Women’s Fiction Defined

There is no harder genre to define than women’s fiction.  Lordy, lordy! Is it fiction for women or fiction written by women?  Is it feminist fiction? Is it any book with a female protagonist?  Is women’s fiction simply an dumping genre for writing that isn’t romance but isn’t quite literary?  Is it anything that just wouldn’t appeal to most men? Does it have to be about a family or does that make it a family drama and is that different? Must the protag be over thirty but under sixty?

Figuring this out has exhausted me and I write women’s fiction.  Can you imagine how hard it is for folks who don’t write it to understand exactly what we’re doing?

To me, women’s fiction is a book about a woman or women. Ok, that’s the not the hard part.  The hard part is that the protagonist’s journey is about self-discovery, self-preservation, self-acceptance or self-improvement.  And this journey is taken in the company of others who affect the main character, influence her, but do not save her.

In women’s fiction, the main character saves herself.

Are there romantic undertones in some women’s fiction?  Absolutely.  Is it the driving force of the novel? No.  Is it what makes the main character tick? No. Could there be some paranormal elements in some women’s fiction? Sure. Is it the driving force of the novel? No. Is it what makes the main character tick? No.

Do you see a theme emerging?

Women’s fiction isn’t the same as chick-lit (and I love chick-lit).  To me, chick lit is always light in tone and nature and voice — and that’s not always true of women’s fiction.

The driving force of women’s fiction is the motivation of the main character to get herself from point A to point B to point C, learning and changing and growing and making mistakes along the way.  What makes a women’s fiction main character tick is the methods by which she learns and changes and grows and makes mistakes.

Women’s fiction tackles extraordinary real life issues and emotions.

For me, the sign of a great women’s fiction book (don’t get me started on calling it a women’s fiction novel, I just can’t/won’t/wouldn’t do it for a million bucks. ok, well, I’d do it once for a million and a half) is when I close the book or click the Kindle and wish I could meet the characters.

Does it doesn’t bother me there isn’t a “man’s fiction” genre or that I write with women in mind and know my novel probably won’t appeal to men. Nope.

I realize some genres don’t have steadfast rules and writers call their work whatever they want to call it.  I have been in classes and groups where writers have said to me “HEY! I WRITE WOMEN’S FIC TOO!” And then I read a page or an excerpt and find it’s not what I think of as women’s fiction.

A journey to find a man or a new pair of Christian Louboutins are both worthy journeys indeed but for the sake of this blog, and my sanity, women’s fiction is commercial and/or literary work that focuses on a women’s journey of self.  Whether or not she wears high heels.

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28 thoughts on “Women’s Fiction Defined

  1. I’m so excited about this site and I can’t wait to see what develops here. Women’s Fiction IS hard to define but so many of us read and write it. We know it when we see it! Congrats on the new site.

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  2. Is it fate that I stumbled upon this site AND such an apt description of my chosen genre?

    a) I’ve been dying to find a community of women’s fiction writers. Craving it, actually.

    b) I’m delighted to find that, while Christian Louboutins *do* make an appearance in my (cough, cough) novel, my sole focus has been and will forever be self-discovery. And more than once I’ve asked myself, “Does my protagonist really save herself?”

    c) Amy Sue Nathan, I immediately recognized your name because you were the first person to critique my first 250 words on MSFV yesterday and, not only that, you said I had “pacing issues.” I both loved and appreciated your comment.

    Bottom line: I love this definition, and I will most definitely stick to it. Love.

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    • Ashley,
      I’m glad my feedback was helpful. It’s so nerve wracking to give feedback when you want to help and want to be honest, don’t you think? I hope you’ll come along for the ride here at this new blogging venture. I hope one day it will serve as more than a blog – I’d love a community of writers who love women’s fiction.

      Nice to *meet* you! And now I’m going to look at your MSFV entry again!

      Amy :)

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  3. Amy,
    I found this site via Ashley’s tweet and so glad she posted it. I, too, write Women’s Fiction and also struggle with the definition at times. Your’s certainly cleared the often muddy waters! I look forward to following your blog and chatting with other WF writers and readers.
    Best,
    Cat

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    • Hi Cat,

      Y’know, I just knew I wasn’t the only one! I’m looking forward to all of us creating a great place to hang out, exchange ideas and where we can all help each other become better writers. Thanks for stopping by and especially for saying hi.

      More soon!
      Amy

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  4. OH my! This is the BEST post ever … I am so glad to hear that I am not the only one who was unable to define women’s fiction, or find a clear definition of it when I, too, write it, am drawn to it, devour it!

    I am tweeting this link to the high heavens because I know so many people who think women’s fiction and chick lit are the SAME thing. And they are so very different. I love the clarity of your definition; it really encapsulates “what” it is about women’s lit that I love so much… the emotional journey, the growth, characterization, the realism. Thank you for an enlightening post (and thanks Nina for tweeting it).

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    • Hi Melissa! Thanks for coming by. I knew we needed this. Writers can support one another no matter the genre, but sometimes we all need a little something specific. Right now I plan to post on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Slow and steady, y’know?

      Nice to *meet* you!

      Amy

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      • Loveit, Amy. Will be stopping by for sure. Was throwing around some hashtag ideas months ago for women’s lit with a few writers/women’s lit authors (Therese Walsh, Sharon Bially). The suggestion was #femlit (as #womenslit could be misread as “women slit”… Eeks!) Maybe we can somehow promote #femlit? Or come up with something else? Looking forward to being a part of this community.

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  5. Love this! I know exactly what you mean about refusing to say women’s fiction novel; when I was querying agents I’d either say literary novel or women’s fiction book, because heaven knows saying fiction novel is about the worst thing we could do!

    I agree that it’s so difficult to define, even though it’s easy to recognize it when you see it. A couple of times when I’ve told people I write women’s fiction they either think I’m writing romance or chick lit. And not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just not what my book is. I like the idea of a woman saving herself, though I hadn’t heard the “over thirty under sixty rule before.” Interesting…

    Looking forward to reading more! Thanks, Amy!

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    • Hi Natalia,
      30-60 isn’t a rule at all! I made it up in an effort to help define! :-D My protags are in their forties — and I don’t like the term lady-lit or hen-lit which I think of as a grown-up version of chick-lit. Like you, my book isn’t chick-lit.

      Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon. I plan to post again on Tuesday!

      Enjoy the weekend,
      Amy

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  6. Well I’d hope between 30-60 isn’t a hard rule, because my protag is in her early 20s! Also, maybe this is a stupid question, but why is saying “fiction novel” considered inappropriate?

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    • Hey Ashley,

      Truly, I made up the 30-60 thing!

      There are people who say fiction novel — I once had an editor suggest that term (I didn’t work with that person anymore) but to me and many others its simply redundant — and writers don’t want to be redundant.

      It’s like saying female woman or male man.

      Novels, by definition, are fiction — there’s no ifs ands or buts. There are no true novels. Books that are true are non-fiction or memoirs or creative non-fiction or biography or autobiography. To me, by saying fiction novel it implies there are also novels that are not fiction — which is not the case. Can you have a novel based on a true story or inspired by a true story? Sure. It’s still fiction. There’s a genre called roman á clef — thinly veiled fiction — and today it’s not so popular (so I’ve heard) because of our litigious society. It’s either true or its not. And if it’s not, it’s a novel.

      I also know that there are many agents who hoot and howl and chuck queries that refer to fiction novels — so why take a chance?

      Just my two cents!

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      • That makes a lot of sense, Amy. I guess I never thought of it that way, and I’ve certainly never seen the subject broached before now. Thankfully, when I checked a few of the more recent queries I sent, I didn’t refer to my book as a “fiction novel.”

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  7. ‘Fiction Novel’ or not to ‘Fiction Novel’ is easier for me than the fuzzier definition of Women’s Fiction. You’re right. It is redundant and don’t we usually want to avoid redundancy? Unless there’s something to be gained by the repetition. (No hard rules in writing, right? ;)). As for thinly veiled fiction, many of my characters are thickly veiled composites of people I know and want to know. Thin veils, as you say, are too risky!

    And … would LOVE a hash tag dedicated to Women’s Fiction. Not sure about #femlit. For me it has a different connotation. Perhaps #wflit or #wfic or #brilliantwriterswritingwomensfiction :) :) :)

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    • Absolutely, Cat. No steadfast rules, just guidelines — and for me — pet peeves! I don’t think an agent turns away the book of the century if the author calls it a fiction novel — I think if you have THAT book, you are free to refer to it however you wish!

      And I’m with you on #brilliantwriterswritingwomensfiction.

      It’s got a certain ring to it!

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  8. Ashley,
    Like I mentioned to Cat, I don’t think anyone will run away screaming if you use “fiction novel” (ok, I might run but I won’t scream). For me, it’s a pet peeve. But I think it’s more important to write the right book at the right time and find the right agent!!! Good luck with your queries by the way!

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  9. Wow, thank you for your explanation of the difference between women’s fiction and chick lit.

    I’m just about to publish a new e-novel (The River Within) and have been having a she-devil’s time categorizing it. I’ve written lesbian novels and though I have a lesbian character in this one it definitely doesn’t fit that genre. Nor is it “light in tone and nature and voice.”

    But it is absolutely your definition of women’s fiction – “The driving force… is the motivation of the main character to get herself from point A to point B to point C, learning and changing and growing and making mistakes along the way. ”

    Thank you for the clarification. I discovered this site from your Backspace post and can’t wait to read The Glass House and the authors you’ve mentioned.

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  10. I’m kind of having an issue with the concept of “Women’s Literature”, certainly as a category defined by men. My cousin is a novelist, and her first published novel, which centers around the Challenger disaster, was listed as “Women’s Literature” by the Library of Congress, because it has a female protagonist.

    I admit I haven’t read it, yet.

    But, I worry that the concept of labeling any fiction “Women’s” pigeonholes it, and, worse, is disenfranchising male readers. I recently asked some male friends who among them had read Jane Austen. Out of the seven or eight men I asked, only two had read her work, and both absolutely loved it and raved about it. When I asked the others why they _hadn’t_ read her work, they shrugged and mumbled something about it “being for women”.

    There is no category in the LoC for “Men’s fiction”. “Men’s fiction” is the default. So, labeling a novel “Women’s fiction” makes it.. weird, to men. Different. Separate. Targeted at a specific market. Not for them. Well, not only does this hurt book sales, by telling half of readers that your book won’t interest them, but it also keeps men and women mentally and emotionally separate from each other, in some ways. Men don’t tend to read books about women, by women, and don’t get the unique journey into the “other” mind that you can only get from tagging along with a character in a novel.

    I don’t disagree with the desire to step forward and say, “I’m a woman. I’m a writer. My character’s a woman. She’s dealing with issues women deal with.” I guess I don’t disagree with an _author_ categorizing her (or his) work as “Women’s Fiction”. But it sort of irks me when the LoC does it.

    Does that make sense?

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  11. Pingback: Put On Your Fancy Hats! It’s Women’s Fiction Writers 1-Year Blogiversary Mega Book Giveaway! « women's fiction writers

  12. What a great post this is! I, too, write “women’s fiction,” and find myself getting all tongue-tied when somebody asks me what it is that I write. Because, as everyone here has commented, it feels belittling somehow–as though we ARE saying that half of the population won’t like it! Yet a man could write the very same story, with the very same characters and situations, and it would NEVER be considered trivial at all. Oh, well. I love these books, and I love the depth and humor and life in them! Keep up the good work.

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  13. Pingback: 2015 Women’s Fiction Reading Challenge | Books and Musings from Downunder

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