young women who consider themselves feminists, but aren’t sure how to align their beliefs with their behaviors.

Here is the complete explanation from Ask, which comes up in the first page of “feminist novel” results:

A feminist novel is one which addresses the plight and agenda of the females. The main theme of such novels addresses the issues that affect women such as abuse and violence from their counterparts in marriages. Typically, feminist novels are authored by women writers who easily sympathise and empathise with their colleagues.

Hmm. Quite problematic, right?

There wasn’t much else out there in the Google search results to help me break down the components of a feminist novel. No warm and welcoming hearth to gather around. Since I couldn’t find good alternatives to Ask’s ridiculous definition, I decided to figure out what it was trying to say. I didn’t get too far.

1. The females?

2. Issues that affect women are defined as abuse and violence from their counterparts. That seems pretty limiting for both the females and the counterparts.

3. Feminist novels explore marriage.

4. Women writers write feminist books.

5. Easily sympathize and empathize are clearly character weaknesses.

6. Wait, their colleagues? As in, the professional sisterhood?

This definition was not written by someone who understands feminism. Yet I don’t have a definition at the ready either.

Next, I turned to Goodreads to try and find a crowd-sourced definition. Users create shelves to organize their books in Goodreads, and there are twenty-seven books that readers have considered “feminist novels” (several of them are nonfiction). Yes, twenty-seven. Considering there are around eleven million members on Goodreads, this is paltry.

Also, the highest ranked feminist novel has been shelved only twice. It’s The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Other feminist novels include A Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games with one shelving a piece.

So, what does this all mean? I know there are more feminist novels and authors out there than my cursory search revealed. But why didn’t my search reveal a thriving community? Is there a hesitation to label novels feminist? Is that not a thing? Should it be? If so, what would it mean to write a feminist novel? That the female and male characters are equally thought-out? That the women behave in a certain way? That they critique patriarchial culture in pithy dialogue?

Maybe not labeling novels as feminist is about wanting to avoid reductionism. Meg Wolitzer explores this brilliantly in Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women.

Back to blurbing my novel. Since it’s a DIY project, I’m left on my own to figure out what to do, which is both fabulous and terrible. I must, of course, focus on summarizing the story. But for now, I also make mention of feminist coming-of-age themes since the protagonist, a teacher, finds her boundaries in her relationship with her work and an ex. Maybe later I’ll be lucky enough to have enthusiastic readers who blurb the story better than I ever could.

Although my search was futile in many ways, I did learn that Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner was heralded as “the most feminist novel you’ll read all year, and one of the best of 2013" by Alyssa Rosenberg in ThinkProgress.

I’m adding it to my feminist novel bookshelf now.

My humorous erotic short story, Bea’s Notes, also explores feminist themes. Please consider recommending this essay if you enjoyed reading it.