On his very interesting blog, literary agent Jonathon Lyons has been defining women's fiction as he sees/uses the term in today's publishing world. In his opinion, romance is worthy of its own separate category and should not really be considered women's fiction.
Now I have a few problems with this as I think the terminology is wrong. Romance is very definitely women's fiction. It is written for and read primarily by women. But it is certainly not all of women's fiction. And as an aside it is also a form, and not a formula. Much in the same way that a mystery story is a form.
My personal opinion is any attempt to say that romance is NOT women's fiction or somehow separate from women's fiction does a disservice to the reader and the industry as a whole. It could lead to a perceived ghettoizing. When, in fact, if one looks at it, the romance genre is one of the most commercially successful of all the genres. Many readers read all forms of women's fiction, depending on their mood. Many writers, while they may start in pure romance, do move out into more complex and complicated story lines. Publishing houses such as Harlequin have lines that specialise in all forms of women's fiction.
I do however understand what he is trying to get at. Romance as a genre does have certain requirements, in particular a emotionally satisfying ending with the relationship of the primary couple being statisfactorily resolved.
The problem is coming up with a term that describes that women's fiction that is not a romance and is readily understandable by all.
There is a branch of commercial women's fiction that does not need a HEAOver in the UK, it is often given the label saga/family saga/modern saga/contemporary saga or even relationship fiction. Romance may be an element of the book but it is not the overriding arc or spine. The focus is not so much on the growth of the emotional relationship but on other things or elements in the protagonists life. While a romance tends be an arch-plot, other novels written for women can have multi plot or even anti plot structures. Sometimes it is called With Romantic Elements as there is often a subplot of romance in the book.
In fact in the early 1960s when the RNA was founded, there was a debate about this very subject. Rosamunde Pilcher alluded to the debate in her speech last year at her lifetime achievement lunch. They knew that the label Romance could be perceived more narrowly than they intended but it sounded the best and was the most inclusive of names. The Relationship Novelist Association somehow did not have the same ring to it.
Or Women's Fiction Novelists. Today, the RNA's Romance Novel of the Year is mostly likely to be won by a novel with strong romantic elements rather than a straight forward romance.
But the fact remains there is this branch of women's fiction and some agents prefer to specialize in it rather than in romance. The problem is how to convey it and in a way that explains it easily and does not demean. Saying that there is women's fiction and then there is romance does not do it for me. Sorry.