Under The Big Umbrella (of women’s fiction)

I’m thrilled to introduce Jael McHenry, author of The Kitchen Daughter (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster, April 12, 2011). Did you see that? Her book launched two days ago! Isn’t it a gorgeous cover? I digress. I first met Jael on Backspace.  She’s not only a talented writer but a generous one.  It’s great to welcome Jael as the first women’s fiction author guest blogger on WFW.

Under The Big Umbrella of Women’s Fiction

By Jael McHenry

As Amy put it succinctly in the very first post on this blog, “There is no harder genre to define than women’s fiction.” I’m a longtime women’s fiction writer and I absolutely believe that this is true.

I also believe it’s awesome.

Genre is a weird thing. For some people, it’s a useful shorthand (“I write category romance.”) For others, it’s a ginormous pain in the you-know-what. (“My book has thriller elements and romance elements and paranormal elements! What IS it??”) When you’re in the querying stage, genre feels like one of the most important things about your book, but as a reader, you probably make your buying and/or reading decisions based on everything BUT genre. Other than the classic commercial classifications of romance, science fiction, fantasy, thriller, and mystery, nearly everything else out there could be placed in different categories depending on the person who’s doing the placing. People will disagree on the definitions of “literary” and “commercial” and “upmarket” and a thousand other words that we could use to describe our work.

But “women’s fiction” is a broad umbrella, and personally, I find it a really comfortable umbrella to park myself under.

Because genre, to me, is about expectations. Let’s look at romance, for example. In classic category romance, your hero and heroine get together at the end. Period. It’s what romance readers expect. If you wrote a “romance” in which the heroine was struck dead by lightning so the hero married her sister instead, and you submitted that book to Harlequin, I’m guessing you wouldn’t get a positive result. Similarly, in a mystery book the reader expects that the mystery will be solved. There are expectations and conventions, and rules to follow.

In women’s fiction, what’s the expectation? There really isn’t one, and it’s exactly because the term fits so many different books. Women’s fiction can make you laugh or cry or gasp in disbelief or smile in recognition. As a reader, that’s an experience I crave—I love the idea that whatever book I hold in my hands will take me somewhere unanticipated. As a writer, I want the widest possible audience for my books, and I think there are a boatload of people who would call The Kitchen Daughter “literary”, and just as many who would call it “commercial.” I want them to pick it up because they like the concept or the cover, and to not know exactly where the story will take them.

And if I were a not-yet-published writer querying agents for representation, I’d be thrilled to call my book women’s fiction, because the benefit is the same. It’s a genre without conventions, without expectations. That’s not to say that you won’t get responses from agents who will say your work is either too literary or too commercial for them, but they’re likely to say that after they’ve read the work in question, not before. And that’s not to say it doesn’t raise my hackles that there’s no “men’s fiction,” but I think the practical positive far outweighs the philosophical negative.

It allows your work to speak for itself. And isn’t that what we’re all after?

Jael McHenry is the author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster, 2011), and is also a talented and enthusiastic amateur cook who blogs about food and cooking at the SIMMER blog, http://simmerblog.com. She is a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed, a member of Backspace, and a monthly pop culture columnist at Intrepid Media. Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. Learn more about Jael’s work at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry. She lives in New York City.


15 thoughts on “Under The Big Umbrella (of women’s fiction)

  1. I love this positive outlook on women’s fiction and the breadth/depth it offers us as women’s fiction writers. I personally can’t wait to read Jael’s book.I also like not having to fit into a predefined mold (so maybe that’s why I always gravitated toward women’s fiction in the first place … does that say something about my personality? Hmmm). Jael made a good point about her book offering a hook for loads of differnet types of readers.


  2. I love the idea of fitting under a big umbrella with all kinds of women’s fiction writers — shoulder to shoulder — some of our ideas and methods and stories overlapping a little bit, some as different as can be. But sharing that space under a broad stroke means that we appreciate both the similarities and the differences.

    What I love about women’s fiction is my ability to relate to the characters. In the case of Ginny in THE KITCHEN DAUGHTER (and I’m not finished reading it yet), she lives in Philadelphia, where I grew up. So the setting is familiar in a very real sense. She is also a loving cook – and I fancy myself one as well. Not everyone falls in loves with onions and it’s nice to read a character who loses herself (and finds herself) within the art and act of cooking. As for the Asperger’s — I’m not on the autism spectrum — but I’ve been known to have my own rituals for comfort, so I can relate.

    Oh, I know, this is a comment, not a book review.

    But those are the types of things I love about women’s fiction of all kinds.


  3. This is a great article. I read your other post over at Writer Unboxed and hope your release is going great! I’ve added it to my TBR list. I agree that calling it women’s Fiction is okay. In the end it is the story that will speak for itself.


  4. Great post and sooo needed. I, too, write women’s fiction and I loved what you wrote about being comfortable under that umbrella of women’s fiction. Art imitating life – writing what’s real – not always an HEA – RIGHT ON!


  5. Great discussion on a great topic. Especially as genres blend (and it seems an increasing trend) it is harder and harder to categorize novels. As a reader, for one, I am frustrated when trying to find thrillers. Some are apparently considered “romantic suspense” and as such are shelved in the romance section. In other stores the same author is shelved in mystery. And sometimes the authors are in fiction, rather than either of the other two places. Even if the indicator on the spine says something else.

    And why is there no “men’s fiction”? Probably because they lag so far behind women in reading!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  6. I like that you say there is no “expectation” for women’s fiction, because novels under this genre really can take you anywhere. I don’t know when exactly I decided to label my book women’s fiction — because at first I thought it just commercial or mainstream — but once I learned women’s fiction wasn’t tied down to a set of rules (say, like it is with mystery and romance), I knew that’s what my novel was.

    Great post! And good luck with your new release, Jael!


  7. I’ve often wondered what was under the umbrella of women’s fiction because so many different kinds of books are given that label. You cleared up my confusion by explaining that it is a broad term. Thanks!


  8. I just discovered this blog and I’m so glad I did. Great guest post Jael. I look forward to reading your new book. I’m thrilled to find a community of fellow (does that apply here?) women’s fiction writers and readers. It’s great to read about and discuss all those issues that are so close to home, with others that understand and care. It’s a great place for those that don’t fit in to feel like they belong- like me!


  9. I love the positive outlook of this post, and I think it’s great that there’s a feeling of inclusion, for many women’s authors, that comes with the “Women’s Fiction” label.

    But I’m still a little confused as to why some novels (those that aren’t clearly fantasy / romance / mystery etc.) are considered women’s fiction and others aren’t. What are the general criteria?

    Mostly female characters? A domestic setting? A focus on relationships?

    Somebody enlighten me! 🙂


  10. Great job of capturing how open-ended women’s fiction can be. Your own book is a great example – it’s such a unique story, but so emotionally compelling. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into the intellect and attitude from which such a wonderful story emerged.


  11. Pingback: Why I Want My Women’s Fiction Published By A Traditional Publisher « women's fiction writers

  12. Pingback: The Kitchen Daughter Author, Jael McHenry, Talks About Books, Babies, and Balancing It All To The Best Of Our Abilities « women's fiction writers

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