Fictional Novel or Real Woman’s Diary?

How to Tell What You’re Reading

Detective looking at book cover.

It’s a common dilemma: you’ve brought home a book and are about to dive in, when you notice a woman’s name on the cover. Rats! you think. An authoress! It can be difficult, in such cases, to know what you’re dealing with—could it be a work of fiction, or is it an exact transcription of the lady writer’s real-life thoughts, feelings, and experiences? How to tell?!

Here are a few tried-and-tested tricks to help you get to the bottom of things.

Detective looking at book cover with a magnifying glass.

Consider the Cover

Whoever coined the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” has misconstrued the function of the book jacket on quite a fundamental level. A great way to tell what’s going on in a book is to peruse its exterior. For instance, if there are a number of colorful blobs on the front, you are unlikely to be dealing with a diary but instead possess a work of intergenerational fiction about nationhood, identity, and “the ties that bind.”

If the book is called something like “The Potion Maker’s Associate’s Mistress,” you are in for a spicy tale involving magic and not a little sensuality. If the title is scrawled in childish handwriting and says something like “PERSONAL! KEEP OUT!!! (THAT MEANS YOU, DARREN),” it may be safe to assume that you’re dealing with a diary. Some publishers will helpfully print the words “a novel,” right there on the front, to clear up any confusion. If you see such a subheading, I promise, you can trust it.

Detective lying on floor and reading little girl's diary.

Examine Its Origins

If the book-like object originated from a little sister’s sock drawer or backpack, I think we both know you’ve got a diary on your hands. Fresh diaries procured at a stationer’s or even a regular bookstore can be tricky, I agree, but this issue is easily remedied by peering inside. Is there writing on its pages? No? You’ve bought an empty notebook, pal!

To ease confusion, an astounding number of modern notebooks have the word “NOTEBOOK” stamped on them in block letters. (“The Notebook” is, of course, a misnomer, and is in fact a novel written by an adult man—it’s a jungle out there.)

Some bookstores have a Women’s Fiction section, and it should be noted that this is also not code for “private writings and memoirs,” but rather a space for fiction related to uniquely female experiences like falling in love, having children, and/or going to the beach.

Detective slouched over and sleeping on floor in front of string theory wall.

What’s Going on with the Font?

If you have found text within the pages of your chosen volume, you may not yet be home free. One quick way to tell if you’re dealing with a diary is to check whether its contents have been typed and set in a pleasing serif font. Vanishingly few diarists take the time to type out their musings these days, whereas publishers tend to be sticklers for that sort of thing.

Detective looking at laptop screen dispalying a Google search bar.

Read Closely

After a thorough examination of the shape and design of the book, it’s time to actually delve into its contents. This is where, per extensive research, it gets very hard. Many readers, confronted with a story about and/or written by a woman, experience temporary but debilitating impairment in the part of the brain responsible for reading comprehension.

Just a few pages of feminine interiority are enough to send even the most practiced reader into transcription suspicion—the assumption that everything in the book simply happened, and was then faithfully written down by a supple and pert amanuensis/wife-type.

Although fanciful or far-fetched locations and plotlines can help, even if the book is free of dragons, space fighting, and interdimensional time travel, it is still possible that the woman’s book is a work of fiction. A lot of novels these days are just about gals being sad on their phones.

Detective sitting in lookout car of author's house.

Ask the Author

If you’re still struggling, consider tracking down the book’s writer in person to ask her how much of her novel “actually happened.” This is an easy question to answer and a fantastic opportunity for you to tell the author about the novel you’re working on, which expands on the themes of her work but in a more complex way.

Writers love this and will be happy to give you the detailed fiction-to-reality breakdown you are owed, physical copies of which most female novelists carry with them at all times.

Good luck!