There has been much online and in the media buzz of late, about women’s fiction. Article after article examines the pros and cons and whys and wherefores of what makes a book wofic and if women writers are treated differently from their male counterparts. This latest salvo was sparked by what is now called Franzenfreude—(A Google search turns up more than 20,000 entries on a term that was coined less than a month ago.) the Jennifer Weiner/Jodi Picoult take on reviewers’ coverage of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (two reviews in the NY Times), as compared to the works of women writers.
A few years ago, we were asked to teach a week long class, at the Writer’s Institute at the Florida Center for Literary Arts/Miami Dade College. At the time, we were working on our fifth novel, and over the course of our career, had often spoken to audiences large and small about writing—both the craft and our process. We are acutely aware that our work exists in two categories—women’s fiction and African American fiction and we struggle with both of these identifiers. But up to that point, we really hadn’t had a reason to dissect the genre we considered our work to be most representative of--Women’s Fiction. However, having to prepare a syllabus, even for a class that was to last only a few days, caused us to look at what we wrote in a new light, to explain in concrete terms, both our motivation and intention.
We looked at heroines--Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, Jane Austen’s Emma and Zora Neal Hurston’s Janey among many others to see what made them singular, memorable and what made them different from heroes? Was the “ine” tacked on to the end of hero all that makes a story “women’s” fiction? And the answer we came up with was that women’s fiction is not only about readers identifying with the main character or characters, it is to a great extent, having readers CARE about them in a way that is almost visceral. Bridget, Emma and Janey come off the page and move into your life like a new friend. They are either ordinary women having extraordinary experiences, which reminds us that we’re all potentially extraordinary. Or, they are extraordinary women having ordinary experiences, which in turn reminds us that we’re all just regular folks.
The women we love and know in books are characters we perceive as flesh and blood, bone and skin—they have the attributes that real people have. They are unique. They have a point of view. They have history. They have baggage. They have secrets. They suffer defeat. They have strengths and flaws and bad habits. And somehow they get through “it.” Maybe not unscathed, and certainly not unchanged, but they go on, and that gives us all hope. They are alive on the page and we either love, or are antagonized by them because they strike a little too close to home. But we do react. They take up space in our minds and hearts and many of them remain part of our memory for all our lives. Reading about these fictional women is revealing and voyeuristic as well as intensely personal and reflective. It peels off the designer suit, the discount store mom jeans, takes off the pricey pumps and reveals the bunions, cellulite, dreams and insecurities we all have underneath—and in the end makes us feel better or at the very least OK about ourselves.
Do men have such a personal experience with their fictional spies and cops and lawyers and hapless guys next door? Maybe, maybe not. Are men and women different? Absolutely. Is our work as writers treated differently? Does that make it right? Absolutely not.
We have been best friends for 30 years and have been writing for 20 of them. Our sixth novel, What Doesn’t Kill You, was released in trade paper in February and our seventh, Uptown, was published in March by Simon & Schuster/Touchstone. We can be found on Facebook, Twitter and on the web at DeBerryandGrant and Twomindsfull.