In Reluctant Defense of Women’s Fiction

Eight years ago, Carlene Cross advised writers to read one hundred books in the genre in which they wanted to write. I read one hundred memoirs, posted them on this blog, and five long years later Plicata Press published my award-winning memoir, A Long Way from Paris.

Writing a memoir is hard, excruciating at times, so I wanted to follow it with a “light” book. Perhaps a light mystery? When I finished my draft, however, my editor told me I had written women’s fiction.

“Women’s fiction?” Arrggh! I balked. Why not plain FICTION, rather than women’s fiction? There’s no corresponding “men’s fiction,” right? Of course, most fiction is men’s fiction. Or, certainly used to be. I honestly don’t have the stats.

I began a year-long investigation into “women’s fiction”- which I’ll refer to as “WF.” After my study, I concluded:

  • The label women’s fiction (WF) is an umbrella as broad as “creative non-fiction.” That is, so large it’s nearly meaningless. Traditionally, perhaps, women’s fiction meant fiction for, about, and by women. Its reputation, its branding, however, identifies most often with romance –superficial and light; about love, marriage, family or lack thereof. A mighty commercially profitable genre, by the way. Other WF delves into the loss of relationships and can be utterly depressing. I’m sorry, Jodi Picoult, you write extremely well, but sometimes I can’t stand to be any more miserable.
  • What could WF be? A satisfactory definition for me would include men’s works, novels and plays, about women and the issues they face. Have you read The Doll’s House or Hedda Gabler recently? Brilliant works by men about women feeling confined, women desiring independence, women wanting more than convention offers. I would absolutely include them in WF.
  • What should WF be? Do we need a genre, WF? Tell me the last time you saw Saul Bellow or Philip Roth write about menopause, or menstruation, or any other purely female issue. Yes, we do need the genre, and I’d love to see its image changed. How often do men walk away from the women’s fiction section of a bookstore? The truth is, WF runs the range from commercially romantic to intensely literate. It runs the gamut from George Elliott and Gertrude Stein to Joyce Carol Oates and Nora Roberts.

I studied this illusive “women’s fiction” genre to help clarify my own intention with my next books. In addition to the plays mentioned above, I resonated with the fiction of  Attica Locke, Joyce Carol Oates, Maria Semple and Anne Tyler. Blonde and An Accidental Tourist stuck to me like fly paper through 2017.

I also loved Lianne Moriarty’s books before Big, Little Lies became a smash hit because she writes in the new “up-market” category, stories which humorously touch on love, work, families, and affairs, but which then veer off into deeper issues once you’re hooked: spousal abuse, pre-natal depression, rape, class prejudice, and so forth. Add to my list, the jackpot. I recently reread Pride and Prejudice for the third time. Jane Austin gives WF prestige and satisfaction, with thoughtfully written books, funny, and profound. Yay, to all those Jane Austin fans who recognized this long before I.

In my search for the book I want to write, I decided upon a mash up of Joyce, Moriarty, Locke, and Tyler with a bit of Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca) thrown in. For four years, I’ve struggled to write the book that works for me –and then, hopefully, my readers. Finally, I am closer to a solution: I want to write a book that holds a mixture of fun and insight into women’s issues which, I believe, are the characteristics that helped make my memoir, A Long Way from Paris, become a success. So, readers, hold on to your seat. In a year of three, this light-hearted, thoughtful novel may appear on your favorite bookstore’s shelves.


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