Staycation2016: Days 5, 6, 7: “Women’s” Fiction Edition

Well, I wrapping up the “stay home and write” part of my vacation, and looking forward to some modest traveling next week. Friday and Saturday were actually chock full of exciting events, all of which have me ruminating a bit on the state of women in writing (more on that after the round-up).

Friday I moderated a panel at One More Page Books & More for the DC stop of She Writes Press 2016 tour, and we had a lively discussion with two novelists (Melissa Rea, Conjuring Casanova, and Jill McCroskey Coupe, True Stories at the Smoky View) and two memoirists (Dorit Sason, Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service and Sacrifice in the Israeli Defense Forces, and Donna Cardillo, Falling Together). She Writes Press is another independent press that has discarded the notion of simply doing a miniaturized version of what the “Big 5” are doing, and much like my own press, Pandamoon Publishing, they are aggressively pursuing a very author-centered/cohort support model.

While at the event I had a chance to chat with Jenny Drummey, author of the novel, Unrequited, as well as this amazing post from last month called In Praise of Failure. Among the things we talked about was the struggle that a new, unknown author has in developing her platform, and the ways smaller, independent presses are having to adapt to get their books noticed.

Friday was also the “reveal” day for The Wigleaf Top 50 and the legendary Longlist both of which –if my crude, sexist estimate via naming conventions is an indicator–feature more than 50% women authors. As you may be aware, I’ve been helping out as a reader (on a large team of readers headed up very ably this year by Marcelle Heath as Series Editor and Matthew Salesses as the Selecting Editor) for the Wigleaf Top 50 for a few years now, but I’m taking 2016 off, seeing as the first book of The New Royal Mysteries will come out soon, and I need to get a draft of the second one done this summer while I’m not teaching. –As an aside, my head is so into my own books that I had forgotten I was a reader for the Wigleaf T50, and I was on the verge of correcting everyone who was thanking me  for my help when I started to recognize my picks on the lists. That’s right, I read the entire contents of about a dozen online journals, and selected several outstanding stories in January–and I forgot the entire experience. In my defense, that was at the same time that I was revising The Juliet per the 10 page, single spaced letter I received from my editor, Rachel Schoenbauer (SuperGenius), a process that I recall in excruciating detail.

And finally, Saturday night saw the Santa Fe Writers Project Launch Party and Reading, featuring four authors including Daniel Ford (Ordination), Elizabeth Hazen (Chaos Theories), Brandon Wicks (American Fallout), and my dear friend Tara Laskowski (Bystanders), whom I was privileged to introduce. It was a huge, catered party at the Waverley Street Gallery, but it was casual and fun, if a little cold and damp-the bar and buffet were outside. My favorite part was where the 4 year old son of two writers was explaining to a fussy toddler friend that it was going to be okay because there were “only four readers, and after that you can come to my house to play.” He had the routine down, except that he offered this explanation quite loudly during his mother’s reading.

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In which I am suggesting my husband commit an art heist.

All of this writing & publishing action, plus the return of the rain, has made me contemplative about the ways we, especially women, categorize our work to reach audiences. Which brings me, albeit awkwardly, to the category called “Women’s Fiction.” Most of the official definitions refer the subject preferences of women readers, such as domestic dramas and emotional journeys, but I feel like this is one of those categories that achieves different goals for different constituencies. I have no idea if it was always a market term, but today it’s a very informative one, fully embraced by publishers, including my own, and the writers of Women’s Fiction at Pandamoon are producing highly literary work. However, that tag allows some critics to carve a lot of the work by women writers into a category that is adjacent to, but not fully, literary–leaving that term just as elusive/exclusive as it has always been, unless you’re comfortable being rude about it. If I’m being honest, one of my worries is that the term “Women’s Fiction” was coined as a pejorative (like “MFA Fiction”) that was rapidly transformed into a sales friendly keyword.

Certainly the authors of She Writes Press produce tremendously varied books, but the brand, quite clearly and proudly, is writing women and women’s writing. That’s a very successful selling point. It’s something I was thinking about, as I was introducing Tara and acknowledging the struggle in talking about a book with many identities. Though dark, suspense-filled, and full of characters who make very bad decisions, Bystanders is, at it’s heart, literary fiction, and that’s not very descriptive is it? As yet, I’m not aware of a market category for “bad decisions” or “poor impulse control” fiction. those might work as categories on America’s Funniest Home Videos, though.

I have not yet been identified as a writer of “Women’s Fiction,” but it could happen with my next book, The Mean Bone in Her Body, which is a mystery that begins with the tragic death of a young mother and her two small daughters.The majority of the characters are women, and the heart of the story is about mental illness, which may well be one of those “domestic” subjects that sends a woman author to a different line at the literary DMV. My only anxiety about that is limiting the appeal of my work, so I am hoping that the Mystery/Crime label is the stronger marketing term.  That said, a colleague of mine released a novel that was about generations of a European family fleeing war and communism to come to America, but because the main character unpacking the history is female, the publisher put a photograph of a woman swimming in flowers on the cover–not even the whole woman, either. Just her very shapely legs. And of course, the book is being marketed as Women’s Fiction. The era of the gendered cover is far from over, and gendered marketing is a double edged sword.

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