Discovering My Real Genre Problem

My Original Genre Problem

Way back in 2011 when I first developed the concept for my novel Virtuous Women, I thought it had a genre problem that would render it unpublishable by traditional publishers. It’s set in a Christian subculture, with that theology and worldview permeating the book. That would make it Christian Fiction, right? But the point is to reveal the toxicity and danger of that theology and worldview, so no Christian bookstore in the world would have it on its shelves. General Fiction? Maybe. But there’s so much religion, it might turn off secular readers. That was the genre problem I thought I had eight years ago.

But a lot has changed in the last eight years. Over the course of the last few elections Christian patriarchy has shown itself to be much closer to mainstream society than people realized in 2011. Some of our highest elected and appointed officials adhere to a strict Christian patriarchal philosophy. Public policy is being based on it. The success of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has drawn sharp attention to this reality. What once seemed like a quaint belief system held by a powerless minority is now recognized as an inherent threat to American democracy and the civil rights of women, non-Christians, and many others.

Despite its Christian setting, my book is now firmly mainstream. My genre problem of 2011 is not a genre problem in 2019.

My Actual Genre Problem

But I still have a genre problem.

I’m participating in the Women Fiction Writers Association Pitch Event, where I get to have my 50-word pitch and the first 250 words of my first chapter reviewed by a number of agents. I posted my entry shortly after the window opened.

Fifteen-year-old Hope never questions the strict patriarchy of her upbringing, even when her mother dies in childbirth leaving her to care for ten younger siblings. But her family’s gradual disintegration on the altar of faith compels her to escape, and Hope must overcome a life of submission to achieve independence.

And thus began my genre problem.

One of the WFWA volunteers sent me an email asking who my protagonist was, and how old she was for most of the book. Stating that Hope was fifteen triggered the Young Adult warning flag. In order it to be considered Women’s Fiction, my protagonist needs to be at least nineteen years old for the majority of the book.

Virtuous Women is not Young Adult. It spans a seventeen-year period, with a thirty-two-year-old Hope at the end of it. But the book is divided into two parts, with the first part taking place during Hope’s adolescence. As I explained to the volunteer, Hope is 15-17 for the first 25% of the book, 18-19 for the second 25% of the book, and 26-32 for the last 50% of the book. So yes, technically she is the age of a Young Adult protagonist for nearly half the book, but the story is not about her journey from adolescence to adulthood; it’s about her journey from submissive helpmeet to independent-person-in-her-own-right.

Is It Really a Problem?

Do adults want to read a book about a teenager?

I think they may, if the teenager is dealing with themes still relevant to adult women. I’ve found this with other books that deal with teenagers forced to grow up too quickly. The first (and probably best) example that comes to mind is White Oleander by Janet Fitch. This is one of my favorite books of all time. It follows the story of Astrid, a young girl forced to navigate the Los Angeles foster care system after her mother is arrested for murder. Astrid is an adolescent for the entire book, with the possible exception of the epilogue, when she’s finally aged out of the system. I first read it when I was around 30 years old, and my teen-angst years were well behind me. I loved it. More to the point, my city’s public library has the book shelved under ‘Adult Fiction.’ So does the Boston Public Library. It’s got a teen protagonist, but it’s not Young Adult.

In the world of Virtuous Women, girls begin practicing how to be helpmeets at an early age. Many teenagers, including my protagonist, are expected to raise and even homeschool younger siblings while managing some or all of the household chores. In these circles it’s not uncommon for girls to marry in their late teens (or younger). The issues that Hope is dealing with are not those of adolescence, but of identity–as a woman and as a person.

Problem Resolved?

After going back and forth a bit with the WFWA volunteer, she agreed that my book probably qualifies as Women’s Fiction, but I should remove the red flag from the pitch. I changed it from “Fifteen-year-old Hope…” to “Hope Wagner…” She still needed to get approval from the other judges, and I haven’t heard back. I’m hoping that her silence means there are no further issues. Agents will begin looking at the entries a week from now.

I’ve considered restructuring my book as a result of this situation. Right now it follows a linear timeline. Perhaps I should begin in her adulthood and relate the events of her teen years through flashbacks. But I don’t think that would work well for this story. Hope’s life and attitudes as an adult make no sense without the knowledge of what she’s already been through, and there’s too much to tell through flashbacks.

I can only hope that I find an agent who will look past Hope’s age and see the story instead. When it’s time to write a back-of-the-book blurb, I’ll keep this issue in mind. As long as I emphasize Hope’s emotional journey rather than her age, I should be OK.

And maybe I’ll take a cue from Janet Fitch. The blurb on the back cover of her book states, “White Oleander tells the unforgettable story of Ingrid, a brilliant poet imprisoned for murder, and her daughter, Astrid…” I find this a bit sneaky, because Ingrid is a secondary character. An important one, but this book is Astrid’s story, which Ingrid helps to shape. The rest of the blurb outlines Astrid’s experiences, not Ingrid’s. But if this is what will keep my book off the Young Adult shelves, then I’ve got a couple of important secondary characters to highlight, as well.

What Do You Think?

Do you think books about adolescents are, by definition, Young Adult? Let me know in the comments, and please list any books you’ve read about children or teenagers that you think adults would enjoy. I’m always looking for suggestions for good books!

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