At a conference a few years ago, an agent described women’s fiction as the only market seeing significant growth. Great, I thought, that’s what I’m writing! Tons of readers are out there waiting to read my work!
Since then, I’ve learned women’s fiction is a complicated classification. Yes, there’s a lot of reader demand. Yes, publishing industry professionals use the term all over the place. But do readers search for women’s fiction by name, online or in bookstores? And what is women’s fiction, exactly?
As it turns out, not everyone agrees women’s fiction should even exist as a label. But you’ll still hear it in the publishing world, and if you think you might be writing it, you should know what it means.
Read on for answers to a few questions you might have about women’s fiction.
Is women’s fiction just another name for chick lit or romance?
No. As a genre, romance has a very specific plot formula. Romance readers know exactly what to expect when they open a new book.
Not necessarily so with women’s fiction. It can be (but isn’t always) a bit more literary than romance or chick lit. And while many women’s fiction stories have a love interest, not all do. Where a romance plotline exists, it may or may not be central to the plot. Check out Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale for a great example of this. Women’s fiction also deals with established long-term relationships, not just steamy new loves.
Does a book have to be written by or about a woman to be considered women’s fiction?
No. Unsurprisingly, a lot of women’s fiction features female characters. A lot of the authors are women. However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Nicholas Sparks’ Two by Two is considered women’s fiction despite the male author and male protagonist.
So…what makes a book women’s fiction?
The Women’s Fiction Writers Association defines women’s fiction as a multi-layered story with a plot defined by the main character’s emotional journey. Mostly, it’s an industry shorthand used to describe character-driven novels with a target audience of women over 30. This could also be called book club fiction, a term I prefer over women’s fiction for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.
Why do some women want us to stop using the term “women’s fiction?”
Many women find the whole idea of women’s fiction sexist and limiting. After all, there’s no such thing as “men’s fiction.” Male authors’ work gets classified by its content alone, not by the biological characteristics of its author.
Likewise, calling a book “women’s fiction” implies that stories about women’s life experiences shouldn’t interest everyone. That ruminations on marriage and parenthood are a categorically feminine affair. This gender binary also excludes gender-nonconforming readers and writers. While many people appreciate the voice women’s fiction gives to its authors and audience, others think it does more harm than good.
As an author of women’s fiction myself, I want everyone — not just women — to appreciate my books. If a book’s category label discourages a reader from finding a book they would otherwise love, that hurts everyone.
Women’s fiction actually seems to describe a character-driven, complex, emotionally satisfying book — the kind that inspires rich discussion at book club meetings. And while book clubs are stereotypically female-dominated, they aren’t devoid of men. A term like book club fiction might better describe the true target audience and appeal of these books.
Should I call my work women’s fiction?
You’ll need to decide for yourself whether or not you want to use women’s fiction to describe your work. On one hand, it’s a popular industry term. Career-wise, it might benefit you to capitalize on that. And I can personally attest to the support and positivity writers can find in the women’s fiction community. There are a lot of women supporting and lifting up other women, which I think we can all agree is for the best.
However, you may decide you don’t want to pigeonhole yourself or your work by labeling it women’s fiction. You can still get your work out there, if not with book club fiction, then with the labels we’ve used forever: contemporary, historical, and literary, to name a few. What matters is that the label you use for your work describes it accurately and feels right to you.