Deciphering category labels

When visiting book groups, one of the questions I most often answer is, “What is the difference between women’s fiction and romance?”   Which is often followed by, “Well, then what’s the difference between women’s fiction and literary fiction?” 

Ages ago, Orson Scott Card addressed the issue of  literary fiction vs commercial fiction, and I tried in vain to find a copy of it, which I thought was on his website. If anyone has a link, let me know.  Maybe another day I’d have the energy to dive into it myself, but today, let’s just stick with women’s fiction, chick lit, and romance.

Readers are often confused by the various publishing designations.  That’s because the categories were created for booksellers and reviewers and publishers to help them sell books, not for readers. 

Let’s start with women’s fiction, which is, very simply, “fiction that is about women’s lives.” It’s too broad to be a useful term, since that would include everything from The Color Purple to chick lit to a straight, classic romance about a sheik, so what happens is that books are often labeled women’s fiction when they don’t quite fit another category.   “Romance” is a broad term as well, encompassing Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, and Barbara Cartland.   (Not Danielle Steele, by the way, who writes what could generally be considered a saga.)

Romances are included under the women’s fiction umbrella, but a women’s fiction novel is not necessarily a romance.   Women’s fiction can be about any stage of a woman’s journey, from coming of age to old age.  It often revolves around transition periods or relationship challenges, including the beginning or ending of love affairs with husbands and lovers, but is not limited to them. 

A romance, on the other hand, is a story about falling in love. It’s about love and sex and how those two things influence our lives.  (Which tends to be a lot, so I’m never quite sure why romance is not considered to be important.) Within the current confines of the romance novel model, it tends to refer to the course of meeting, mating, making a commitment.  It has a happy ending because, in traditional terms, romances are “comedies” not “tragedies.”  Though, of course, you can have a tragic romance.

Confused? So is everyone else.  Well, except the literary old guard who are absolutely sure they know how to define a romance:  trash.  This is spite of the fact that there is no earthly reason why a romance novel cannot also be literary.  I would classify everything Laura Kinsale writes in that category, and there are novels classified as literary I would put in the romance category (but will not name names, so as to spare them the fainting embarrassment of it all).  A great many “women’s fiction” novels are literary, of course, for example, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, and the aforementioned The Color Purple and the wildly popular Secret Life of Bees.

In general, it seems to me that the bookclub readers who ask this question really want to know how to find more books to read, books they will enjoy and might offer possibilities for discussion. They don’t mind a complex novel, but they don’t want to work so hard that the escape aspect of reading for pleasure is lost.  They’re a smart, thoughtful lot (they chose reading over many, many other possible leisure activities, after all) and they love books, but the labels are so confusing and the choices so huge that they really don’t always know how to find those books. 

So, women’s fiction as a category designation can be helpful.  Women’s fiction is about women’s lives, from courtship to death. Chick lit, despite the disparaging comments it gets in media, is just young women’s fiction, and it can be very romantic, though it’s more often about the search for self than the search for love. Romance is a designation within women’s fiction, and it’s about love and sex. 

If you want some writers to try for your next book club, here are some I enjoy, and those who might

offer discussion possibilities, a few suggestions:

Women’s fiction :

Jennie Shortridge, Alice Walker, Alice Hoffman, Kristin Hannah, Jennifer Crusie, Barbara Kingsolver, Jacqueline Mitchard and Sue Monk Kidd.  Also, Jodi Picoult is the #1 favorite at book clubs.  I’ve never visited a group who did not mention reading and Ioving her books. 

For the younger crowd, try chick lit authors Sarah Mlynowski, Eric Orlff, Laure Gwen Shapiro, Laura Caldwell (especially A Year of Living Famously) and Lynda Curnyn.


Laura Kinsale, Judith Ivory, Connie Brockway, Shana Abe, Jo Beverly, Eloisa James, Anne Stuart, just to name a few. 

If you have a book club, what’s was the favorite this year?

2 thoughts on “Deciphering category labels

  1. My friends and I started a new club this year and picked My Sister’s Keeper as our first book (Jodi Picoult). If I could wrap up Picoult’s, Jacquie Mitchard’s, and your voice in one and call it “mine,” I’d be one happy writer. Perhaps I can learn from each of you and call it “Julie’s” though. 🙂

    I appreciate all three because you each delve deeply into all of the senses while writing a darn good story.

  2. HB

    PS: I’ve always considered you a kindred.

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