Sunday, April 21, 2024

In Which A Woman Of A Certain Age Gets Her Own Story Arc

I learned recently that there are readers out in the world, rather vocal readers, who object to humor created around older characters being placed in what are for them, nontraditional situations. I was very aware that older characters in children's books are often portrayed as frail, ill, and dying. Grandparents and dogs in children's books probably die in equal numbers. But I was a little stunned when I read so many objections to a piece I wrote placing older male authority figures in a situation in which they are out of their element--a children's playground. 

As a result of that experience, I'm feeling one of my little obsessions coming on, this one about how older characters are treated in books. As luck would have it, I just happened to finish reading a Net Galley arc of Facebook friend Gabi Coatsworth's new novel, A Beginner's Guide to Starting Over. The book's main character isn't older older, but as the mother of college students, she is just older. 

Fiftyish Molly Stevenson has been widowed for a few years during which time she purchased a bookstore. She is dealing with two issues as the novel opens--the bookstore isn't doing that well, and she has friends who are pressuring Molly to start dating. Things get worse with the bookstore when the rent is raised. Things get "worse" with the dating situation when she does, indeed, make efforts to meet men. Both story threads place Molly under pressure. Both threads are resolved in a positive way for her.

A mature woman managing on her own. This may not be an unusual main character for a novel these days. In fact, Book Riot has a list from 2019 called 50 Must-Read Fiction Books Featuring Older Women, who may be managing on their own or not. I've only read a couple of them. Many of those books sound a little on the heavy and downer side, though. A Beginner's Guide to Starting Over is not. It has a cozy aspect to it--the bookstore, a coffee shop, trips to an art gallery, friends gathering here and there, and what might be called a destination Christmas. This will be relaxation reading for many people, a very good thing, indeed. 

"A Beginner's Guide" And Women's Fiction. 

I was interested in reading A Beginner's Guide to Starting Over, in part, because I'd seen it described as women's fiction. I have an unsold manuscript that at one point I was submitting as women's fiction. Reading A Beginner's Guide gave me an opportunity to think some more about this.

According to the Women's Fiction Writers Association, women's fiction has as its driving force the "protagonist's journey toward a more fulfilled self." Does a more fulfilled self mean a self that ends up with a romantic partner? Not necessarily. More than one source I found stated that romances have narrative arcs that are totally about a couple's journey toward each other and include a happy ending.

(Here's an aside that requires its own paragraph: I was invited to a romance writers' luncheon around the time The Bridges of Madison County was all over the place. I was told by someone there that some romance writers had an issue with that book being described as a romance, because it didn't have a happy ending. Happy endings are a big component of traditional romance writing.)

At any rate, my superficial research suggests that A Beginner's Guide to Starting Over is, indeed, women's fiction, since the romantic element doesn't encompass the whole story, which is certainly about Molly's journey to a more fulfilled self.  On the other hand, I was probably correct to switch to describing my own manuscript, Good Women, as an upmarket comedy when submitting it. Not that it has done any good to date.

By the way, in What is Women's Fiction?, again at Book Riot, Kendra Winchester points out that there is no comparable genre to "women's fiction" called "men's fiction." That's something to think about. 

No comments: