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.