Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Hundredth Book about Caesar?


Just picture it, a misty morning in northern Italy with the sun beginning to cut through. Birdsong comes to a halt as the sound of stomping caligae and jingling pots and horse harness break into the morning. Gaius Julius himself, flanked perhaps by Mark Antony, rides at the head of his veteran army. Caesar reins in at the edge of a small river to pause before his next act. Maybe Antony nods to him, or maybe Caesar smiles ominously? Next, he is moving across the river Rubicon, troops in tow and the rest, as they say, is history.

What fan of history and historical fiction does not know the rest of the story from this point on, for so long has this song been sung that it has been engrained in our imaginations for over two thousand years. In novels, plays, poetry, films and other media, the story of Caesar has been told. And why not? It has all the makings of a bestseller: love, blood, passion, betrayal, action and adventure. Perfect. But can we have too much of a good thing?

Something has sparked this train of thought. I’m not going crazy. I just heard from a fellow writer who is part of a historical fiction/fantasy writers’ group I belong to (I know, this is like admitting to being a member of the chess club or something but let me assure you, coolness and creativity abound!). At any rate, this writer, like so many debut authors, is currently in search of literary representation as this is a must these days. Just as agents have their share of horrible or hilarious queries, so do authors have their share of cake-taking stories. This member of our group has written a book set in the later Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Maximian (A.D. 286-305).

He (the writer, not Maximian) has finished his manuscript after several drafts and has begun the task of finding representation. He gets the usual form rejection letters that are an unfortunate necessity for submission-inundated agencies. These are part of the process. Yesterday, a big New York agent that our hero queried took time out of his busy schedule to answer via e-mail and had some interesting, if not disheartening, feedback. The agent said something to the extent that it was a great story with good writing but that people would rather read the hundredth book about Julius Caesar than the first book about an emperor nobody knew much about.

Well, we discussed this ad nauseum during our meeting this evening. The surprising thing was that the agent took the time to give this feedback and indicated that the story and the writing were good. I had to play devil’s advocate a bit, which almost got me ostracized from the group, but I had to point out that this was understandable in a way with the current market and economic situation globally. No matter how sad the statement, I can see the agent's point of view.

However, apart from the obvious view to entertain by way of a good yarn, should not the goal of good historical fiction or historical fantasy be to broaden the picture of history and to help the reader gain a fuller understanding of the past?

The history of the Roman Empire is much more than Julius Caesar and though his actions effected change in the Roman world and on history, his imperium lasted but a few years out of hundreds of Roman supremacy. We have to ask ourselves what good it does to tell the same story over and over again when there are so many interesting tales centered on strong personages in ancient and medieval history. Why limit readers’ access to new horizons? Indeed why should writers limit themselves?

I understand the need for commercial appeal and good old Julius has loads of it. On the other hand, you may remember a certain movie called Gladiator that came out back in 2001 which of course was a big commercial hit that went on to win the Oscar and which sparked a rise in student enrolment in classical history at numerous universities around the world. Book stores also began stocking and selling non-fiction books on ancient Rome and selling more fiction set in the ancient world (I know this because I worked as a bookseller at the time at a major chain). Gladiator was not set in the time of Julius Caesar but rather the reign of Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus both of whom, you can bet your denarii, were little known to the average reader or movie goer out there.

While the hesitancy of publishers, agents and indeed many writers to take on a project that involves lesser known characters is, as I have said, understandable to an extent, the literary world should perhaps start braving the unknown, untapped realms that exist. A bestseller need not necessarily feature Gaius Julius Caesar to make a splash, for if you are setting a novel in the Roman Empire you can pretty much guarantee that you’re in for a ripping good story. It’s all in the words one chooses to tell it. It helps too that human beings are, and always will be, beautiful and terrible all at once and so deliciously flawed that it almost always makes for fantastic fiction.
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