The "Death" of the Historical
There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the demise of the historical novel. In fact, I’ve been hearing about it on a weekly basis.
Three weeks ago, friends back from the London Book Fair informed me that the scuttlebutt there was that the historical novel was dead. Last week, AAR posted “Where have all the Historical Romances gone?” And just this week, Dear Author opined that the historical romance should be put out of its misery.
What’s going on?
I have a bunch of theories, none of them terribly coherent. (I’m in the midst of revisions just now, so my brain is a sub-species of mush.) But here they are, such as they are:
The market tends to glut. Remember the rise and fall of chick lit? A particular sort of book tends to sell very well, spawns a sea of sequels, readers eventually get bored, and the trend dies. On the historical fiction side, we’ve seen this with the Other Other Other Boleyn Girl’s fourteenth cousin twice removed; on the historical romance side, with Regency rakes who really don’t want to get married until they meet that feisty miss who happens to be running a matchmaking agency/bake shoppe/ early suffragette bureau on the side.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an appetite for the historical. Certainly, the popularity of Downton Abbey should be enough to show that people still hunger after stories set in the past. Just as chick lit changed and developed, moving into women’s fiction, contemporary romance, and YA, the historical is seeking out new frontiers as well. There are plenty of historical offshoots out there: time slip novels (like Susanna Kearsley's much anticipated Firebird), fictionalized biography (The Aviator’s Wife, Z), and historical paranormal (think Deborah Harkness or Bee Ridgway). Certain types of historical novels and historical romances may rise and wane in popularity, but that doesn't mean the historical as a whole is dead.
I also wonder if we’re missing the forest for the trends. In our internet age, we create odd echo chambers for ourselves; trends come and go at the speed of lightning and small shifts get blown out of all proportion. Are the books we’re buzzing about on the internet really the books people are taking out of the library, or reading and re-reading? For those of us wrapped up in the industry, it’s easy to only pay attention to the trajectory of new books (and often only in their first few weeks of publication), which might provide a misleading picture of what people are actually reading on the ground.
Which leads me to my next point. The number of available books has multiplied. It’s not just new fiction coming out in greater quantity than ever before. Suddenly, we have access to authors’ backlists in a way that would have been unimaginable ten years ago. I know people who have gone from The Other Boleyn Girl to discovering Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, Kathleen Winsor, M.M. Kaye, and other classic writers of historical fiction for the first time, while, on the historical romance side, I’ve heard a great deal about a return to the classic historical romances of the 80s and 90s, both in e-book form and, in many cases, in mass market print re-issue with snazzy new covers and blurbs from more recent popular authors. These books aren’t new, they don’t get buzz, and they aren’t hitting lists, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful to readers or lessen their appeal. What we’re seeing may not be so much a dissolution as a diffusion.
There’s no denying that paranormal, contemporary and erotica are enjoying an ascendance right now—but I wouldn’t write off the historical yet.
What do you think?