I’m thrilled to introduce Jael McHenry, author of The Kitchen Daughter (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster, April 12, 2011). Did you see that? Her book launched two days ago! Isn’t it a gorgeous cover? I digress. I first met Jael on Backspace. She’s not only a talented writer but a generous one. It’s great to welcome Jael as the first women’s fiction author guest blogger on WFW.
Under The Big Umbrella of Women’s Fiction
By Jael McHenry
As Amy put it succinctly in the very first post on this blog, “There is no harder genre to define than women’s fiction.” I’m a longtime women’s fiction writer and I absolutely believe that this is true.
I also believe it’s awesome.
Genre is a weird thing. For some people, it’s a useful shorthand (“I write category romance.”) For others, it’s a ginormous pain in the you-know-what. (“My book has thriller elements and romance elements and paranormal elements! What IS it??”) When you’re in the querying stage, genre feels like one of the most important things about your book, but as a reader, you probably make your buying and/or reading decisions based on everything BUT genre. Other than the classic commercial classifications of romance, science fiction, fantasy, thriller, and mystery, nearly everything else out there could be placed in different categories depending on the person who’s doing the placing. People will disagree on the definitions of “literary” and “commercial” and “upmarket” and a thousand other words that we could use to describe our work.
But “women’s fiction” is a broad umbrella, and personally, I find it a really comfortable umbrella to park myself under.
Because genre, to me, is about expectations. Let’s look at romance, for example. In classic category romance, your hero and heroine get together at the end. Period. It’s what romance readers expect. If you wrote a “romance” in which the heroine was struck dead by lightning so the hero married her sister instead, and you submitted that book to Harlequin, I’m guessing you wouldn’t get a positive result. Similarly, in a mystery book the reader expects that the mystery will be solved. There are expectations and conventions, and rules to follow.
In women’s fiction, what’s the expectation? There really isn’t one, and it’s exactly because the term fits so many different books. Women’s fiction can make you laugh or cry or gasp in disbelief or smile in recognition. As a reader, that’s an experience I crave—I love the idea that whatever book I hold in my hands will take me somewhere unanticipated. As a writer, I want the widest possible audience for my books, and I think there are a boatload of people who would call The Kitchen Daughter “literary”, and just as many who would call it “commercial.” I want them to pick it up because they like the concept or the cover, and to not know exactly where the story will take them.
And if I were a not-yet-published writer querying agents for representation, I’d be thrilled to call my book women’s fiction, because the benefit is the same. It’s a genre without conventions, without expectations. That’s not to say that you won’t get responses from agents who will say your work is either too literary or too commercial for them, but they’re likely to say that after they’ve read the work in question, not before. And that’s not to say it doesn’t raise my hackles that there’s no “men’s fiction,” but I think the practical positive far outweighs the philosophical negative.
It allows your work to speak for itself. And isn’t that what we’re all after?
Jael McHenry is the author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster, 2011), and is also a talented and enthusiastic amateur cook who blogs about food and cooking at the SIMMER blog, http://simmerblog.com. She is a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed, a member of Backspace, and a monthly pop culture columnist at Intrepid Media. Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. Learn more about Jael’s work at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry. She lives in New York City.