Definitions of romance and women’s fiction

The second part of the interview at WRITER UNBOXED is up, if you’re interested.  I’m excerpting this paragraph not because I am so brilliant but because I’d like to talk more about the definition of romance.

Q: Do you have an opinion regarding the definition of romance?

BS: I wish it could be broader, honestly. Romance is about two people falling in love. I’m not always happy with the stringent way that seem to sometimes be defined as something like, “two relatively young, usually white, genuinely good people who are attractive and intelligent finding middle class comfortable love.”

There’s nothing wrong with those stories, of course. I love them, too. But I believe in romance, man! I believe in messy, upsetting, wild love that erases all boundaries. I want to read about love really conquering everything. I want survivors who get love the second time around and multiracial and blue collar and everything else.

When my son was home at Christmas, I said something about the differences between women’s fiction and romance novels (both of which I’m proud to claim) and he said, "I always thought ‘women’s fiction’ was just a euphemism for romance novels.’" 

I’m not sure when the term "women’s fiction" started being slapped on so many novels.  I’m not crazy about it, honestly.  It seems faintly disdainful and so specific.   There probably are a lot of people who think they would not like a "women’s fiction" novel, when in fact, they’d like a lot of them very much.  (I think that’s true of romances, as well, but I’ve stopped trying to convert anyone.)

But no, women’s fiction and romance are not the same thing. Romances are part of the women’s fiction realm, which is simply "stories about women’s lives."   A romance is about a woman falling in love with one particular man and finding unity with him. 

(This, of course, excluding the man/man subset of erotica which…okay, that’s just getting too complicated for the discussion here. Someone else can tackle it.)

Women’s fiction might have some romance in it, and some love, and some mating and some sex, but it usually focuses more on the navigation of a particular challenge in a woman’s life–a transition, perhaps, a challenge with family or making peace with herself or others, or getting through a divorce or a career change or a death.  Women’s fiction is free to focus on the mother-child bond, the friendship bond, the challenges of careers or illness or whatever. 

All these labels.  There has been some pressure on me from both sides to let go of my romance roots and keep quiet about it (some mainstream reviewers find the stench of romance unbearable, even if most of them have never read any and do not understand the genre).  The romance community sometimes views my women’s fiction titles as something of a betrayal (as when Trudy, in THE GODDESSES OF KITCHEN AVENUE, has a passionate affair with her neighbor).   

Just for the record, I’m resisting pressure from both sides.  An artist can work in more than one form.  I like both romance and women’s fiction.  I’ll continue to use Barbara Samuel mainly for the mainstream work, and Ruth Wind for romance, so readers who want to avoid one or the other are able to do so.

But if you’re on one side of the line, you might give the other a try.

What say you? What do you think of these definitions and labels? Do you read more in one area or the other? 

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5 thoughts on “Definitions of romance and women’s fiction

  1. Tony

    Perhaps women’s fiction is like FUBU — for us, by us. Fiction by women, for women, about women. Are there men who credibly write women’s fiction? A few — Vikram Seth comes to mind — portray women’s lives with great accuracy. But clearly not seen as writing women’s fiction, since he also writes men’s lives as well.

  2. I won’t say I hate the labels–they do serve their purpose– but I will say they’ve caused me more grief than I can even begin to describe when it comes to my adult work. For the mainstream, it’s too romance and for the romance people, it breaks too many of the so-called “rules.” Out of sheer desperation, I’ve begun referring to what I write as romantic women’s fiction, because I love romance and I love celebrating love in what my work, but I also want to explore what makes it difficult and heart-wrenching and ultimately, more satisfying in the long run, for both the characters and the readers. And because in real life, it’s not always about the happy ending.

  3. Hmmm. FUBU. There might be something to that.

    Barbara, I like that: the difficulty and heart-wrenching are part of the interesting angles of it.

  4. Hi Barabara, Just found your site and so pleased to have found such a sane one. I agree that the labels Romance/Romantic Novel/Women’s Fiction are confusing if not misleading.

    I think that many literary types consider romantic novels to be second rate writing. A snobby, rather superior, view. So to overcome this the genre Women’s Fiction was coined to get them over that antipathy.

    But ‘love’ – romance – is quite an acceptable subject in the theatre; it’s quite acceptable in the novels of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. So why the problem in paperback?

    According to the Oxford English Dictionary romance(noun)is: a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love. And romantic (adjective) has the same definition. This is surely – if they are honest – what everybody wants at some stage in their life.

    Like you I prefer romantic stories – whether disguised as Women’s Fiction or not – that aren’t slushy (have I read you right?). I need a bit of realism, a bit of grit.

    But I also like novels that have no romance in them at all: my criteria is that novels should be well written whatever their category. So, I won’t get hung up on labels, I’ll just have to look out for two different authors, Barabra Samuel and Ruth Wind!

    All the best, Lucy

  5. Lucy, welcome! yes, you read me right–I need a little grit, too.

    I see you’re from the UK, and that brings up other intriguing issues, in that I tend really love a lot of women’s fiction from the UK and was trying to figure it out last month. There’s a different tone. Though I’m not finished thinking about it, I think it might have to do with the acceptance of physical and daily life kinds of flaws in the UK. American fiction tends to present a more sanitized view. Unless it presents the grotesque or ridiculous. There’s a sense of great compassion in a lot of women’s fiction out of the UK that is missing in American WF.

    At least that’s what I’m thinking today.

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