Monday, November 30, 2009

Bite The Hand that Feeds You

I'm so glad I had thanksgiving. It gave me a full four days to feel all warm and fuzzy inside, so now I can come back to reality on Monday.

Today a friend sent me this link.

Now, let me preface my ensuing diatribe with the caveat that I usually have a pretty thick skin when it comes to this type of comment. I've been around long enough to know not everyone embraces historical fiction with quite the same enthusiasm of its fans, and of course the genre is not to everyone's taste, whether you are a reader or a bookseller or both. Though the genre’s offerings are quite diverse, running the gamut from literary to popular, and I believe it boasts plenty of books within it to satisfy most reading tastes, the hard fact is historical fiction is not the most honored of writing genres. One need only examine the recent hoopla over Hilary Mantel’s winning of the Booker Prize and ensuing squabbles amongst certain journalists to distinguish her work from the rest of the mob – efforts Ms Mantel has vigorously refuted— to see that even today there are literary elitists among us.

Nevertheless, I do take issue with this particular bookseller's offhanded remark that he never thought he'd make a "living selling bodice rippers." Now to me, this term is about as insulting as it gets. While the genre certainly has its share of romantic inclinations, some of it rougher on the bodice seams than others, in truth this is an outdated, pejorative adjective to use when describing an entire arena of writing where such talents as Dumas, Sharon Penman, the above mentioned Hilary Mantel, Caleb Carr, Margaret George, Robin Maxwell, Judith Merkle Riley, Madison Smart Bell, Reay Tannahill, Isabel Allende, and Daphne Du Maurier - just to mention a few - have contributed years of work. Collectively, historical fiction accounts for some of the biggest bestselling novels of all time - yes, Gone with the Wind is considered historical fiction - and some of literature's most fascinating characters. Historical fiction writers often research their subjects for years; spend their own money and time traveling to the places where their subjects lived and died; and purchase massive quantities of books to augment said efforts. Recently, several examples of the genre have helped to bolster, and in some cases jump-start, the ailing book industry, and certainly a celebrated few of its authors maintain a constant presence on booksellers' most popular lists.

So, why the need to lump everyone under this misleading and arguably offensive label? Well, first of all, it’s because most people do not know that the term ‘bodice ripper’ was first coined in the 1980s, to describe a burgeoning type of novel that was sexually explicit, usually in a historical setting, and always with a plot involving the heroine’s seduction. This type of novel, a hybrid of the classic English romances popularized by Austen and Bronte, became wildly successful and, as most wildly successful things, became formulaic, down to the swooning, well-endowed woman on the cover.

Nowadays, the descendents of the bodice ripper live on in historical romance; though here, too, the genre is being constantly re-defined by its target audience. Historical romance never pretends to take itself too seriously; indeed, I’ve met several romance authors whose whole-hearted embrace of their appeal, respect for their readers, and passion for what they write is something not a few authors in other so-called high-brow genres might emulate. And historical romance continues to defy all pundits with astonishing sales figures that crush even the most resistant recession, spawning ever-greater popularity with subgenres in the romantic paranormal and time-slip categories.

I do not write or read historical romance—not because I think it’s less worthy, but simply because my particular fetish involves history itself rather than personalized passion between its occupants. If romance is integral to the story, great, but it’s never been a requisite for me, nor do I require it to drive the story. I believe most historical fiction readers would agree. Instead, what I crave is for history to burst alive on the page as reflected through the author's vision and find myself swept from this century into a world both vastly different, and in some aspects startlingly familiar, to my own. This is what historical fiction at its best achieves: it helps to show us who we are by illuminating who we’ve been.

I attended the Historical Novel Society Conference in Chicago along with the other 300 attendees who were ‘heavily into romance and pabulum.’ Conference organizers put together an amazing celebration of the genre, and some of the best known writers in the business were there. When I checked in with the bookseller, something I always do at events, I discovered The Last Queen had sold out on the first day of my first panel, and the bookseller expressed his delight to me personally, adding he “wished [he’d] ordered more copies.” I heard from several other authors at the conference that their books also sold out or sold very well, so apparently our mutual efforts were profitable for all concerned.

Perhaps if our esteemed bookseller had sold nothing, he’d have no cause for complaint.


Susan Higginbotham said...

My, he certainly knows how to endear himself to his customers, doesn't he?

Allie ~ Hist-Fic Chick said...

Wow--that is astonishing! Especially that he would group all those attendees of the HSN Conference as one, and to say that they were all heavily into romance... For me there is a big difference between historical fiction and historical romance. Most historical romance novels don't try to come off as prolific works of literature, nor do their authors attempt to disguise their work as Booker Prize-worthy pursuits. They are upfront about the tone and nature of their books. On the other hand, I have read plenty of profound works of historical fiction, yours included!

I don't read romances, historical or otherwise, either--You won't find Fabio gracing the cover of any of the books on my bookshelf. I really think you hit the nail on the head when you said, "not because I think it's less worthy, but simply because my particular fetish involves history itself rather than personalized passion between its occupants." That's exactly how I feel, and I said essentially the same thing in my "How I Came to be a Hist-Fic Chick" mission statement at the top of my blog. I think it's fair to say that "historical fiction" would be the umbrella under which "historical romance" falls (although I actually think historical romance belongs more under the "romance" umbrella). But I really cringe when people cluster historical romance and historical fiction as one and the same!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Superb post C,W. Thanks for writing it! Romance and Pablum - was this guy at the same conference? That is so denigrating!

Margaret Evans Porter said...

Ouch. You've provided a firm and eloquent defence of all historical fiction, C.W., and many thanks.

I now regret the purchases I made at the support of my fellow authors. I wish I'd waited a few days and bought/ordered their books from my local independent.

My backlist titles would probably fit his definition of "bodice ripper" and I'm cool with that. It's a term I've heard before. But how deflating to know that my historical novel, not a romance--in his view--falls into the same category. This is a bookseller who knows very little of the diversity within the term "historical novels."

Call me naive, but it seems that a good business person shouldn't publicly deride the reading choices of his/her clientele.

Sandra Gulland said...

Great post, Christopher. What a loathsome article! He won't be invited to the next HNS, I hope.



Bella said...

Bravo! Great blog Gortner, thanks for speaking for all of us. The fact that certain genres do not appeal to one's taste does not mean that it gives license to be prejudice, which can only show ignorance from the individual. I personally enjoy reading HR, but HF is definitely what I totally LOVE!

C.W. Gortner said...

I'm still somewhat perplexed by our bookseller's motivations. Did he take the gig to score easy sales (what could be easier than 300 captive, rabid "romance" fans?) and then feel he needed to publicly distance himself from it? Perhaps he believes customers frequent one bookshop over another based on "literary merit." I don't; I go whereever there are books. But hey, I'm a equal opportunity spender!

I'm glad you felt I defended our genre honorably, ladies. I agree with all your comments. Thank you for stopping by!

Sarah said...

Thanks for your cogent and eloquent defense, Christopher. Very well stated. The conference's board of directors sent a note to the bookseller expressing our surprise/dismay (etc) five days ago, with no reply so far. We've always selected a local indie to handle book sales at the conferences, so his public remarks were especially disappointing. The conference doesn't expect to be returning to Chicago in the near future, in any case -- we rotate around to different parts of the country.

Anonymous said...

Really disappointing that a bookseller of all people would make a disparaging remark like this about a group of 300 passionate authors/readers flocking into his store. I'll bet
he shows the same contempt to his customers who come in looking for something that doesn't meet his standards for lit-er-a-toor, and then bemoans that fact that the community doesn't support his cool indie bookshop.

Sarah said...

Just a quick note to update. The current HNS conference program chair received a note from the bookseller this past weekend, apologizing for how their joking remarks came out sounding in the article.

C.W. Gortner said...

That's good to know. Thank you, Sarah, for the update.