The Long Pastel Shadow

Women's Fiction

I, like many authors whose marketing category is ‘women’s fiction’ have deeply ambivalent feelings about this term, and so when Jeanette Winterson posted a picture of a bonfire of her own books, unhappy with the new edition, I took notice. “Absolutely hated the cosy little domestic blurbs on my new covers,” Winterson wrote. “Turned me into wimmins fiction of the worst kind!”

I’m not treading new ground when I note the term women’s fiction irks me. Jennifer Weiner is a long-time critic of the way that “chick lit” and “women’s fiction” (which are two distinct marketing categories, but are used interchangeably by some outlets). In a 2019 interview with Salon, she noted that the term makes cover decisions even more weighty:

You have to package it so carefully. In my reading last night, this topic came up and I was talking about Meg Wolitzer's books and how carefully those covers are designed to make sure that there's not a woman, there's not a beach, there's not a flower, there's no Eiffel Tower with a beautifully dressed woman photographed from behind in the mist. The subtexts of those covers is, "Men, you can read this and be OK. You will not get your period. It will all be fine. "

I’m a member of the WFWA— the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, an organization that by and large saved my creativity in the pandemic with its zoom write-ins. I joined in March of last year and only wrote during the hell hole that was 2020 because I had those people by my (virtual) side.

But I have to ask myself, whenever I see “women’s fiction”, do they mean on the writing side? On the reading side? Who is the woman, and why is she probably facing away from the camera on the cover?

I write stories about women’s lives, but not only about women or only about experiences which are defined by gender or sex characteristics. Many of my readers identify as women, but not all. I also think the term feels unwelcoming to readers or writers who are nonbinary. I identify as a woman, but honestly if my books were to fit into a marketing category to help them find readership, there are a number of options that would make more sense: upmarket commercial fiction, book club fiction, Midwestern fiction— those ring more true to me. Just like calling something “American fiction” is likely to not really help define who the category for a book is, “women’s fiction” also doesn’t have any specific language to define it’s content beyond “it has women in it.”

I wouldn’t be out of bounds to call much of Fredrick Backman’s work “women’s fiction"— especially his novels Britt-Marie was Here and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell Me She’s Sorry, but his publisher puts his work under Fiction: Literary and Fiction: Humorous. Two-time National Book Award finalist Lauren Groff took to Twitter a few months ago to note that her forthcoming novel Matrix was being categorized as women’s fiction on Netgalley when her ARCs were released. [note: currently it is listed on her publisher’s website as women’s fiction and literary fiction].

The books I read which are categorized as women’s fiction run the gambit from lighter novels set in beach towns with happy endings, to sweeping, multigenerational family dramas, to historical fiction from typically underrepresented groups. Speaking to my fellow WFWA members, many of us have little in common, genre wise, beyond that most of us identify as women while writing about women. Below is a screenshot from the marketing category of “Women’s Fiction” from Simon and Schuster. Mixed in the top titles are classics, thrillers, commercial fiction, historical fiction, upmarket fiction, and mysteries.

Liv Stratman’s Cheat Day is a particular example, where the main character is slowly starving herself— literally and by depriving herself of meaningful relationships— while working at her family’s bakery. It’s an darkly funny and richly-wrought novel about fidelity and friendships, and the fucked-up notion of body that so many of us drag around with ourselves. The cake on the cover is lovely, but also many of its Goodreads reviews state blatently “this is not light-hearted chicklit,” sometimes removing stars when it fails to live up to the cake’s sweet premise. No matter the honesty in the back copy, covers speak.

Elena Ferrante’s covers have gotten much backlash from broader audiences. In The Atlantic, Emily Hartnett writes about the coercion in their design.

[Ferrante’s] covers… have earned comparisons to  “$4 romance book[s] found in an American gas station. ” The complaints are so numerous that Ferrante’s publisher even expressed concern to Slate that “many people didn’t understand the game we we’re playing, that of, let’s say, dressing an extremely refined story with a touch of vulgarity.”

Hartnett calls these covers “the long pastel shadow” over Ferrante’s readers.

I can’t stop thinking about that phrase.

Can I rage about a marketing category when I’m new to it? My debut novel published in 2020. The premise: Gus is an entomologist. While researching abroad for his dissertation, Gus’s twin brother has an anyerysm. Gus returns home to pick up the pieces of his family ripped apart years earlier. Except, my main character is Greta, not Gus. My cover is bright, though not every part of the novel is. Like Stratman’s novel, (before I wised up and stopped reading reviews on Goodreads) I noticed low ratings from readers that expected something different. (Goodreads also does “have a woman” problem in general— loved this piece.)

In Lithub, Stacey D’Erasmo wrote about writing without a woman’s name for a year. Her piece is worth reading, especially for women-identifying writers of literary fiction. She notes,

To wit: if you’re a woman who writes, and you want to be taken seriously in America, your female characters better be significantly damaged, mutilated, self-mutilating, self-hating, and/or anorexic either literally or psychically. Do not, under any circumstances, have a body that gives you anything but trouble, suffering, and humiliation. Alternatively, retreat up to the innermost recesses of your mind, like a nun in a bare attic.

I do not plan to make my career in literary fiction— it’s not my genre— and I’m not ashamed to write books which book clubs read. Personally, I’m in four book clubs (yes, only with other women), and meeting with book clubs (yes, they only included women) on Zoom has been the highlight of my year so far. I want to continue to sell books, I promise, and the projects I have finished all do revolve around women’s stories. Will they be labeled as women’s fiction? Most likely, because publishing takes a long time to change, but I am hopeful for evolution in the future. The truth is that women buy most books; by most surveys, that means 80% of all book sales. Doesn’t that also make the broadness of the “women’s fiction” category less useful for buyers and readers?

I don’t have a neat bow to tie up all of this musing, except that Women’s Fiction Day is June 8. I am taking part in a day of conversation with other authors who write in this marketing category and invite you to participate if you’d like. Also, I’ll be doing an ebook giveaway to people who subscribed to this newsletter, so I guess do that, too?

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