Aya de Leon

author – activist – faculty – mom

Commercial Feminist Fiction: What’s on Your Bookshelf?

I grew up reading mystery/spy fiction.  I read Nancy Drew in elementary school.  By junior high I read Agatha Christie, and by college I was reading Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, as well as mystery newcomer at that time Sue Grafton.  Later, I discovered Sarah Paretsky’s work, who had explicit feminist themes.  Other than Fleming’s work, which was clearly sexist to an extreme, the other work seemed to fall somewhere in the middle.  There was something very girl power! about Nancy Drew and Jane Marple, a young girl and elderly woman, consistently outsmarting the men in the police departments.  They won every time, armed with nothing more than curiosity, wit, spunk and a deep knowledge of human nature.  Yet they never handled guns, never had gritty fights with the bad guys.  Also, in spite of their consistent outwitting of the police, they never actually competed with them.  They were unpaid for their labor.  Nancy Drew was a teen who lived at home, supported by her father.  Marple, presumably, lived off some sort of investments.  Maybe it was the unpaid labor/hobby status of their detecting that kept them from crossing the line in the gender politics of their historical times and places.

In the 70s, women exploded into science fiction and fantasy.  Although I still read mostly mystery fiction at the time, I was aware of women’s use of the genre to explore issues of gender, as well as race, class, and national politics.

In the 80s, we saw a similar explosion of female cops and private investigators in the mystery genre.  And yet, many of them wouldn’t be necessarily considered feminist.  Did they just reflect the influx of white, middle class women into the labor force?

I loved spy fiction, and was hungry for female spies to satisfy the appetite that Fleming’s work had generated but didn’t satisfy.  Not until the 90s and the new millennium did we see a larger assortment of women writing female spies.  I wolfed down Francine Mathews’ book The Cut Out and its sequel, Blown.

Now in my mid-40s, I’ve been reading adult fiction for over thirty years, and I can say this:  my appetite for good feminist genre fiction has always been greater than my supply thereof.  I have always been hungry for a good read, a good plot, a good protagonist.  I’m fascinated by what I’m able to overlook in the service of reading pleasure and what I am not.  As the years pass, my tolerance for women’s self-deprecation is dwindling–women criticizing themselves, their bodies, their appearance, their competence–will lead me to close a book.  Also, books with lots of violence against women and the looming threat of violence against women just aren’t enjoyable to me.  If that’s in the center of a book, I’m not interested.  Let me be clear, I’m not saying that books with this content are evil or should not be written.  Rather, I’m saying that they don’t suit my tastes.  Also, as the years continue, I want more humor.  As my own life has gotten more speedy and stressful, I want more entertainment.  A recent Sarah Paretsky book fascinated me in the politics of her historical plot, but didn’t deliver in the fun department.  I keep checking to see when Sparkle Hayter will have a new book out.   Also, I as a woman of color, I am interested in reading books that have a racially diverse  cast of key characters, not just brown faces in stereotypical roles.  I like a good romance, but I like it on the side, and it can’t be cliche.  I’m not knocking the romance genre, I just like it as dessert instead of as a main dish.  Same with sex.  Yes, sure, but not as the central preoccupation of the work.  For me, that’s more like a condiment.  I don’t want to taste it throughout the meal on everything.

What’s more, I want strong women whose power isn’t just a female version of the isolated, gun-toting guys.  It takes a village to solve a crime.  I think my favorite mystery author of all time is Mabel Maney.  Her Nancy Clue and Jane Bond books were brilliant queer parodies of the works I read as a girl and young woman.  Her lesbionic versions of the fifties and sixties had it all:  hilarious parody, vicious political/cultural criticism, and great plots.  Each series had a wonderful crime fighting crew of women, and Maney included racial diversity, as the historical era allowed.

Yes, people, in the tradition of contemporary women in the US, I want it all.  Humor, fun, badass female protagonists, action, depth of character, cultural parody, political complexity, and racial and cultural diversity written with cultural competence.  So of course, I’m writing those books.  Some funnier, some more serious.  Some with a spy/heist/thriller edge, some without any genre influence.  According to my editor, I’m writing commercial women’s fiction.  But this term is so vast, that it includes everything from Bridget Jones’ Diary to Tipping the Velvet to Fifty Shades.  I am trying to identify the sub-genre that I’m writing in.  It’s not that I need a label to feel validated.  I just want to read more of this stuff as well as write it.  I want to band together with other women writers who create it and inspire others to do it, as well.  I want to know where to find it in the bookstore.  Just like those who like urban twenty- & thirty-somethings who like designer shoes can get their chick lit on, I want to get my badass-women-posse-fun-political-thing on.  Yes, I’m working on a better name!

People will slap the label “feminist” on anything that breaks even a single gender stereotype.  But like Sarah Palin calling herself a feminist, every gun-toting female protagonist doesn’t meet my personal requirements.  In the interest of refining the criteria and starting a larger discussion, here’s my working list of does and don’ts in the genre:


women in the center

women in powerful roles

women engaging with the wider world

viewing other women as potential allies, not competitors

women engaging in traditionally male roles or professions


using traditionally female skills in traditionally male professions


complexity and realistic depictions of motherhood

third person

strong, fast-paced plot

accessible language

interesting twists in sexual and romantic situations


protagonists not characterized by passivity helplessness inexperience naïveté

resistance to males in dominant roles

womens lives not focused on romance/sex with men, dating, marriage.

fighting other women over a man

limited focus on appearance, wardrobe, designer clothes, shoes.

no self-deprecating voice

women individually powerful, but not lone hero types

not big complainers

no easy solutions to complex problems

no cliche-filled language, stereotypical characters, or predictable plots

What else do you see as DOs and DON’Ts of commercial fiction with strong female characters?  Can you recommend books that you think would make my cut?

2 comments on “Commercial Feminist Fiction: What’s on Your Bookshelf?

  1. Griffy Kate
    April 6, 2013

    You probably won’t like it personally as it’s fantasy rather than mystery, but for your other followers, Graceling by Kristin Cashore is a brilliant feminist novel geared to young adults. The protagonist is Katsa, a young woman who goes on a dangerous journey to free herself and the kingdom from the tyranny of the cruel king. There is a romance, but Katsa is staunchly against marriage because she isn’t interested in being a stay-home wife, or in having a husband that she is contractually obliged to obey. She takes precautions to make sure she won’t fall pregnant because she is too busy saving the world to become a mother. It’s brilliant and I loved it all from start to finish.

  2. mflorence
    April 11, 2013

    As soon as I saw this post, I thought of Mabel Maney. LOVE those books, too! Some others you didn’t mention are: Rhyss Bowen (particularly her series featuring Molly Murphy), Jacqueline Winspear (Maise Dobbs is another powerful feminist character from the turn of the century), Gail Carriger (a bit of fantasy thrown in with a lot of feminism, mystery, vampires and werewolves in a delightful mishmash), Elizabeth George (while her main character is a man, one of the most central characters is a woman and quite an amazing one at that), and Carol O’Connell (her mysteries feature Mallory, an NYC detective, who is a fascinating character psychologically, and the series is phenomenal). Check them out.

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This entry was posted on April 5, 2013 by in Uncategorized.

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Aya wins first place Independent Publisher Awards for UPTOWN THIEF, THE BOSS, THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS

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