Why do most female authors only write romantic/teen novels and tend to avoid heavy themes?

Question as answered: “Why do most female authors only write romantic/teen novels and tend to avoid heavy themes?”

Good grief, who or what have you been reading?

I must warn you, Your Question Is Naughty! You may want to don some kind of body armour for the other answers that are going to come your way.

I’m not entirely sure where you got this impression that female authors are not writing heavy books. They are and have been for a very long time. A small selection of great female authors:

Middlemarch – George Eliot (pen name for Mary Anne Evans). Religion, hypocrisy, marriage, the status of women, spousal abuse, narcissism, and political reform. Arguably the greatest novel in the English language, certainly top 10.

Beloved – Toni Morrison. Slavery, child murder, and horror. Won a Pulitzer, sold millions.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin. A keystone of science fiction.

The Handmaid's Tale – Margaret Atwood. Politics, religion, sex, and evil. Just one of her amazing novels.

The Lottery – Shirley Jackson. Society, politics, human nature. It’s terrifying.

The Grass Is Singing – Doris Lessing. Race, politics, segregation, colonialism.

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee. Race, justice, horror, child abuse, sex abuse, and coming of age. Won the Pulitzer.

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton. Marriage, sex, desire, society. Won the Pulitzer.

More recently:

Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling. Love, death, maturity, power, and the nature of evil.

White Teeth – Zadie Smith. Politics, race, humanity. Won multiple prizes.

Once in a House on Fire – Andrea Ashworth. Child abuse, poverty, family, depression.

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel. History, politics, monarchy, sex, grief. Won the Man Booker.

We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver (woman). School massacres, grief, childhood trauma, family.

I could add a few dozen more here. I’m pausing for breath.

That doesn’t even touch the works of the Bronte sisters, Austen (not all fluff, in fact, not fluff at all), or, forgive me, the great poets like Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou and Emily Dickinson.

To deal with your question in a kinder frame of mind:

There is a huge market for romance novels. Therefore, both women and men, who often take female pseudonyms, write romance novels.

There is a huge market for thriller and action novels. Therefore both men and women, who often take male or initial pseudonyms, write thriller and action novels.

Some of these deal with big and complex themes. Others deal with light fluff, like the prevention of the detonation of nuclear weapons by strong jawed heroes in faded blue jeans.

There is a smaller market for heavy themed novels, so it may appear that there are few authors writing that kind of book, but I don’t think you’d find much of a sex difference and I would argue that there are at least as many great female novelists as male novelists writing these heavy books. Or at least writing them well.

Many male novelists don’t touch on big or heavy themes. You may think they do because they put in some supposedly realistic, but actually laughable, politics in their action thrillers, but most novels are meant as entertainment and stay light.

However, you may assume female novelists are writing mostly lighter themes because their books are often colour coded pale cream, pink, or other light colours. The fact that the heroine was raped, or abandoned as a child, or has issues from other traumas, are covered under the fluffy nature of the marshmallow topping put over the underlying meat.

Most authors avoid very heavy themes because they want to sell books. Authors writing in female-oriented genres tend to make this more obvious because their books are marketed as lighthearted fluff. Authors writing in male oriented genres tend to hide this under supposedly important political analyses that are really excuses for them to play with bigger guns.

Do not confuse large weapons with heavy themes.

19 Replies to “Why do most female authors only write romantic/teen novels and tend to avoid heavy themes?”

  1. There are plenty of answers here with lists of excellent women authors in response to your question. Women who write books about serious themes, themes other than light, fluffy romance.

    But that’s not what the article by Kelsey McKinney in your link is about. It is, in fact, a complaint about female characters in the western canon, a complaint that most intelligent woman readers would agree with. Books with great female protagonists who aren’t involved in a search for love or romance are few and far between. But guess what? Many of those books are written by men. That’s the role they want to put women in, because writing about intelligent, independent women who are exploring the world, discovering cures for diseases, challenging male stereotypes, is difficult. It requires stepping out of the expected narrative and actually thinking abut how real women function in the real world. But this is changing. It has been changing for a long time.

    What the article is talking about is books that relegate women to the quest for love as if it is the only meaningful role for women.

    But it ignores books like Little Women. Books with characters who make you grit your teeth in frustration as they linger pitifully on their deathbeds and everybody around them weeps at how gracefully they accept their fate. Beth totally pissed me off the first time i read the book, perhaps because she shares my name. What a freakin’ wimp. But then there’s Joe, making her way in the world, determined to become an author, finding her own meaning. so, a mixed bag there.

    Or perhaps McKinney missed Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees and its sequel Pigs in Heaven, which deal with, among other issues, Native American adoption rights. There’s love there, but it’s the love between a mother and child, and that love is challenged by poverty, by life in general, by the difficulties of being an independent woman in a world that doesn’t support that independence. it also shows the power and strength of women in community, relying on one another rather than looking for men to solve their problems.

    The article totally ignores Shakespeare and his wonderful, powerful, terrifying women. Regan and Goneril are certainly not searching for romantic love. Sex, yes. Love? They don’t have time for it. They’re much too busy commanding armies and cheating on their husbands for fluffy, romantic love. Lady MacBeth? Not very romantic, with her bloody knife clenched in her fist. What of Portia, dressing as a man and standing up in court to defend her love. Sure, romance. But so much more.

    “The quality of mercy is not strain'd,

    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

    Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

    'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

    The throned monarch better than his crown;

    His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

    The attribute to awe and majesty,

    Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

    But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

    It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

    It is an attribute to God Himself;

    And earthly power doth then show likest God's

    When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

    Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

    That in the course of justice, none of us

    Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy;

    And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

    The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much

    To mitigate the justice of thy plea;

    Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice

    Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.”

    The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

    Heavy enough for you? Yes, it was written by a man. But that’s exactly the problem with the article. It doesn’t say women only write about romantic themes. it says women are portrayed in books as only being interested in romance. I think Kelsey McKinney needs to go to a library and read some more books. Different books.

    Books by authors like Alice Walker and Maya Angelou. Books by Mary Shelley and Virginia Wolfe and Amy Tan and Doris Lessing and what the hell, Margery Allingham and C. J. Cherryh and Ursula K. LeGuin and Barbara Hambly.

    Stop there. Just read two or three books by any one of those authors and you’ll soon be convinced that women write about a great deal more than romance, and they don’t only write for teens. Women authors write for grownups.

  2. Wow.

    I’m going to list some books by women that do not at all fall into those categories:-

    1. La Prisonerre – Twenty Years In A Desert Gaol (Malika Oafkir) ~ held captive with her family, each in individual rooms, for a number of years.
    2. Elli: Coming of Age in the Holocaust (Elli Friedmann) ~ an almost teen girl who was in a prison camp and came out looking like an old woman.
    3. In Order to Live (Yeonmi Park) ~ North Korean escapee.
    4. Tortured (Victoria Spry) ~ testimony of a victim of abuse.
    5. Deliver me from evil (Alloma Gilbert) ~ testimony of a victim of abuse.
    6. Little Women books (Louisa May Alcott) ~ this covers death and poverty as well as many other themes.
    7. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle stop Cafe (Fannie Flagg) ~ covers racism, murder etc
    8. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer)
    9. Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
    10. The handmaids tale (Margaret Atwood)
    11. Uncle Toms Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe)
    12. Miss Marple books, Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)
    13. Miss Fishers murder mysteries (
    14. Rebecca (Daphne De Maurier)
    15. Moondial (Helen Cresswell)
    16. A tale of time city (Dianna Wynne Jones)
    17. The forgotten garden (Kate Morton)
    18. Girl on the train (Paula Hawkins)
    19. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking (Susan Cain)
    20. Infidel (Ayaan Hirsi Ali)
    21. Desert Flower and Desert Dawn and Saving Safa: Rescuing a little girl from FGM (Waris Diri)
    22. Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (Doris Garimara Pilkington)
    23. The Soldiers Wife (Pamela Hart)
    24. Not without my daughter (Betty Mahmoody)
    25. The Road of lost Innocence (Somaly Mam)

    You do realize that this question was both sexist and inaccurate, surely? Females are not one dimensional people any more than males are. I can think of a number of male writers who do romance:-

    • Ken Follet covers this as well as history and fiction and murder and mystery in most of his books.
    • Nickolas Sparks is well known for being a romance writer.

    And of course a number of writers work under a non de plume – both male and female.

  3. Your question is based on your reading of that article. I think you misinterpreted it, since the author argues about characters and stories and then -only then- relates it to the underrepresentation of female writers in the market. But she never wrote that females write only about romantic or teen topics. That misinterpretation is common, it is not your fault.

    In fact, it has a point of truth since at the Modern Age women -literate women- were relegated to just comment males’ works and to write minor genres like children literature (with notable exceptions like Germaine de Stäel or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz). However, since the second half of the XIX century that has changed a lot and now women write about all topics and research is being done to value past works.

  4. Seriously you have missed some giant names of female authors who have written some insanely heavy themes.

    Let’s start with a household name. J.K Rowling. Now to have imagination as crazy to write Harry Potter which is in itself heavy. But you might reject it as a children’s fiction. So I am not talking about HP. I am talking about her book called silkworm. I can assure you, it’s not just heavy theme it’s so cringe worthy than even Stephen king will wonder at the darkness of this book.

    Then have you even read agatha Christie ?? Now look, we are talking about a woman in 1939. I personally find her mystery books way better than Sherlock Holmes. And then there is cherry on the top book “and then there were none” which is pure genius

    There is also the booker prize winner who wrote luminaries (I forgot the author name) the book is crazy deep! and even Arundhati Roy’s God of small things (again a booker price winner) . Gone girl is written by a woman and so is the girl on the train. Both are so dark it can give me sleepless nights

    And ofcourse, someone already mentioned Harper lee.

  5. Obviously it goes without saying that some of the greatest works of literature have come from women, in a very wide range of topics. For example, my favourite genre, scifi-horror, was birthed (please forgive the baggage-laden word) by a woman.

    However, I think there is something to this question. I think it is valid and should be explored.

    I came to a profound realisation recently. My girlfriend and I like very different genres. She likes romantic comedies, period dramas and social commentary. I like to joke about needing zombies, aliens or robots in my romantic comedies.

    What I came to realise is that she likes stories that are purely explorations of interpersonal relationships, whereas I prefer stories that explore human reactions to an external threat or idea.

    Last week she forced me to watch one of her favourite movies, Remains of the Day. It was okay. I fully appreciated an outstanding performance by outstanding actors performing an outstanding script, but I admit that I was bored. And, spoiler alert, when Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins part at the end and the camera lingers on their hands, it evoked tears from my girlfriend and laughter from me (for which she still hasn’t forgiven me).

    Of course this is just anecdotal, but I believe this is more fundamental than just my limited experience.

    Romantic comedies are predominantly watched by women, whereas men make up the vast majority of science fiction audiences. I don’t put this down to “gender roles,” or “the dreaded patriarchy.” I think women like romantic comedies and period dramas because they fucking love romantic comedies and period dramas, and the same goes for men with stories about war, westerns and scifi. I think it is mostly due to innate differences between the sexes. We know that women have, in general, greater capacity for emotional intelligence. They have superior language acquisition, and even babies show this kind of bias with male babies focussing on objects, while female babies focus more on faces.

    It’s part of who we are, women are more focussed on emotion, relationships and social dynamics. Men are more interested in gadgets, tools and structures. This is reflected in the genres that men and women are attracted to. I do think social conditioning and gender roles play a part, but I also thing those very gender roles are rooted in biological truths, however unpalatable they may be.

    I also think that this relates to the Bechdel test. I think women DO talk about men and their emotions more than men talk about women and their feelings. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have more rounded representations of women, of course we should, but I don’t think movies and books about love written by and for women are any kind of problem, and I certainly think it is misguided to seek total and utter parity with the kind of stories for and about men.

    And I certainly disagree that love is not a heavy topic.

  6. Define “most.”

    Less than half the authors on this list write “only romantic/teen novels” and almost all of them confront heavy themes and for that matter move in and give Heavy Themes a drawer in the dresser and its own coffee mug: AbeBooks' Reading Copy

    Maybe a better question is why don’t you read more brilliant female authors? This list doesn’t touch on every single female author, but there are a lot of them writing in all genres including some previously dominated by men.

    Oh, also, I personally know about 30-ish male romance authors, many of whom also write “teen novels” and all of them avoid heavy themes. Which is not a judgement! They write for entertainment. Sounds like you need to read more books overall.

    Before asking “why”, ask “if.”

  7. Unfortunately, the premise of your question is faulty in several ways.

    Neither YA books nor romance novels necessarily avoid heavy themes. In fact, YA books generally focus on the protagonist gaining agency in a world where they have restricted freedoms — whether that restriction comes from obstacles at school, conservative parents, or a full-on dystopian world. Additionally YA books often focus on the issues teens face about things like love, sex, drug use, career, identity, family problems, etc.

    Are you married or in a relationship? Have you ever been? Then you know that in real life, romance isn’t easy. Love takes hard work and can often involve complex obstacles both in the relationship and outside of it. While there are plenty of escapist romance novels out there, plenty of other romance novels focus on issue like culture clashes, leaving abusive situations, finding love despite complex obstacles, and learning to trust again after loss or hurt.

    Books are not less valuable because they have happy endings, are marketed to young people, or are often written by women. Please consider the misogyny you’re bringing to your experience as a reader. It’s closing you off from great stories.

    Racheline Maltese is the co-author of A Queen from the North, Library Journal’s Best Indie Ebook 2017.

  8. You need to stroll through the library a bit and check out the mysteries and thrillers, science fiction, fantasy and history and science sections. Women write in all genres and all topics, and they aren’t at all romantic and fluffy about it.

    Look for Margaret Atwood, Lois McMaster Bujold, Sue Grafton, Tanya Huff, Sara Paretsky, Ursula Le Guin, CJ Cherryh, JK Rowling (Harry Potter is not just a “teen novel” and The Casual Vacancy is not a light romance), Kerry Greenwood, Elizabeth May, Iris Murdoch, Mary Shelley, Alice Walker, P.D. James, and that’s just a few that I can think of offhand.

    And if you wander through the section with the Harlequin romances and bodice rippers, think about this little “secret.” Some of those authors are men, using a female pseudonym to sell formulated romance.

  9. From my reading experience, overall it seems as if there are slightly more female authors than male authors, in the overall scheme of books written for adults, so yes, to everyone who answered below, female authors have written a lot of different books, with a lot of heavy themes. However in the categories of Y.A and Romantic novels there seems to be a far greater proportion of female writers than males, and I feel like that is a better interpretation of what this question is asking: why are there so few male authors writing romantic and Y.A novels?

    I don’t really know myself, but if I had to guess I would point to (using gross generalisations)

    • Romance/ emotions being more of a ‘women’s fort’. Men for centuries have been taught to bottle up their emotions, whilst women have been taught to be more in touch with it. This may explain why it seems like there are slightly more women author’s then men, as all books need to portray the raw emotions of characters. [Of course, this is painting with very wide brush stokes, and I would like to add that personally I have connected with and cried over many characters and beautiful touching relationships that have been written by men including Osamu Dazai, Charles Dickens, Ha ll Kwon and David Mitchell.]
    • More teenage girls read then boys. 18% of teenage boys read daily compared to 30% of teenage girls.
    • Y.A literature tends to be very liberal, and more women are Democrats, than men

    We're All Doomed: Kids Reading For Fun Less Than Ever

    Women More Likely to Be Democrats, Regardless of Age

  10. Know this book?

    This is To Kill a Mockingbird, a book about racism in the South, gender differences, false-rape accusations and attempted child murder.

    Want to know who wrote this book?

    This woman. Harper E. Lee.

    Want more authors? How about Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, Mary Shelley, Ayn Rand, Sylvia Plath, JK Rowling or Louise Fitzhugh?

    Before you ask why something is the way it is, you should probably ask if it is that way first.

  11. Toni Morrison

    Harper Lee

    Margaret Atwood

    Sylvia Plath

    Susanna Kaysen

    Susannah Cahalan

    Emily Dickinson (poet – still a writer)

    Sharon Draper

    Joanne Rowling (she did write more than Harry Potter)

    If you’re looking for something “heavy” by a female author, look up these women

  12. Oh, you mean fluffy teen fiction lightweights like Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, Ursula K Le Guin, Flannery O’Connor, Angela Carter, Iris Murdoch, Toni Morrison, Nawal el Sadaawi, Susan Sontag, Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus, Jennifer Egan, Lydia Davis, Susan Howe, Nelly Sachs, Ali Smith, Carol Shields, Hilary Mantel…?

  13. That’s really interesting. What are the statistics? How many writers are there, and how many that are men writers write romantic/teen novels that avoid heavy themes and how many women writers do?

  14. what kind of a stupid question is that! was my first impression when i read this question. However on second thought, given that different people have different perspective we have to take it with a pinch of salt and address the issue.

    What do you consider a ‘big theme’? can you name some male authors and their works which convinced you that they addressed big issues and big themes and deserve to be considered more seriously than other writers?

    Try the epic works of this legendary writers :

    Toni Morrison

    Doris Lessing

    Nadine Gordimer

  15. This is simply untrue. However, historically it was *expected* that women would write romances, and so female authors who wanted to tackle dark themes often used a male pseudonym, or just used their initials.

  16. the madwoman in the attic,written by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. they analyzed from ninety century many female authors like Charlotte Bronte Emily Bronte and Anne Bronte wrote many topics about madness and DARKNESS.it is interesting!

  17. C. J. Cherryh wrote an excellent forward in one of her books that relates to this. The answer is mainly that publishers refused to publish heavy books written by women because they don’t think their public will buy them. Her, rather excellent, science fiction series was written under her initials to disguise her gender for this reason. The authors don’t necessarily avoid them, the publishers do.

    If you want to get around this start looking for and buying ‘heavy’ books from female authors and write to publishers asking them for more of the same.

    And while you’re asking; why don’t men write romances?

  18. Sylvia Plath wrote in The Bell Jar about several attempts at suicide including swimming out to sea beyond her endurance to return and consuming a large quantity of sleeping pills.

    She actually attempted at least one of those and did successfully kill herself a year after publishing the novel by placing her head in a oven with all the gas taps fully opened.

    Heavy enough for you?

  19. The issue isn’t that female authors write books like that, it’s that they rarely get published when they do so. From what I’ve heard, Jo Rowling published the Harry Potter series as “J.K. Rowling” because her publishers didn’t want people to think it was a romantic teen novel aimed at girls.

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