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Friday Five-0: Wait...Do I Write Women's Fiction?

Who's afraid of women's fiction?

Dear Friday Five-0,

A writer friend of mine suggested that I frame my novel as "women's fiction" in my query to agents. But what, exactly, does "women's fiction" mean? How is it different from "chick lit"? I'm not sure my book is either one.

-- Anna

 

Dear Anna,

It pains me to have to answer this question. Because – let’s just get this out of the way – I hate the “women’s fiction” label. I will explain why in a moment.  But first: what exactly is women’s fiction?

Well, if the Internets are any judge, there is some debate over this. Of course, there are always debates when you’re trying to classify or label any kind of fictional work. Is it “literary” or “mainstream”? Is it a mystery novel, or a literary novel that happens to have a mystery as its plot? Is it a novel in stories or just a short story collection?

As best I can tell, Women’s Fiction refers to fiction that focuses on the relationships and emotional lives of women, and that is marketed to and read almost exclusively by women. The large majority of these books are also written by women, although there are some male authors of so-called women’s fiction (Nicholas Sparks comes to mind.)

Likewise, books that focus primarily on the relationships and emotional lives of men, whether written by men or women, are called Men’s Fiction.

Just kidding. They’re not. They’re called fiction. And they’re marketed to and read by both men and women.

Of course, one has to consider the fact that not all books centering on the relationships and emotional lives of women are considered “women’s fiction.” In fact, there are hundreds (thousands?) that aren’t. Think Olive Kitteridge. State of Wonder. Veronica. The Hours.

I suspect that some publishers would say that there’s a difference in literary merit between the above books and your average “women’s fiction” title. And this may well be true. But marketing—everything from the title and the cover to the blurbs on the jacket—can go a long way toward shaping perceptions, assumptions and reactions. Hence the reason Jonathan Franzen didn't want an Oprah's Book Club logo on the cover of The Corrections: he didn't want his book perceived as "women's fiction."

Bottom line, I find the whole category arbitrary at best, insulting at worst. Let’s face it; women buy the vast majority of fiction anyway. Is it really necessary to designate certain books as being specifically “for women”?

Now the definition of chick-lit is a bit clearer to me: books about young, usually single women and their adventures/foibles in work, romance, friendship, etc. But there are, no doubt, people who find the “chick lit” label just as prejudicial / annoying as I find “women’s fiction” to be.

But back to YOU, and your book. I think the best thing for you to do is craft a compelling query that showcases your writing, captures the spirit of your book and makes it sound like a must-read. It may not be a bad idea to list some authors or books (“women’s fiction” or not) whose readers you think might also enjoy your book.

And yes, some agents may see dollar signs if you describe your book as “women’s fiction.” But that won’t matter a bit if they don’t also love the way you describe the book itself. Conversely, if they love the way you describe the book, but you haven’t described it as women’s fiction, it won’t matter. They’ll ask to read it anyway.

And ultimately, it’s going to be up to your agent and the publishers to decide how they want to classify, package up and market your book. You may have little to no say over it.

Your job is to write a great book (which, presumably, you did), write a kickass query, and get it out there, sister.

Good luck.

Jane

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