What do Little Women and The Secret Life of Bees have in common? How about Pride and Prejudice and A Woman of Substance? Any guesses? If you answered they were all written by women, you’d be correct. But my question goes deeper than the gender of the authors. I’m asking about the core of each of the stories, their very hearts. If you responded that they all belong to the genre known as Women’s Fiction -- kudos to you, although the title of this article may have nudged you in the right direction.
What Is Women’s Fiction?
Women’s Fiction is classified as a genre all on its own. The main plot of a women’s fiction story is driven by the female lead’s emotional journey. If Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert came to your mind, pat yourself on the back. Ms. Gilbert’s book is a perfect example of what women’s fiction is.
The main character’s journey can include such life-affirming quests as:
- Career Changes
- Spiritual Growth
- Gender Awareness
- Familial Dynamics
For example, in Anna Quindlen’s compelling novel Black and Blue, domestic violence forms the core of the story. For as many different women there are in the world, there are as many different journeys.
Unfortunately for readers, the line that defines women’s fiction is blurring. Books that clearly belong in the genre of romance are marketed as women’s fiction as a way to attract more readers. This is like selling someone a loaf of white bread while claiming it’s focaccia. There are times when white bread tastes great, especially with peanut butter and jelly spread on the slices, but if you’re hungry for a hearty sandwich, nothing beats focaccia.
Women’s Fiction versus Romance
New York Times Bestselling Author Nora Roberts once said women's fiction novels center primarily on women's issues, unlike the romantic relationship-based books that she writes. Another way to state this is: in women’s fiction the woman is the star of the story, and her emotional development drives the plot. The main focus of a romance novel is the developing relationship between the main character and her love interest.
There are some additional key differences between the two genres. In romance, both leads share equal time in the narrative, whereas in women’s fiction the primary point of view is that of the heroine.
In romance novels, readers expect the two love interests to meet within the first pages of Chapter 1. Women’s fiction fans expect the first portion of the book to focus on the female lead’s conflict and goal. If there is a love interest in a women’s fiction story, he, or she, won’t show up until several chapters into the book.
A second major difference between romance and women’s fiction are the endings. Women’s fiction doesn’t always have a happily-ever-after ending. Women’s fiction endings, although they may not be happy, are realistic. Sometimes even sad or dark. After all, life is messy, and situations don’t always work out the way we want.
Don’t be fooled into thinking women’s fiction can’t possess a romantic story, though. Many women’s fiction authors weave romance into their stories, but you won’t find the heroine waiting for Mr. Right. Instead, she’ll rescue her horse ranch from the evil construction villain all on her own. The hero waits for the heroine at the end of her journey.
Do Men Write Women’s Fiction?
Many readers tend to think that only women write women’s fiction. Not true. Male authors are quite capable of expressing the emotions a woman faces as she struggles with life challenges. In The Baker's Secret: A Novel by Stephen P. Kiernan, we follow a young heroine named Emma. Steel Magnolias by Herbert Ross gives the reader a deep perspective into the souls of the female characters as they face the struggles associated with breast cancer.
I’ve talked with many female authors who insist men shouldn’t write women’s fiction, and this saddens me. The literary world would be missing out if we didn’t have Nicholas Evans’ book The Horse Whisperer or Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry. Think about the loss to readers if they didn’t have the opportunity to enter the pages of Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.
I’m often asked if Nicholas Sparks writes women’s fiction. The answer is a resounding… not really. Mr. Sparks’ female characters do face real-life challenges. And they experience emotional growth. But, no, he doesn’t write women’s fiction. Nor does he write romance. He’ll be the first to tell you he writes love stories, which is a topic for another article: What on earth is the difference between romance and love stories?
The Birth of Women’s Fiction
Women’s fiction isn’t new. The genre emerged in the publishing world back in the Victorian era. Back when women were finding their voices. These were the social reformers and suffragists; students and professional women—women who wanted more than the limited lives the male-dominated environment allowed. Collectively, these women were referred to as New Women. It was through their yearning for independence that a new type of fiction emerged. New Women Fiction. Novels by women, about women, for women.
These novels featured heroines who fought against the social norms. Their stories challenged the Victorian male perception of women needing protecting. The books offered fresh ideas about gender and marriage. They argued that a woman’s place was not confined to the home. One such pioneer was author Olive Schreiner. Her books forged a new path for female authors. Her words encouraged them to write about taboo topics such as sex. She challenged other authors to tell stories about abuse, domination, and self-growth. The women’s fiction we know today was born out of their desire for freedom.
I highly recommend Ms. Schreiner’s book, Dream Life and Real Life. Your soul will be transformed.
Women’s Fiction: Recommended Novels
If you’ve never read women’s fiction, you’re in for a treat. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Olive Schreiner – From Man to Man
- Anna Quindlen – Blessings
- Liane Moriarty – What Alice Forgot
- Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway
- Alice Walker – The Color Purple
- Sue Monk Kidd – The Secret Life of Bees
- Amy Tan – The Joy Luck Club
- Arthur Golden – Memoirs of a Geisha
- Octavia E. Butler – Kindred
Enter the pages of a women’s fiction novel; you won’t be disappointed. Happy reading!