Sunday, June 13, 2010

History vs. Vampires – Battle in the Marketplace

No, this is not a new book but rather an ongoing concern for historical novelists and readers of the genre. I’ve just read an article in the latest edition of SOLANDER, the magazine of the Historical Novel Society, which warrants a bit of discussion.

The article, entitled "Recession Reading" takes a look at the state of historical fiction in today’s market, a market that has been hit by the economic downturn of the last few years. Some genres are booming however, and the one on top right now seems to be Teen Vampire Novels! Sure, I can understand the draw of the paranormal as something inherent in human beliefs – the unknown, the mysterious and inexplicable, something bigger than ourselves. But what does the rise of the vampire novel mean for the fate of historical fiction?

Not much, as Vampire novels are a fad and, like ‘chick lit’ or other catch phrase genres, it will have its time in the spotlight (maybe the dark since vampires don’t like light). Historical fiction can be long lasting. Look at the Iliad and the Odyssey, thousands of years and still going strong! The trick, whether you have a ‘marquee character’ or not, is to have themes, conflict and a range of emotions that resonate with readers, things that our humanness can tap in to. And who’s to say that you can’t combine history and the paranormal. Elizabeth Kostova wrote a historical novel about Dracula, and the Historian was a massive debut novel that garnered much praise and commercial success even though it wasn’t that mainstream. Alice Borchardt, Anne Rice’s sister, also wrote some historical fantasy novels about Romans and werewolves. The two genres can indeed live in harmony.

Some writers, agents and publishers however, take a darker view of the market and today’s readership. Said article quotes maritime historical novelist James Nelson as saying that “Historical fiction for men is dead.” Mr. Nelson is also reported to have suggested that the historical novels that end up on the store shelves may be an issue of gender rather than the market or the emergence of new formats. I’m not quite sure I agree with this and though it may be true of maritime historical novels, there are other historical novelists who are quite successful such as Steven Pressfield, Simon Scarrow and relative newcomer, Christian Cameron. These three write novels that appeal to, and are purchased by, men. Ok, women account for a much larger portion of historical fiction readers, but men are certainly in there. Historical fiction for men is certainly not dead.

Here’s a question: Can historical fiction overcome gender boundaries? And if so, could that be the key to revival and success?

I would argue, YES, of course it can! Having worked as a bookseller I have had numerous conversations with store patrons about what they like, what they don’t like and what they want to see more of. In my experience, some authors appeal equally to both men and women; writers such as Jack Whyte (Dream of Eagles series), Guy Gavriel Kay (historical fantasy), Bernard Cornwell (his Arthurian cycle), Lindsay Davis (Falco novels) and Steven Saylor (Rome sub Rosa series). There are just a few examples of many that I have noticed appeal to both men and women. There are many more. In North America we sometimes have trouble looking beyond our borders to read things over seas as well. When I was living in Scotland and England, I was constantly amazed by the number of men I spoke to at the pub or elsewhere who were interested in archaeology, Roman and medieval history and the knowledge with which they spoke about these subjects. This is due to the nature of television programming there and the fact that the remnants of those periods of history are right in their own backyards, quite literally (watch Time Team!). For my own writing, my test readers for CHILDREN OF APOLLO have included both men and women and both groups have been interested and want to read more, read on. That is encouraging and perhaps indicates that I have not written with one specific sex in mind. I’m just writing about the human condition and hopefully, victory will follow.

But I digress. The SOLANDER article mentions a conservatism on the part of publishers in this current economic climate that is worrisome for writers at the moment. They want what is popular, they want vampires! I think that what is forgotten at times is that the trends are created by those publishers who will take chances, just like the publisher who took a chance on wizard stories written by someone named J.K. Rowling, or even Vampire stories by a certain Stephanie Meyer. I don’t think I need to say much more than that. Historical fiction is always on readers’ radar in one form or another, sometimes peppered with the paranormal, sometimes with hardcore scholarship. Be it ancient Egypt, Rome or Greece, medieval England, the Wild West or World War II, there are people out there who want to read this stuff, on paper, on the internet or on an e-reader. Young and old audiences both are ready and waiting for something old to be given a fresh new face. Historical fiction definitely has staying power and will not be yielding in the battle for the marketplace any time soon.
(Roman Cavalry painting by Peter Connolly - great historical re-creation artist)