Thursday, July 26, 2007

Defining Women's Fiction

This post is prompted by agent Jonathan Lyons' blog for yesterday.

Jonathan has begun a weekly feature he calls "Word of the Week," in which he defines a publishing term. It's a great idea, and I look forward to it.

Today he tackled "women's fiction," and he did a much better job than Wikipedia, which has this lame definition: Women's fiction is a wide-ranging genre that includes various types of novels one expects would appeal more to women than men. (Note that this stereotype doesn't always hold true. There are exceptions to the rule.) It is an umbrella term that covers mainstream novels, romantic fiction, Chick lit and other subgenres.

Gosh. That's like saying the definition of a woman is anyone who isn't a man. It's useless.

Jonathan's definition was much more specific:

My own opinion is that [women's fiction] can be written by either a man or a woman. It needs to have a female protagonist. A relationship has to be one of the central themes (this could be a romance, mother-daughter, friends, sisters, etc.).

I completely agree that the essence of women's fiction is that it about relationship--and not necessarily a romance.

When I think of women's fiction, I think of Jodi Picoult. I've posted about her before. My first post was almost exactly a year ago here.

At its core, Jodi's work is always about relationship. She doesn't always hit a homerun, but when she does, she knocks the ball out of the park.

What's makes her work different from Jonathan's definition is that her protagonist is not always a woman. Increasingly, she uses multiple POVs--sometimes as many as five or six of both sexes. However, she's done at least two books I can think of that had a male protagonist.

In The Tenth Circle, Picoult's protagonist is Daniel Stone, a comic book artist, whose fourteen-year-old daughter is date raped. In Salem Falls, Jack St. Bride is a dedicated teacher whose life was shattered by a false accusation of sexual abuse by one of his students.

Jonathan's blog made me think. Are those two books just exceptions to a rule, or is women's fiction evolving?

I want to digress for a second to say I have had a terrible time convincing the men in my life to try reading Jodi's books. The only guy I have been able to browbeat . . . I mean, convince . . . is my youngest brother, the other writer in the family. He's a sports columnist who travels frequently, spending a lot of time on planes reading. He absolutely refused to travel with a bunch of sports jocks carrying a book of women's fiction. It took me years to get him to read a Picoult novel. Now he reads them regularly--although I don't know if he reads them on planes :)

In June, 2006, the Wall Street Journal had an article speculating on the changes in women's reading tastes. Columnist Jeffrey Trachtenberg (I really do like that man) talked about Lee Child's Jack Reacher series.

For those of you not familiar with Jack Reacher, he's a modern day Shane, the loner who rides into a troubled situation, utilizes his special skills to bring about resolution and leaves. Jack Reacher has replaced the spot in my heart once held by Robert Parker's Spenser. The series reminds me of Westerns in other ways, too. The stories are very much white hat/black hat, and rife with sudden violence.

Trachtenberg said: "despite his brutish ways, Reacher is doing something surprising: winning the hearts of many women readers. Of the 20,000 fans world-wide that have joined the Reacher Creatures fan club, an estimated 65% are female."

And the Child books are all from Reacher's POV.

I'm wondering if the walls of what constitutes women's fiction are more permeable than they once were? Are women's tastes changing? Becoming more expansive? What do you think?

Jonathan's blog is here. Be sure to check it out.


Book Cannibal said...

I'm so glad you said this, about women's fiction not needing a female protagonist. I read Tom Perrota's LITTLE CHILDREN when it came out, and despite the male protag, it felt like women's fiction to me, because it dealt with what is considered "domestic" issues.

Maya Reynolds said...

Cameron: I agree completely on "Little Children."

Jonathan said you and he had been debating over this issue--I guess I now know which way you tended in that debate.