Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Thoughts and questions about historical novels

 Recently, I posted a piece, on my own blog, The Writer's Daily Grind,  musting on some things' I've rather informally discovered about historical novels, both from the writing and reading end.  I discovered, for instance, that there are a large number of female readers.  There are also plenty of male readers.  Same is true of writers.  There seem(at least to me) to be more female writers of historical fiction, than male ones.  There's nothing particularly right or wrong about any of this; historical fiction appears to be a burgeoning field. I did find, however, that there seem to be differences in the subject matter of a lot of "guy" and "girl" historical fiction.  "Guy" historical fiction(like what I call "guy books" in general, tend to have lots of action:  battles, fights, travels all over the place.  These "guy writers"(and probably a fair number of "guy readers" seem to be particularly attracted to the "Viking era",, although it seems to me that the Scandinavian seafarers, traders, and yes, fighters, of that era did a lot more than travel and fight.  In some cases, this works well.  Theres a writer by the name of Judson Roberts who has written a series of ostensibly Young Adult books in a series called the Strongbow Saga, which are, in my opinion, quite well-done.  Others?  Well, if the writer is skilled enough, like Bernard Cornwell(though he isn't really writing about Vikings per se) these stories are quite entertaining and plausible, despite the fact that, sometimes, like "thrillers" in modern settings(yes, these tend to be "guy books"), these writers can't seem to make their women very real or very interesting.  

Women historical novel readers(and writers), seem to go more for less "action oriented" stuff.  They seem to particularly favor fictional biographies.  Again, there's nothing wrong with any of this, if they're well done, and I've read some that are.  The writer Elizabeth Chadwick comes to mind.  So does Sharon Kay Penman.  They both, rather unusually, in this histoical fiction writing climate, write in the "earlier" medieval period . Just as an aside, if you want really early medieval, the "guy books" I mentioned above fit, as they take place in what medievalists call "early medieval times", believe it or not.  A very few of these writers deal with the so-called Anglo-Saxon period, and I think there's not enough of that out there, but that's another story.  King Arthur is also overwhelmingly popular with women readers, though perhaps writers, not so much. 

These differences may have come about because women(in general) are attracted, generally to the more "personal" side of people's lives.  And I'll say it again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.  The only thing "wrong" with this kind of writing, IMO, is that those who write biographical fiction, seem attracted to only a few historical periods, and/or kinds of people, e.g. Tudor and Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn.  So there seems to be a lot of biographical or semi-biographical fiction about the Tudor era, and an incredible(to me) amount of literature devoted to people like Elizabeth I and Marie Antoinette(of course she wasn't Tudor, and when I've read about her, it was more to kind of understand where she was "coming from).  There are plenty of women(and perhaps some men), who really love, love, love Tudors, and again that's fine, at least for them. My only "criticism" here is, that, even if publishers seem to think Tudor, Tudor, Tudor is all women, at least, want to read about, maybe some writers could get brave and branch out a bit.  Same for "guy books".  There's a lot of "Viking era" material, but on the American side of the Atlantic, a lot of this stuff is Civil War era, mostly battles and soldiers.  I, personally, don't read about these; I'm not, oddly enough, particularly interested in the Civil War, though its buildup, action, and aftermath have consequences that reverberate today.

This,my first blog here, has not turned out to be the blog I originally set out to write, but I hope these observations, which are not in any way intended to reflect badly on writers or readers of historical novels -- I've long since given up on that, and cheerfully accept whatever people say they like -- I just have my own tastes and I write that way.  But I do hope this little essay will stimulate thoughts and questions, and perhaps some exploration.  That is the core of what I originally intended, and perhaps, at a later date, I'll expand this essay a bit, and pose some questions of my own.
Anne G


Kilian said...

Whenever I think that there is nothing new to say about the Tudors, I come across an author like Alison Weir, and I'm hooked again. The Tudor court is just so darn fascinating that I can't resist. I'd read Alison Weir on any topic and have, but she is particularly good on the Tudors. Tudors are to historical fiction readers what vampires are to teenage girls. Just can't get enough.

Anne Gilbert said...

I guess if you like Alison Weir, that's fine. Just be careful with her. She's very "pro-Tudor", but even there, she is sometimes not long on facts. My problem with Tudor-themed books is, that there are so many other periods and people(if you like fictional biographies, for example), that are just neglected, because those who decide what books get published, tend to think as you do, not realizing that there is a huge potential audience for historical fiction, but not all of them are "hooked" on Tudors.
Anne G

Dr John Yeoman said...

'Women are attracted, generally, to the more "personal" side of people's lives.' I agree, but it opens up a perilous debate...

It cannot be denied that there are 'women's' books and 'men's' books. Female writers, with memorable exceptions, tend to focus on sensibilities - how a person 'felt' about an incident. Male authors (ditto) pay only lip service to the finer emotions and often do it clumsily. They prefer to stress what a person 'did'.

This can lead to a prejudice among readers that is unfair to the author. I was thoroughly enjoying The Shakespeare Secret (J.L. Carrell) as an action-packed mystery until I discovered, belatedly, that the author was a woman. I then found myself reading it in a totally different way.

The critic Genette called the presuppositions we bring to a work the 'architext'. It's why men don't read chicklit and women, generally, steer clear of Tom Clancy.

Should we choose our authors' pseudonyms with a canny eye to the gender of our predominant readers? I'm seriously thinking of putting out my next historical novel under the name'Felicity Wolfe'. (I pray I will never have to appear at a book signing.)

YA Librarian said...

To be honest I'm not sure why this is always an issue for this genre. We all know the genders are different in how they act and to an extent what they read.

I know for a fact my male patrons like nonfiction over fiction. My female patrons like fiction. The girls want love, emotion, something they can connect with. The boys want action adventure and none of that love nonsense.

Furthermore, why does this need to be made into an issue? I mean no one is telling the science fiction/fantasy authors that there stuff is too male oriented. No one tells them they are excluding women readers.

With all that being said I do agree that there is way too much Tudor fiction out there. I think over the course of the last year it has changed a little bit. We are seeing more books about other people. I still feel most of the historical fiction is European in nature though.

Stephanie Dray said...

I came up against this hard when marketing LILY OF THE NILE, my historical fantasy about Cleopatra's daughter. The "court" of Augustus in ancient Rome was every bit as filled with drama as the Tudors, but the customs and costumes aren't as familiar and publishers can be shy about that.

Eventually, the book found a home at Berkley, but only after I had to reconsider what the book's positioning in the market had to be. I had always considered it historical fiction, but with the elements of Egyptian magic involved, I marketed it as fantasy. This was a big mistake.

It wasn't until my agent sat me down and explained in detail that the book is squarely within the realm of "women's fiction" that we marketed it appropriately and received lots of publisher interest. Until then, I didn't even know what "women's fiction" was. How could there be a whole genre dedicated to one gender?

But the journey of the heroine is an important and distinct journey from that of the hero and women respond to that in a historical setting regardless of whether there's magic involved or not. It's been a steep learning curve.

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