Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Does the Prize make the Genre?

Hilary Mantel's recent win of The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction is a definite boon for a genre that has suffered more than its fair share of critics. In the days leading up to the award of this prestigious UK-based prize, both author Sarah Dunant – a nominee - and academic Jerome de Groot wrote pieces in the Times and The Scotsman, respectively, which attest to, and attempt to explain, the current popularity of the historical novel. Both pieces offer valid points and rejoice in our genre's resurrection; and no one who has read my blog can deny my own admiration for Dunant’s work, in particular.

However, for me, both pieces exude a slight whiff of troubling elitism prevalent within the genre. It's almost as if historical novelists must justify the reason for their work while being  divided into categories: the literary; the commercially popular; and, well, the rest. While we cannot deny a class status within the genre, as in all forms of writing, I believe there are more deserving novelists working in the arena of historical fiction than just the ubiquitous nominees. There seems to be a general reluctance to acknowledge this fact, as if in doing so we might risk opening the floodgates to a tidal wave of undesirables who will inundate our shelves; as if by paring the list to a few well-heeled and universally acclaimed names, we can restrain  the growth of this rather checkered genre and keep it in its proper place, so to speak.

Surely the time has come to cease casting aspersions based on a tarnished past? Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, Georgette Heyer, et al are our grand dames, who deserve respect, if nothing else, for popularizing a genre mired in 19th century convention. While few today would deem their books as serious literary endeavors, they remain compulsively readable. Even more important, these hard-working, prolific novelists helped make the genre accessible to thousands of readers who otherwise might never have picked up, much less read, an historical novel.

The archaic confusion between romance novels with historical settings—where the romantic interaction always assumes precedence over history— and the current vogue in novels featuring real historical figures appears to be a partial culprit in our current elitist stance. No one, it seems, wants to be caught dead being dubbed the descendant of a bodice ripper. Nor do some literary-aspiring novelists want to be caught dead doing the “marquee name” while others, conversely, shun stories about ordinary people living in the past, with nary a guttering beeswax candle or flicker of velvet in sight.

But in truth, these divisions are blurring. While it can be said we’re experiencing an overemphasis on queens, which in turn risks exposing the genre to all the historic criticisms leveled against it, such as lack of veracity, distortion of facts, etc., the genre is also more popular than ever— and that in and of itself is a remarkable feat, a testament to the fact that readers love what we write and there is room for variations on a theme.

I’m all for excellence in our craft; indeed, I strive for it. I just feel there is more of it around us than the rest of the world wants to admit and we must celebrate our diversity, rather than merely exalt our loftiest achievements.


Marie said...

I am glad that history has been popularized through the genre. In all my years of schooling I had zero clue as to many of the historical events of our world. Historical fiction has put the quagmire into context, and puts readers that much closer to the history that was not taught in school. A fantastic journey for me, but sad to know that education lacks so much.

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Richard said...

Great post, Christopher! It's well-known that women can be counted on to read more books than men, so it should be no surprise that historical queens are part of the resurgence in historical fiction. The other big part of the current trend is the "The [Fill in Profession Here]'s Wife" books. I think this is a good sign that historicals are emerging as distinct from historical romance. As a 'historical boy' who writes about doges and sea-captains rather than queens, I can only hope this leads to a trend for strong male historical characters :)

Harry said...

Congrats to Hilary on her achievement!! Keep it up the good work.
Force Factor

Richard Warren Field said...

I have heard for years that "historical novels don't sell." And, they are not well represented in the top mega-sellers. But I notice that many of the books reviewed in PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY have a historical angle - stories about the past will always have an appeal. I am also aware that we are experiencing a lot of historical novels with main characters who are women. But isn't this the result of a rather small-minded assumption that since more women buy books, they will want to read more about women than men? Is this really true, or is some bean-counter with a spreadsheet deciding this for us? Ladies?

I am glad to see this contest, and I have made a list of the books on the shortlist as well, to bring new writers and books to my attention. That is what contests like this can do!

Anonymous said...

I wanted to know if you write a book and you want it to win the nobel prize in literature what are the qualifications?

Acai Max Cleanse

Anonymous said...

I wanted to know if you write a book and you want it to win the nobel prize in literature what are the qualifications?

forcefactorsuccess said...

WOW!~ Im very proud of Hilary that she achieved her goal! Hope shes keep it go!