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Find more Rebecca's Rules
It’s incredibly difficult to pin down exactly what women’s fiction is (or what it isn’t) because everyone seems to have a different take on it. It tends to be a catchall term used by readers and library staff to quickly identify a book—seemingly any book—containing female characters, or any book that might appeal to a female reader. But it’s more than that. It’s not even really a genre; it’s a reading interest.
As the author of reference works on women’s fiction (Read On . . . Women’s Fiction and Women’s Fiction Authors: A Research Guide, both 2009), I am often asked to define the field. My answer is always this: these are novels that explore the lives of female protagonists, focusing on all kinds of relationships, be it lovers, spouses, parents, children, friends, or members of a community. The common thread is that the central character is female, and the main thrust of the story is something happening in the life of that woman (as opposed to the overall theme being a romance or a mystery of some sort). Emotions and relationships are the common thread between books that belong in this category. A woman is the star of the story, and her emotional development drives the plot.
It’s time to take the ambiguity out of women’s fiction, and so I give you Rebecca’s Rules. (And, no, “Must have legs, feet, or shoes on the cover” is not one of them.) Of course, they are “rules” merely in a tongue-in-cheek way—for most casual readers, it makes no difference whether we call it a romance or we call it women’s fiction, they just want something good to read about women. Placing an author in one category or another is a much bigger deal to librarians than it is to most readers. That said, here are the rules.
The nebulous nature of women’s fiction means that there will always be arguments for calling one book women’s fiction, while a similar title is considered a romance or literary fiction, and so on. Kaite Mediatore Stover, Reader’s Services manager at Kansas City (MO) Public Library (and regular Booklist contributor), offers this quick tip on how to discern women’s fiction from general fiction: if at any point the main character could easily be swapped out for a male character without losing much, then it’s not women’s fiction—and there’s nothing wrong with a book just being general fiction.
Romance can be easy to spot—in romance, there is an expectation for a happily-ever-after ending, and that expectation doesn’t exist for women’s fiction. Another good way to look at it is that every single romance novel contains, well, a romance. There are many women’s fiction titles that do not have any romantic piece at all. A man may be waiting for the heroine of these novels at the end of her journey, but he does not usually get equal time or equal depth to his internal journey during the course of a book. In short, while women’s fiction often incorporates romantic elements, there is more to the story than the love interest or sexual relationship.
Literary fiction is a tougher call when the books center on female characters; however, overwhelmingly, the plots in literary fiction are not driven by the relationships of the women. When the reader spends more time admiring the author’s use of language than they do enjoying the story, then it’s literary fiction. My final call? If the book can be assigned in a college-level English class for a term paper, it’s probably not really women’s fiction.
The most polarizing question ends up being whether or not a women’s fiction author has to be a woman. My personal opinion is a resounding yes! Nicholas Sparks, Nicholas Evans, and Chris Bohjalian are often brought up as examples of men who write novels that could possibly be classified as women’s fiction. Nope. While some of their books (only some!) feature women protagonists, their stories identify much more with romance, gentle reads, or literary fiction, respectively (or just general fiction), than they do with women’s fiction. Their books don’t have that direct focus on what gets into a woman’s head about what’s going on in her life, and they don’t delve as deeply into her relationships and her emotions.
And that right there—books that get into a female character’s head and heart—is really the definition of women’s fiction.
Here are 10 authors that reader’s-advisory librarians should be familiar with in order to best serve their women’s fiction fans.
Adapted from Women’s Fiction: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests, by Rebecca Vnuk and Nanette Donohue, to be published fall 2013 by Libraries Unlimited.
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