What is Women’s Fiction?

For my next novel, I’m crossing over from romance to women’s fiction. Although writing romance has been a fun challenge, romance is all about the two. Just like when you’re newly in love, you can’t see or think about anyone but your love. My story drafts have all sorts of point-of-view, many types of relationships, including love stories. Always more than one. Now I won’t have to cut away until the two are left alone on the page.

People ask what the difference is between women’s fiction, chick lit, and romance. For a definition of romance, see above. Now, chick lit and women’s fiction. Those labels are harder to define. It used to be “chick lit is funny and women’s fiction is serious.” or “chick lit is singletons on the town and women’s fiction is settled and sad.” That’s just not accurate. These labels are marketing devices. Chick lit comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. It’s not all white wine and new shoes. Women’s fiction is not all drama and divorce.

We have these labels because marketing people like to know where to slot books to optimize purchases. “Okay, if the heroine is single and in her 20s or 30s, loves to shop, and isn’t ready to settle down, let’s call that chick lit. We’ll do the covers in fun colors with sexy half body shots. That way young single women can buy the books that reflect their lives and experiences.”

When I was in my 20s and 30s I was in college reading the classics, not chick lit. (I’m old, so the label had not been invented yet.) In my 40s, married with children and settled, I became senior chick lit reviewer for the trade magazine RT Book Club. I loved chick lit then, and I love it still. The variety of “chick lit” stories I read, from one about a homeless DJ to another about a newly-divorced and pregnant forty-something, convinced me chick lit was simply fiction for people, probably women, since we buy most of the fiction out there, who like to read novels.

Ditto for women’s fiction. These stories are not all female life or death medical dramas or how to go on after a husband’s betrayal. They don’t always include knitting. Women’s fiction can be funny and chick lit can be serious. Each is often both, all in one story. Many women take exception to the term “women’s fiction” and I don’t blame them. There is no equivalent “men’s fiction” so it’s just another way to put women in their place, behind the male writers.

Truth is, men write romance. They just kill the heroine at the end and everyone says how sensitive and romantic these authors are. Men write “women’s” fiction too. If it’s not sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, or mystery, marketing just calls it “contemporary fiction.” That’s what I write. Contemporary fiction. Suitable for both sexes. And if my publisher wants to call it women’s fiction, I am happy to let them do so, since, as I said, most novel readers are women.

5 Comments on “What is Women’s Fiction?

  1. Hi Cynthia
    What a good post. It’s so frustrating sometimes dealing with labels which someone else has made up. I have written romance which is not (IMO) chicklit and contemporary fiction which I think is suitable for either sex. Here’s to contemporary fiction.!
    Ali B

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  2. One might say Amy Tan writes women’s fiction, because most of her stories deal with mother-daughter relationships. But I read them, because I find her characters’ struggle with their Asian identity particularly fascinating. I suppose Jane Austen’s novels could be considered chick lit, if we disregard her witty prose and period settings. After all, they essentially revolve around rich boys meeting country girls. But that would minimize her books, because they also deal with class structure, social pressure, and the difficult negotiation between the reckless heart and the rational head.

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    • Kenneth, you’re right. There’s another tier, literary fiction, and I’d put Tan there, even though she is also “popular” because literary fiction has a very small piece of the reader pie. Few literary writers are also popular. And many writers who would be classified as literary get the genre label even though their work transcends all labels.

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