Once upon a time, circa 2005 to be exact, an agent suggested that the story I had written wanted to be women’s fiction. I had no real idea what ‘women’s fiction’ meant, and so I set out to learn—and ran into some significant silence. Few articles existed about women’s fiction and fewer were publicly labeled as women’s fiction. But I did find Marsha Moyer, and devoured her novel The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch. I also found Barbara Samuel (now Barbara O’Neal), who wrote many novels, some of which were considered women’s fiction, like The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue. I reached out to them—both were welcoming and generous—and asked questions. But for every answered question, new issues over this novel-to-me label emerged.
- ‘Women’s fiction’ was known almost exclusively by those within the industry but not outside of it.
- There was no organization dedicated to ‘women’s fiction’ writers/authors.
- There were no ‘women’s fiction’ shelves at the bookstore.
- Readers generally didn’t know what ‘women’s fiction’ meant. If you asked—and I did—they’d guess it meant (a) any book read by women, (b) a romance novel by another name, or (c) a book featuring a woman, in any genre.
How’s that for non-specific?
Adding to the confusion was this doozy:
- ‘Women’s fiction’ was sometimes used as an umbrella term covering a trinity of romance, ‘chick lit,’ and ‘women’s fiction’ itself.
But ‘women’s fiction’ also seemed distinct, with stories that detailed significant transformations in the lives of women. In fact, transformative personal change was central to women’s fiction; the stories themselves disintegrated without those arcs. That’s why I decided to rewrite my story as women’s fiction, because the vital arc detailed the emotional evolution of a woman. (That novel did sell, but funnily enough was listed as ‘suspense’ in the Random House catalog, which only serves to emphasize the ambiguity and lack of power the women’s fiction label held in 2009.)
Now, in 2019, there have been shifts in awareness about women’s fiction. While there are still no shelves labeled ‘women’s fiction’ in bookstores—you’ll usually find our books in the general fiction section—there are often appropriate digital tags found online. There are many more explainer articles about women’s fiction to be found via Google. There is an award-winning blog, Women’s Fiction Writers, by Amy Nathan, There is also an organization called Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA), which was founded in 2013 and has fast become a goldmine for writers seeking their tribe, pertinent education, and support for their books.
That group is pushing a new initiative, and that is to create a National day of recognition for this rising genre, to help propel awareness to the next level for readers and writers alike. It’s my pleasure to have with us today the co-founder of that organization, fellow author Orly Konig, to talk about women’s fiction—what it is, how it’s evolving, and what comes next.
Thanks for being with us, Orly! What is your impression of how the landscape for the women’s fiction genre has changed in recent years? Is change, if it’s occurring, slow and steady, or happening at a clip? What do you think is behind any change?
Thank you for having me! I think we’re always seeing shifts in the landscape of any genre based on what’s making the sales needle move. For women’s fiction specifically, what I’ve noticed is a maturing for the genre. As awareness has increased, so have expectations and, as a result, the quality of the published works.
Whatever change is happening, it’s not at a clip (does anything in publishing happen at a clip?).
(Good point!) An article published on the Australian Women Writers forum entitled “WTF is ‘women’s fiction’?” subtly suggests that we still have a ways to go within the writing community. Elsewhere, author Rebecca Vnuk wrote, “It’s not even really a genre; it’s a reading interest.” And a Reddit thread published just a year ago had a confused writer wondering if the label was simply a catch-all category. So, first: Do YOU see women’s fiction as its own distinct genre?
I do. I know there are a lot of writers who are anti-label, but for me it speaks more to the audience I’m writing for. That’s not to say men don’t read these books, but if you look at the statistics, buyers are predominantly women.
What has always appealed to me about the women’s fiction genre is that the stories touch on everyday life. The main characters could be our neighbors and friends, and they face the same issues many of us deal with. These stories make us think and feel and question our own decisions. I can only speak for myself, but I find myself gravitating toward books that fill a need at a specific time. Perhaps the somewhat unsettled state of the world at the moment is behind the uptick in books that force us to think about how we react to our place in the world.
What can be done to combat confusion over the women’s fiction label for writers?
The confusion comes from the “soft” definition that the industry has attached to the women’s fiction label. Ask ten industry professionals (agents and editors) how they define it and you’ll probably get eleven variations. Even authors don’t fully agree.
I think the work that WFWA is doing to raise awareness for the genre will, with continued effort, have an impact. Through continued outreach to agents and editors, the association is building relationships and opening the dialogue about what’s considered women’s fiction. The continued growth of the organization is also a sign that writers are searching for resources that are specific to what they write.
Another article entitled “The 17 Most Popular Genres In Fiction” did name women’s fiction, which came in at #15. Yet it is nowhere to be found on this accompanying genre chart. If you were able to play editor, where would you place women’s fiction?
The chart, interestingly enough, misses a number of genres that don’t fit within the five categories they chose, so I’m not surprised at all that women’s fiction is missing. If I could play editor to this chart, I’d include an orange category (because I like orange) that would include literary fiction, historical fiction, women’s fiction, magical realism, memoir, young adult, middle grade, picture books, graphic novels, and I’m sure others I can’t think of at the moment.
Has WFWA’s definition of women’s fiction changed at all since its inception? What is it?
WFWA defines women’s fiction as “layered stories in which the plot is driven by the main character’s emotional journey. The driving force of women’s fiction is the protagonist’s journey toward a more fulfilled self.”
The founding board spent a long (long) time agonizing over the definition and each year (at least once a year) we end up having another hefty discussion over the definition. Despite how heated those discussions have gotten, the definition hasn’t changed, although it has evolved to be more inclusive based on the books we’re seeing making a mark on the genre.
What complicates the definition is that women’s fiction isn’t a straight-forward genre. It can contain elements of romance, mystery, magical realism; it can be historical or contemporary.
Do you feel we’ve made any headway toward public awareness for the genre?
I have seen more readers begin to adopt the women’s fiction label, although it’s mainly in the various Facebook groups that bring readers and authors together. Many of those readers are very active as reviewers and on various social media platforms.
I still find myself having to explain it to people I meet though. It’s not a label they’re familiar with from bookstores. It is, however, a search option when looking for books via online vendors. However, until there’s more standardization in what’s labeled as women’s fiction, I suspect we’ll continue to see confusion by readers.
Tell us about Women’s Fiction Day. What is it, and why has WFWA decided to push this initiative?
Women’s Fiction Day celebrates the diverse authors, stories, and readers of this multi-faceted genre. As an organization, we want to uplift authors, promote literacy, and expand the appeal for stories that explore humanity.
Studies have shown that reading fiction makes us more empathetic as we connect with characters and experience new worlds. Women’s Fiction, whether it is contemporary, historic, romantic, or mystery to name a few types, tends to be multi-layered in settings, social issues, and internal struggles. This genre offers something for every reader’s taste.
The Women’s Fiction Day logo represents the joy of reading and the variety of stories and diversity in its authors and readers. We picked June 8th as our day as it ties into summer reading, longer days, and free time.
As a leading voice in the Women’s Fiction community, WFWA wants to expand the reach of these important stories and empower the voices of our authors. What better way than with a celebration of story?
What can we do to help secure Women’s Fiction Day for future authors and readers?
The more we promote the titles that fall under the women’s fiction umbrella as “women’s fiction,” the higher the awareness. The more momentum we can build, the easier it will be to embrace the label and spread the word.
Oh wow, that’s a tough one. I would love to see a more cohesive definition that we can all rally behind. The WFWA board is actively working on this and, though it’s a slow process, we’re seeing progress. A key goal for WFWA, one that is guiding many of our conversations, is to have industry professionals recognize women’s fiction as its own genre, especially in Publisher’s Marketplace. This is one of the objectives behind launching Women’s Fiction Day.
Genres are important to help the publishing industry slot and market books effectively, and for readers to find their interests. It would be great to see women’s fiction become a universally accepted label that makes finding our books easier.
Finally, our hope is that conversations around women’s fiction will become mainstream, so that authors, agents, editors, and readers will no longer have to explain the genre, but can rather talk about these great books.
I suspect that women’s fiction will continue to thrive as a genre. We’ll continue to see shifts in the tone of the books and the issues they address, but life and its complications will always be relevant.
Thank you, Orly! Readers, what does women’s fiction mean to you? Share your favorite books in comments. And please help us to spread the word about Women’s Fiction Day over social media (#womensfictionday).