Quickie with Barbara Samuel aka Ruth Wind
On Women’s Fiction versus Romance

(June 26, 2000)

I recently read Barbara Samuel’s first novel of contemporary fiction, written as Ruth Wind, the Desert Isle Keeper In the Midnight Rain. This fascinating book is labeled Women’s Fiction but it’s extremely romantic. Why was it called women’s fiction when it could easily have been called “romance?”

I asked Barbara Samuel to talk about the distinction and why such differences exist. Is it that publishers see a more respectable market for women’s fiction? Does it even matter? Here’s how Barbara responded:

The trouble with deciding what is “women’s fiction” and what is “big contemporary romance” is that we all have different opinions of what goes on which side of the line. There are some writers and books are clearly one or the other – Elizabeth Bevarly writes Big Romance, no question, while Kristin Hannah is clearly writing Women’s Fiction. There are others who are right on the line – Deborah Smith, for all the depth and size and scope of her books, which take them into the women’s fiction realm where all kinds of readers can pick them up and enjoy them, is definitely writing strong romance story in each of her big books. She’s an example, I think of someone who is straddling the line perfectly. Romance readers can embrace her books as happily as women’s fiction readers, even Oprah readers (I’d really love to see Oprah pick Deb Smith – quirky and intelligent and yet very warm and real and optimistic).

So, where’s the line? Ten readers will have ten different answers, so mine is just an opinion, too. Women’s fiction can include romance, but romance can’t always include the things women’s fiction is allowed to embrace.

A romance writer and reader create a pact – I say to you as a romance writer that I won’t go anywhere too awful. I promise to throw a little blurring gauze over anything that’s disturbing. I won’t kill anyone on screen, especially not someone you care about. If you cry, it’s going to be because everything works out exactly right, because I’m taking you from the darkness of human experience into the redemption of love and trust after a terrible storm. I promise, as a romance writer, that the characters are going to largely be people of good character. If they’ve made mistakes, they’re largely noble, or a really long time in the past and they’ve paid heavily.

In genre romance, I promise to give you a world you can immerse yourself in when you feel totally lousy about yourself and your life, when your relative is in the hospital, when you’re reading to your friend at the hospice and every nerve in you is weeping. I promise to make it okay to read that book there. I also promise to make the romance the primary focus of the book. You’re going to read about falling in love and making a commitment, and anything else is secondary.

In women’s fiction, I make no such promises. Because I am the writer I am, I’m still going for the happy ending in some way or another. Because my own idea of a great guy to fall in love with is somebody big and strong and sexy, my heroes aren’t going to be a lot different-though their issues might be. Instead of giving up drink five years before the novel opens, he might still be drinking and making his way through those reasons in the present.

When wearing a women’s fiction writer-hat, I am not promising that the romance will be Job #1, though often it will be. But the heroine’s journey might have a lot of elements, and her wish to find a mate might be equal to the need to make peace with a child or a parent or making peace with herself. The romance might be more of a reward than the actual journey. I still promise good sex, but that’s because I think it’s interesting and we all have this big hunger to have that in our lives and most “mainstream” (as opposed to women’s fiction) writers are still not very comfortable with sex and how women think about it, so one great thing romance writers in Big Romance or in Women’s Fiction can do is get that on the page in satisfying ways.

In my opinion, the “women’s fiction” label was the right one for In the Midnight Rain for a few reasons. The main story is absolutely romance, but it’s also a story of frustrated loves, loss, and a whole community coming to terms with a generational tragedy, embodied in a single person who ties it all together. It’s really sad in some ways. The hero is not always exactly noble. It has strong secondary plotlines that deal with friendship and as one reader put it, “the post-segregational South and race” which was very important to me.

But still, you’re right – most romance readers would have no objection to this book and have gratifyingly written a huge number of emails about it, but the truth is, a lot of straight women’s fiction readers would like it, too, and if it had been packaged and labeled as a romance, those readers won’t find it. They won’t even look.

This is where marketing and fit of writer to genre come in. To hit the big time with romance readers, it helps to be able to hit the center of the market dead on – something I’ve never been able to do. I have good friends – Christie Ridgway and Elizabeth Bevarly come to mind – who are absolute geniuses at this. They are blessed to have ideas that strike the market dead-on. Liz’s How to Trap a Tycoon, for example – a take-off on The Rules that’s funny and wry and exactly right.

I never get ideas like that. Never. My life is heavily ethnic, I’m a bit eccentric and heavily rooted in regional situations (Southern because of my roots – my mother’s side, and southwestern because of my father’s – I’m mixed child, no question). The strengths in my work are not the commercial elements, but the more amorphous things like style and voice and setting. After years of trying to squeeze my foot into a shoe that didn’t fit, I finally decided to try a different shoe, and it seems pretty obvious that women’s fiction readers might value those elements of my work that are not always a boon to me in straight genre. It’s a chance to find more readers who might like my books without alienating romance readers who do like me.

E-mail Barbara Samuel Ruth Wind/Barbara Samuel at AAR