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 That term is outdated.”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.