Women’s Fiction: Genre, Not Gender
As president of the Women’s Fiction chapter of the Romance Writers of America, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what the term women’s fiction means, both to me personally and within the industry—and just as importantly, what it doesn’t mean.
An article in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago perpetuated the ongoing misconception about women’s fiction. Author Yael Goldstein Love was dismayed that some readers at her literary website were complaining that the women’s fiction category had been removed during a redesign. If women’s fiction has its own category, she argued, it suggests that other books are not for women—“that literature is male by default.”
I understand the confusion that the name engenders. However, women’s fiction no more refers to fiction by, for, and about women than science fiction refers to fiction by, for, and about scientists.
Women’s fiction is a genre, also called book club fiction. The novels tend to follow the feminine journey structure rather than Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. But a protagonist doesn’t have to be female to follow a feminine journey, just as a protagonist doesn’t have to be male to follow a hero’s journey.
In short, women’s fiction is a type of story. It’s about community rather than a lone individual making her way in the world. It’s the opposite of The Old Man and the Sea and most everything else Ernest Hemingway wrote.
Women’s fiction portrays a perspective of the world rooted in the values of home and hearth rather than the exigencies of conflict. And yes, to some degree, that means it’s drawn from feminine values rather than masculine ones. For instance, in an article on my website, I summarize some of the differences in perspective reflected in how men and women communicate:
How Men Communicate
According to marriage counselor Lesli Doares, male communication focuses on problem-solving, jockeying for position, and creating boundaries to establish independence. Testosterone makes men sensitive to angry faces. Anger gives men energy: it increases competition and calls them to action. But this sensitivity to anger also teaches men to resist showing emotion. They tend to avoid eye contact, because it can be seen as threatening. As a result, they may misinterpret signs of distress—such as frustration, confusion, or worry—as anger. Moreover, men’s ability to empathize with others is diminished when they’re agitated. Under stress, they often pull away.
How Women Communicate
Women, by contrast, communicate to make connections, build consensus, and minimize differences. Oxytocin leads them to focus on bonding activities. They chat to look for common ground and to establish a sense of community. Women are good at reading subtle emotions. They find competition and conflict to be threatening. They tend to soften directive statements by phrasing them in the form of a question—“Can you take out the trash?”—even though they expect compliance. Under stress, their ability to empathize deepens.
Women’s fiction aligns with this feminine communication style and the goals it seeks to achieve: better marriages, happier children, stronger families, and healthier communities.
Comedian Mark Gungor offers a humorous take on the difference between men’s brains and women’s brains in this video.
Because it reflects a more feminine perspective, the genre tends to focus on relationships rather than identity, cooperation rather than competition, connectedness rather than disconnectedness, and belonging rather than alienation.
However, I’m no apologist for the term women’s fiction. I hate the idea that the name might suggest that the novels I write aren’t intended for men. I also don’t agree that the protagonist has to be female for the novel to be women’s fiction (although I seem to be in the minority). Devan Sipher’s romantic comedy The Wedding Beat and even Alex Kidwell’s gay romance After the End are essentially women’s fiction stories told in a male voice.
For all the reasons that Yael Goldstein Love outlined in her article, maybe it’s time for the term women’s fiction to die a hard death the way chick lit did a few years ago. No one would be happier to see the label change to book club fiction than me. But please don’t blame the genre because you don’t like the name. It contains gorgeous, heartfelt stories that range from literary to commercial, from comedy to tragedy, from classic to present day. Stories that deserve a place on your bookshelf.