Romance -vs- Women’s Fiction: The Smackdown

What is romance? What makes a romance a romance? What is Women’s Fiction? This is a point of difference I discuss in my PhD research, and it’s proved a bone of contention for my supervisor. She’s unhappy with the typing that separates fiction along gender lines. “Can’t it simply BE fiction?” she asks. However,, she understands this Imageclassification when it comes to explaining the difference between romance and, well, Women’s Fiction.

If it’s not clear what I’m yammering on about, let me define. We can argue about it you wanna, but for me, and maybe for many of you as well, romance is a love story with a happy ending or optimistic ending. The plot of a romance is driven by a love story between two people, driven by how the love develops, how it hits an obstacle, how that obstacle is overcome and how the love triumphs. That’s a Romance.

Women’s Fiction? Well, besides being an umbrella term that classifies and lumps together any novel written mostly by and for women (including romance, since most romance is written by women for women), Women’s Fiction is also a classification of a TYPE of novel where a female is the protagonist dealing with whatever life throws at her.

Trust me on this. I have it from editor’s and publishing houses that this is how it works.

So, Women’s Fiction? Think of the Bildungsroman, the “relationship novel” whereby the woman’s relationship may be with her husband, kids, mother-in-law, best friends. Think of a story that charts a woman’s voyage or self discovery, or her emotional/physical evolution, or her battle to take on City Hall. There may or may not be an element of a love story in a work of Women’s Fiction, but if it’s there it is only a sliver of the pie. Think of it this way: a love story is not what drives the plot in Women’s Fiction. As for the hallmark happily ever after? In Women’s Fiction there may or may not be a happy or optimistic ending, or a satisfying ending. There could be loose ends. OH DEAR GOD, Loose ends! But not always.

The bottom line, kids,  these are THE important distinctions between romance and Women’s Fiction. Women’s Fiction love may be a slice of pie. Romance is THE WHOLE PIE.

Have I mentioned how much I love pie? Especially cherry pie?

Anyhow, I know where I stand on this. I know what publishers think but I’m curious for your input.

33 thoughts on “Romance -vs- Women’s Fiction: The Smackdown

    • QED from the Latin, quod erat demonstrandum which comes from the Greek ὅπερ ἔδει δεῖξαι, which I understand as ‘that which had to be demonstrated,’ meaning you proved the point I am making.

  1. Women’s fiction is about the things that a woman endures, learns from etc. Just a women’s life/lot that may or may not have a romance also. It’s a personal journey rather than the journey of two people uniting.

  2. For me, a romance is the story of two people meeting and falling in love and deciding they want to be with each other. That’s it. I don’t mind if other things go on in the story as long as the central story is the romance. Which means that it isn’t “women’s fiction” because I am just as happy to read a romance that is from the male POV, or a male/male romance (that can hardly be considered as Women’s Fiction) as I am reading a book where I am in the head of both the male and female protagonists or just a female POV. Though, to be honest, I prefer the point of view of both protags and not just one which is why first person narratives rarely work for me.

    It doesn’t even need to be humans. It can be two cats falling in love, it is watching David Attenborough’s hermaphrodite leopard slugs mating or mating rituals of peacock spiders or penguins and gibbons and barn owls and any number of animals that mate for life. It can be a great story where two non-gendered wookies falling in love – I will read it! It is the behaviour that I love. The tension of the spider dancing, despearte for attention and that moment of “will he get the girl or not”. It isn’t women’s fiction. It is the nature of all living things!

    • How would you describe Women’s Fiction? Do you read it? Has there been a time you picked up a novel, expecting it was romance and found that you were reading Women’s Fiction?

      • Rural romance is often women’s fiction. Cliffhangers are when the ending doesn’t tie up loose ends and you know there’s a sequel coming.

      • HFN is fine. I’ve never really distinguised between HFN and HEA. If they’re together by the end of the book, that’s that for me! Cliffhangers are when I need to read the next book to see what happens to the love story. There are also continuing series where the romance is done but for some reason the author finds new obstacles to put in the h/h’s path and we get a trilogy…or more.

  3. Sandra, that was a great explanation – I find myself having to explain it to people all the time too. I tend to say a romance is about the relationship, women’s fiction is about the central (female) character’s journey to self-fulfilment. Often it includes a romance but that’s not the real focus of the story.

    • Thank, AC! It’s interesting that publishers have a box they tick for what they consider to be Women’s Fiction. It reminds me of the films from the ’30s and ’40s–The Women’s Pictures that always seemed to star Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Someone I know refers to WF books and those movies as “kitchen sink stories” because they have everything tossed in.

  4. I’ve just magically gotten my first male beta reader. I was all, hey it’s romance, you don’t have to like it, it’s not for you and he was all, yeah okay. Until he read the first 10k and then he was – gimme – now. Which I wasn’t ready for. On a quizz he said, if that’s romance, it’s also life and I don’t feel excluded by it.

    I have a problem writing a story where the romance is the solution to all life’s problems – and yet I write romance where the central story is the coming together of one or more couples. I’m with Ms Scott on the definition – but I guess my own work is a little slidey, the romance ain’t the only thing of importance going on.

    I’ve always thought of women’s fiction as the chick movie, but I otherwise find it a little difficult to define, except as stuff men wouldn’t read.

    • Funny, but my husband loves to watch Chick Lit and romantic comedies and straight romance films. However, he won’t read anything but professional journals, and the occasional serial killer novel.

  5. I think you’ve pretty much nailed it. The only extension I make, because I hate the restrictive implication of ‘women’s fiction’ that my books are ONLY for women, is that I say that I write ABOUT women. Anyone who’s interested in women and their lives is welcome to read. I figure that covers both the romances and the more general stories. But I like your pie analogy. I like pie too. But I also like the full degustation menu. And sometimes olives and anchovies. And sometimes olives and anchovies IN pie – ever had pissaladerie?

  6. Of course there’s a difference between women’s fiction and romance! And there is a difference between women’s fiction and chick lit, and chick lit and romance, and romance erotica. In some cases the differences may be subtle, and there are certainly overlaps, but my goodness there are differences.

    Liane Moriarty, Nicola Moriarty – women’s fiction
    Sophie Kinsella, Alexandra Potter – chick lit
    Harlequin Mills and Boon – romance (Apologies for not knowing specific authors, I don’t read enough in the romance category. Just enough to know that there’s a difference).

    • There are some who would say Chick (as well as Hen/Matron/Hag) Lit are all iterations of WF, since the focus on the story is the female protagonist’s ‘growth and development.’ Although others think that the inclusion of romantic elements make it romance, that is Chick Lit is a romantic comedy. What do you think?

  7. Hey Sandra! I’m working on a thesis with YA paranormal romance, but your definition of romance makes me wonder if it is different for YA at all? Especially for singular books in series?

    The endings are often left a bit open although are optimistic. In two books I’m looking at using (one being the first of a trilogy), the main story is about the romance between two teens, but due to their being different species (one human, one zombie), it makes the relationship unable to have any sort of happy ending together. While a vampire will turn a human and live happily ever after, that’s not possible or desirable in these works.

    Sorry for the rant – I’m currently trying to work out the criteria for the works, and this is definitely a blurred line!

    • The RWA defines romance as “A central love story with an emotionally satisfying, optimistic ending.” If your YA romance has that, then, according to that definition, it’s romance. But what does the general romance reading population think? I like Kylie’s thinking that “A romance novel is one where, if you take the romance out, you don’t have a story.”

  8. A romance novel is one where, if you take the romance out, you don’t have a story. The romance is always the focus of the story. It used to be that you had to have a HEA. I really like this rule. But cliffhangers are creeping in, undermining it, of late. But still, the central focus of the book is the growing attraction and love between a couple.

    • The cliffhanger ending is becoming a dilemma for me. I still call it romance, but in my heart of hearts I don’t think it’s *proper* romance. I’ve also noticed that they’re usually cross-genre books — these days, either urban fantasy or erotic fiction.

      • How do you define romance, Kat? Would you say a cross genre novel (although cross genre is another matter to discuss) fits more into the ‘romantic elements’ column or into a separate column, such as Urban fantasy or Erotica?

      • For me, genre romance should resolve the romantic arc in the one book. Multi-book series are pushing the boundaries of the genre, I feel. I mean, would you consider FSoG to be romance or erotica? The characters and the plot are very typical of the romance genre. Sometimes, they start as romance — book 1 can stand alone — and then extend to a series (eg Soulless by Gail Carriger), or they’re a mishmash of paranormal romance and urban fantasy (eg Nalini Singh’s archangels, and now JR Ward’s BDB).

      • Seeing as you’re a fairy killer and all, Kat, do you prefer the romantic arc ending over the multi-book series, e.g (because I like it) Suzanne Enoch’s Samantha Jelicoe series or the Carriger/JR Ward series you mentioned?

      • I definitely prefer the standalone romance. If it’s a series, I tend to wait until cliffhanger plots are resolved before even thinking of starting (unless it was a standalone that became a series – I have a love/hate relationship with those).

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