Let’s say it together now, with the requisite air quotes and eye rolls: “women’s fiction.” All the expected arguments have been made about why the categorization is useless at best, offensive at worst. As Meg Wolitzer noted in the New York Times Book Review last weekend, while this piece was in production, “Bringing up the women’s question — I mean the women’s fiction question — is not unlike mentioning the national debt at a dinner party. Some people will get annoyed and insist it’s been talked about too much and inaccurately, and some will think it really matters.” But at least everybody knows what it’s supposed to mean: stories about love, loss, relationships, work-family balance, the stuff that makes up daily life for much of the population. You know…feelings.
The underlying issue is, not only women have those, and not only women write about them (I’m looking at you, Nick Sparks) or want their bedside reading chock full of heartfelt emotion. Feelings run the gamut from tender to twisted, and simply acknowledging their existence doesn’t mean Bridget Jones should get thrown in the same cell as Olive Kitteridge.
We’ve managed to name the subset “chick lit” to cover the lighter side of What Women Read, and both romance and erotica have their own powerful domains. Then there’s the occasional sleeper hit like the Fifty Shades series, which reminds us that wildly popular terrible writing isn’t limited to guys called Dan. But readers, authors, publishers, and booksellers still don’t seem to know how to define literary novels about women—or if we should even be making that distinction in the first place.
Of course, it’s not like the umbrella category of literary fiction gives us much to hang our hats on, either. “If you enjoyed Remains of the Day, you might enjoy Portnoy’s Complaint” works about as well as offering a Maria Semple fan the latest Claire Messud. The banner of literary fiction doesn’t come with the same expectations or baggage as women’s fiction, though, and it certainly doesn’t carry the connotation of softer, sweeter, or lesser than.
That’s why I’d like to propose a new name for the stacks of rich, layered novels by authors of every gender about how women feel and how we act on those feelings: sense fiction. As in the exploration of all five — sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch — and the chronicling of the pragmatic decisions we make as we navigate work, family, relationships, birth, death, and our inner lives.
Sense fiction isn’t sentimental, touchy, or twee; it revels in tiny moments writ real. You won’t find sweeping historical epics on this shelf, or post-apocalyptic quests for survival, or one too many baseball metaphors. Sense fiction is interested in what’s happening right now. Who is this person? What does she have to do today? What might derail that? (If the author wants us to keep reading, something will.) And how does it all make her feel?
Ideally sense fiction drops us headfirst into the minds of its characters, and Lauren Fox gets right to the task in her thoughtful third novel, Days of Awe. Isabel Moore stands at her best friend Josie’s funeral, “face to the sun, trying to breathe,” as Josie’s husband, Mark, pulls up next to her among “the herd of wild minivans.” “This was my fault,” he says, and so it begins.
Izzy and Mark and their circle are in their early forties, busy professionals with faltering marriages and the occasional kid to wrangle. As we learn through flashbacks and overheard conversations, Josie and Izzy join forces during Izzy’s first staff meeting at Rhodes Avenue Middle School. Mutual amusement over the principal’s rambling leads to a dinner date and the kind of instant friendship women can form almost anywhere: in a bathroom line at the movies, over a bowl of doctored TJ’s hummus at a house party. “It was the first time anyone had fallen in love with me like that,” Izzy says. “And I was powerless against it.” Then she introduces her new friend to one of her oldest, and they get married. The connection is sealed.
Fifteen years of friend-love later, Izzy’s own marriage is on the rocks — and Josie crashes her car into a tree and dies. What follows is a classic march through points in recent history, as Izzy tries to figure out what happened to corrode her stability over the course of a seemingly innocuous year: why did her friendship with Josie get shaky, how did she and her husband drift apart, when did Josie begin to lie, who did what to whom. The structure isn’t necessarily original, but Fox pulls off the neat trick of making you feel like Izzy is an old friend of yours also. She’s just telling you a story about bits and pieces of her past, but it’s a good one, and you can see yourself in the shards.
And maybe, if you’ll bear with the conceit for a moment more, that’s the key to sense fiction. Modern literary novels about women take a range of forms that we can’t possibly slot into a single gender-based category. But if you slice at a sharp enough angle across these works, and lift out the wedge that’s packed with recognition—rather than fantasy, escapism, or aspiration—you just might find the genre you’re looking for. Do you feel me?
Mia Lipman is senior editor at Yesler, a Seattle-based creative agency, and principal editor at Dots & Dashes. She cofounded Canteen literary magazine and hosts the reading series Lit Fix. Her writing has appeared in Kirkus Reviews, Modern Farmer, San Francisco magazine, and elsewhere.
Follow Mia Lipman on Twitter: @editormia