Friday, April 4, 2014

Women’s Fiction, Book Club Fiction, Literary Fiction: Interchangeable Terms?

Since I am one of the many authors whose novels fall within all three categories, I’ve been known to use "women’s fiction," "book club fiction," and "literary fiction" interchangeably. I use "women’s fiction" when I’m around women who embrace the term, "book club fiction" when among men and women, and "literary fiction" when among academics or women I know to be especially sensitive to gender politics.

I don’t mean to misrepresent; I just want to give my book its best chance of being read.

So what do these terms mean, anyway?


Women’s fiction is a story that portrays the emotional journey of a woman. It is not necessarily written by a woman (Nicholas Sparks) nor read exclusively by women, although these implications bother many who choose not to use the term. It need not have any romantic elements, but if it does, the story will not resolve on the heroics of a man. The stories typically end on a note of hope as opposed to a happily ever after. For a lot more discussion on this follow Amy Sue Nathan’s blog, Women’s Fiction Writers blog. In each interview she posts, Amy asks the author what they think of this controversial term.

Book club fiction is sometimes used synonymously with women’s fiction, but there is a clear difference: the protagonist need not be a woman. A good book club read often tends toward the literary (The Life of Pi by Yann Martel), yet I’ve read popular chick lit titles that offer up great topics for discussion (Good in Bed by Jennifer Wiener).

Literary fiction is more of a stylistic term, and therefore open to interpretation. The protagonist could be a dog (The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein) or a cockroach. The story is usually more character-driven, and may even push toward the edge of plotlessness. Literary stories often embrace poetics (the rhythm and sound of words, among other things) to confer meaning; the way something is said contributes just as much as the story itself. Literary fiction makes a great book club read—I’ve attended some club meetings feeling only so-so about a book, but left with a much deeper appreciation of what the author had done, just because the story's depth allows other readers to pick up things I didn’t.

These terms are not necessarily a function of where your book will sit on the bookstore shelf. All of the above would be found in “literature.” The terms are more important when pitching to an agent, who will want to know right away if this is the type of story they represent.

In an attempt to follow the advice to state my genre right up front, I experimented for ten years trying to slot my work into the right category so that agents I pitched to would know what to do with it. Here is some of the feedback I received:
“Don’t call it women’s fiction. That term is outdated.” (Clearly not true, as the 300+ members of the new Women’s Fiction Writers Association will attest.)
"Book club fiction? You’re getting ahead of yourself—that’s an end marketing concern.”
“Don’t call it literary because then I’ll think, Oh yeah? Prove it. Just call it a novel. It’s my job to slot it.”
Just call it a novel? Really? So much for my ten years of effort…

The most accurate overlap term for many of these novels is “fiction that hits that sweet spot between literary quality and commercial plot and tension.” Yet such a description, while accurate, would eat up too many words in a query letter.

It would be great if we could just get away with saying we’re “Writing 21st Century Fiction,” as Donald Maass does in his book by that name. Maass says that such literary/commercial fiction:
“…is a forecast of where fiction is heading in the 21st century. It’s an approach to writing a novel that eschews both snobby pretense and genre dogma. It is personal, impassioned, and even downright quirky, yet through its rebellious refusal to please, it paradoxically achieves universal appeal.”

So, I’m sure I’ve cleared up that issue! Just know that if you write this type of book, you aren’t alone in your struggle to brand yourself as a writer. Tell us: how do you tell people what you write? If you can answer in one word, you will have us women's fiction/book club/literary/commercial/21st Century Fiction writers drooling with envy.

Later this month, watch for 7 tips for Writing Book Club Fiction.


Kathryn Craft
is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service, and the author of The Art of Falling, a novel by Sourcebooks. Her monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

30 comments :

  1. I was wondering about these terms. Thanks, Kathryn.

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    1. You're welcome, Elle. It took some serious research to figure this out—not really spelled out anywhere.

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  2. This has long been my dilemma so thanks for helping to clear up the muddle. I like, "fiction that bridges the divide between literary and commercial". I've always been afraid to call my fiction "literary". How dare I without an MFA to my name?

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  3. I know what you mean Yvonne! It's tough to self-identify your writing as "literary" when other writers think you are implying it is "better than." I have never once hoped to inspire that ages old genre/literary debate—I'm just looking for a way to describe what I write! There's got to be a better way for those of us out in no man's land...

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  4. I rather like the somewhat ambiguous term "mainstream." It covers a multitude of sins, so to speak, and eliminates the need to meet the specific criteria of various other genres. To me, categorizing a book with a genre designation, while perhaps helpful to some who may not want to venture outside their reading comfort zones, limits the author's potential to find a broader readership and develop future fans.

    This is a very thought-provoking post, Kathryn, and addresses a topic that at one time or another touches all of us who write.

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    1. Thanks Linda, I hear what you're saying. But what we are learning in this age of internet book glut is that sometimes it is the narrowing of one's audience that is just the thing to increase sales. To do so you need to find a term that says, "out of the gazillions of *mainstream* books out there, this book is for you!"

      Amazon surely believes it, look at how many categories and sub-categories they offer just to help readers find their way through the maze of offerings. Mine is listed under Literature & Fiction - Women's Fiction - Psychological (at present, I thought there was a "Contemporary Fiction" in there at one point).

      As proof I always hold up my son's hardcore band, Agitator, whose FB page has garnered 11,700+ likes since 2010. In contrast, my author page has almost 500. Millions who read commercial/literary fiction float titles at the top of best-seller lists for months on end, yet hardly anyone likes hardcore—it's totally an underground movement. But its fans are rabid for anything hardcore. 100% of a niche market can be much more lucrative than a small slice of a vaguely identified mainstream market. It's tricky!

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    2. I agree with everything you said—I guess I am just a bit put off by labels. It's interesting that traditional publishing had its "rules" that eliminated most wannabe authors from the coveted prize of acceptance and publication. Now self-pubbing has its rules that make marketing more challenging for those who march to a different drummer. It boils down to "play the game by the rules" or pay the consequences. Gotta think about this one...

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  5. Thanks, Kathryn! You explain these tricky topics so clearly.

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  6. In the end, you write what your agent (more importantly the marketing department of the publisher) tell you you write. Unless you self-publish, then you can call it whatever you want. It's no wonder the poor writers are confused when the professionals are equally at a loss. :)

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    1. Yes, Diana! One's writing needs to be explained quickly at so many levels: from writer to readers (say, at website and on social media), from writer to agent, from agent to publisher, from publisher to distributor, from bookseller (which might be self) to reader. I can call my writing 21st Century Fiction if I want to, but if people haven't read Maass's book, that will be meaningless. It has to be something reader's can latch onto, that they won't reject out-of-hand. Some love the term women's fiction, others revile it—you have to watch where you use it, or be prepared for a long defense!

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  7. I too struggle with the labels when pitching to agents. I've heard agents say just write a great book and don't worry about labels and then I've heard other agents scold the audience that they should know the category and say so in their query letters. What was the label you used for the Art of Falling that managed to attract your agent?

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    1. Ha! Good question, Tori. Going to look up my query... Okay, the only sentence that referenced genre was this, at the start of the last paragraph:

      "I'm seeking an agent who shares my enthusiasm for upmarket fiction driven by women's issues."

      Which introduces another term often used by agents when they are conveying the projects they like—"upmarket (women's) fiction" is another way of saying accessible literary, or commercial/literary. Oy.

      Interesting to note though that because Publisher's Marketplace lumps romance and women's fiction together, and gives the impression that most of what's in that segment is romance, my agent announced my first book under "Debut" and my second under "General/Other." Being in the wrong category disappoints everybody!

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  8. You break it down in such a great way! Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Tasha. I'm sure you've had to deal with these considerations yourself.

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  9. ' ... personal, impassioned, and even downright quirky, yet through its rebellious refusal to please, it paradoxically achieves universal appeal ...', yeah, that describes my stuff, Kathryn, but unfortunately more than one word.

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    1. Christopher, I fear if we guarantee our work has universal appeal, we'll be roundly ignored. ;)

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  10. What a great, timely post. I've never been bothered by the term "women's fiction." However, I've always HATED the term "chick lit." I think the latter is demeaning to women and am so happy I rarely hear it any more.

    My husband, on the other hand, doesn't like the term women's fiction and it surprised me when he pointed that out.

    The genre for my upcoming debut, THURSDAYS AT COCONUTS, is women's fiction with elements of romance and suspense. That's what I usually say but that's not as concise as I'd like.

    Now to read the other comments. Thanks for the discussion.

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    1. Thanks for contributing, Beth, and best of luck with your debut! I love the title. May you think of a concise, attractive way to "type" it—and then tell the rest of us!

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    2. Will do. Just as soon as I figure that out! And thank you, Kathryn.

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  11. I attended a conference a few years ago where a NY agent kept talking about upmarket women's fiction vs. high concept women's fiction. She brushed over it quickly, and when I asked her to clarify the terms, she literally rolled her eyes! I was in a big auditorium and could see this from halfway back. I asked my friend if she noticed and she did. Grrr. We need to know these definitions so we can correctly educate ourselves--and our readers.

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    1. Okay, that would really tick me off! You pay to go to a conference to learn all you can, for crying out loud. I take high concept fiction to be something so easily graspable that you can get a picture of it right away. The concept is usually stated in a cross between two other projects: Godzilla meets Bambi, for instance. Upmarket would be the harder-to-identify, literary-influenced project.

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  12. Nothing dangling about this statement: "So much for my ten years of effort…" I would write it like this: "So much for my ten years of effort!" ;)

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    1. Yet, it's still dangling in my mind, on and on, with an answer never found... But for you, Dani, I should have been more decisive. ;) I know how you hate the use of ellipses!

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  13. Kathryn, great post. This has been a struggle for me too. My books get pigeonholed as "western" but they are not the old style "shoot-em-up pulp fiction". They are historical, but not "scholarly," character-driven, but not "literary", have elements of romance but are not genre romance. So it is a dilemma. I like "a woman's story set in the west" but as for a one or two-word description, I usually just say "western historical" and then follow that with the explanation that they are based on my grandmother.

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    1. Heidi, I can see your problem, and empathize with it. For years agents and editors wrote off my novel as a "dance book"—I say "wrote off" because over time, dance books have not sold well. But once an agent and then an editor saw it as a woman's story set in the dance world, things started rolling. It really makes all the difference!

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  14. If people ask what I write, I say mysteries and romantic suspense. My book club chooses a lot of "literary" fiction, and I haven't liked very much of it at all. Genre fiction, or commercial fiction--I just want people to escape for a few hours when they read it. (And those of us who go to "commercial/genre fiction" conferences and take workshops on plotting and the like get told, "if you write ... insert pause and eye roll ... literary fiction, then don't worry about things like plot" and they point to a basically flat line which represents the plot. An excellent best-selling romance author friend tried a "women's fiction" book, which was shelved next to Seinbeck in the "fiction" department, and it hardly sold at all.

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    1. Haha Terry, I've encountered the eye roll many a time! That's why I'm not so sure "literary" is the way to go. I love the perfect combo of rich prose, thought-provoking content, and suspenseful plot. Why not try to grab all that literature has to offer?

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  15. So timely, Kathryn! For my debut novel Elevator Girl, the label I've decided to go with is "romantic comedy." I went with this one because it sounds fun and people generally associate nice, warm fuzzy feelings with romantic comedies that are films. Like, Beth, chick lit is a label that I thought cute in my 20s but cringe worthy in my 30s. I realized this week while working on book cover design that the struggle w/ categorizing my work is more about my integrity and wanting to be taken seriously as a writer. But, on the flip side, as a reader, I totally identify with, and use, labels to help me narrow down the choices. Otherwise, I'd never be able to pick!

    The book cover designer I'm working with came up with three concepts. The first was more feminine and fun, the second more neutral, and the third more masculine, but quirky. Initially, I favored the third cover because I thought it looked smart. But when I shared the samples with a few people, they all squealed and were delighted with the first, more feminine cover. I had a total attitude adjustment and realized that people like fun! I like fun! My book is funny! While I certainly have deeper social themes that I hope people will appreciate, having an eye catching book cover that delights people is probably going to get me more sales than a "smart" book cover. I believe that I can deliver on "funny" and hope that people will enjoy the smart side of the book. But, what happens when people are promised "smart" and they don't think I deliver?? Yikes!

    Bottom line: Know the buzz words that delight readers as well as those that delight agents/publishers and also know that the two may not be the same.

    P.S. I understand "high concept" to be something with literary value that is highly saleable, as defined by an instructor I had at a writing workshop.

    Good luck! :)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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