Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What is Women's Fiction?

As the daffodils and fruit trees are in full bloom, I realize our year in England is going faster than expected. It really takes six months to get settled in a new location, especially abroad. Last time we relocated to England for only half a year, and it felt like we left prematurely after too much work settling in and not enough payback. We were thrilled to get an opportunity to return for my husband’s sabbatical from Bowdoin College. Henry’s English; I’m American, and our children are dual citizens. We are both writers.

In Oxford Henry and I are gathering material and writing books. His book is on the politics of public television in the US, UK and Japan. My books are women’s fiction and set in the USA and England. The time here is for research. Free from the many distractions at home, we can focus on our writing. It has been very productive and fun time too.

My books might appeal to readers of all ages and genders, but marketing categories exist in publishing. Women writing for mostly female audiences about relationships and contemporary issues are pigeon-holed as “women’s fiction,” not to be confused with romance novels or its younger, urban sister chick lit. The central plot in romance is always love between a man and a woman, usually with a happy ending.

In women's fiction, key relationships include friends and family as well as lovers. Career is important too. Chick lit, a sub-category of women's fiction, tends to be set in London or NYC and features single women in their 20's and 30's with close friends looking for love, shopping and job satisfaction. Women's fiction can span all ages in various settings and may tackle substantive issues. The protagonist is a strong woman making realistic trade-offs in the modern world. Most of the editors and agents are female too. Is the term women’s fiction offensive, such as “lady doctor,” or does it celebrate the female voice?

In my so called genre of women’s fiction, I’ve enjoyed reading Michelle Wildgen’s You’re Not You. It’s a story about a young woman caring for a charming middle aged woman in a wheelchair. It explores attitudes towards the disabled including sexuality. Nothing is taboo, and the honest perspective is refreshing. Wildgen writes incredibly well even if the opening is a bit off-putting. Keep going; it’s well worth it. You’re Not You is a literary gem.

I’m juggling writing 3 women’s fiction novels: MOOSE CROSSING is looking for a publisher, S.A.D. is in revision and NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE) is gathering material. Having more than one project going on at a time means I don’t get stuck with down time. While editors and my agent are reading manuscripts, I can work on the next project. Despite recent growth in women's fiction, there are no sure bets in publishing except for Jodi Picoult. Serious writers know to keep writing. The process is hurry up and wait: writing, revising and then waiting for feedback.

Writing takes a certain personality. You have to be creative, but it’s just as important to be self-motivated, disciplined, comfortable working alone and able to set and meet personal deadlines or you’ll never finish. Given how hard it is to break into publishing, a writer has to be good at taking criticism and rejection and be willing to learn from it.

A novelist also needs to get out there and live life to have experiences worth sharing. Friendships with other writers help break the solitude, ease the stress and celebrate the benchmarks like completing a manuscript and finding an agent. You have to find your colleagues.

I’ve joined an informal writing group organized by the women’s fiction author Miranda Glover. That’s been a big plus as I’ve missed my writer friends back in Maine: Charlotte Agell, Maria Padian and Cynthia Lord. Just as I’ve learned about American publishing from those seasoned authors, I've gained insights into the world of English publishing from my new writing group. It’s a smaller market than in the USA and less dependent on agents although they still play an important role.

I’m also learning about contemporary English fiction by reading. David Mitchell showcases his breadth in the dizzying Cloud Atlas. Every well crafted story is interlocking. The collection spans the full gamut of genre writing from historical fiction, to suspense thriller, to science fiction. It's almost a parody of shifting voice and form including: a journal, letters, a manuscript, a screenplay, a deposition and an almost unintelligible myth. Cloud Atlas was short listed for the Booker Prize. It should have won.

My husband, our teenaged son and I loved Mitchell's Black Swan Green which is literary fiction/young adult crossover, but he is hard to categorize. It seems like few have heard of Mitchell in England even though his work is so English and current. His novels got more of a buzz in the USA. The protagonists of 2 of his Cloud Atlas stories are strong women, but his work would never be labeled women’s fiction. How come when a man writes a novel, it's just called fiction?

Primroses in January from the land of eternal spring.

Here’s a male author/blogger’s perspective on gender issues in publishing: C.W. Gortner’s "Gender wars in books?"

On Politics: I’ve been following the neck-and-neck American primaries with fascination and the electoral problems in Kenya with concern. Here’s a provocative NYT op-ed that linked the two:
“Tribalism Here, and There”


Anonymous said...

Thanks it was good food for thought.

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

I agree with the above poster; this was very informative. As a debut author, reading your perspective as a seasoned writer is very interesting to me. Thanks!
Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse

Curmudgeon said...

Thank you for stopping by our blog and leaving a message. While visiting yours this post in particular caught my attention. Much food for thought here. And I'm eager to read Your're Not You as I'm keenly interested in representations of the disabled in fiction.

Sarah Laurence said...

I too am interested in the disabled in fiction. I'm working on such a character in my third novel, NOT CRICKET. I've just signed up to hear a panel on "Disability in the Arts" at the Oxford Literary Festival and will blog about it in April.

A Maine neighbor, Cynthia Lord, wrote a fabulous children's chapter book (fiction) about autism while raising her autistic son. RULES won 2 awards. I reviewed it here: Author Cynthia Lord

Charlotte said...

Daffodils, cherry blossoms? I am insanely jealous...we have so much snow that while walking down Boody St. here in Brunswick, Maine, I had seasamnesia, my new word for confusing the seasons. The waist high snow banks and someone's left-up (and lighted!) Xmas decorations had me wondering which month I was in...had Valentine's Day happened? I wasn't sure.
Speaking of new words, I like shibboleth. In Sweden in the war, they made passwords using the vowel "u" a difficult one to get right.

Sarah Laurence said...

Thanks, Charlotte, I am no longer homesick. Don’t feel too jealous. Easter weekend brought our first hail and snow storms. The flowers might not survive the shock. Seasamnesia – I like that!

Bee said...

I'm so glad for the chance to be redirected to this post! Lots of good stuff -- and I MUST read Cloud Atlas!

(But why didn't you share the funny, if pejorative, "hen" lit term with us?)

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, women’s fiction is the official marketing label in publishing. Still, people have fun breaking it down to: chick lit, mommy lit (full diaper by page 4?) or yummy mummy (that would be a full nappy) and hen lit (the over 30 crowd of mature chicks.) And the male equivalent: lad lit or dick lit. Granny lit must be around the corner!