Sunday, 5 June 2011

Beyond the Marquee: Toward a Common History

This article of mine was originally published in the February 2011 issue of Historical Novels Review.

Come and visit our panel "Are Marquee Names Really Necessary" with star authors Margaret George, C.W. Gortner, Susanne Dunlap, and Vanitha Sankaran at the 2011 Historical Novel Society North American Conference in San Diego, on Saturday, June 18.

Recorded history is wrong. It’s wrong because the voiceless have no voice in it.
These are the words of the late, great Mary Lee Settle, author of the classic Beulah Land Quintet, published in the 1950’s when both academic history and most historical fiction were narrowly focused on the elite. So many people have been written out of history: not only the vast majority of women, but also people of the peasant and labouring classes, and most people of non-European ancestry. In Settle’s day, a more inclusive history seemed a far off dream.

“There’s a revolution going on out there!”

Sarah Dunant, acclaimed author of The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, remembers this time. Speaking at the Bluecoat School in Liverpool in May 2010, Dunant described how she first fell in love with historical fiction when she was a twelve-year-old in postwar Britain, which she remembers as “a grey, colourless, bleak place” where nobody wanted to talk about the war. On the brink of adolescence, she found a wonderful escape in Jean Plaidy’s novels of the crowned heads of Europe. These books not only opened up another world that was colourful and glamorous but they inspired Dunant’s lifelong love affair with history. She went on to study history at Cambridge. “The history I learned,” she recalls, “was the history of great battles, great empires, great men.”

But what inspired Dunant to become a historical novelist were the sweeping developments in academic history that occurred after she left Cambridge in 1972. This new history embraced people who did not belong to the elite. She cites Joan Kelly-Gadol’s 1977 essay, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” as one of the turning points in the development of how we look at history.

Sarah Dunant is not only a champion of a more inclusive, non-elitist historical fiction—she also became an international bestseller by writing about people on the margins of history. Her most recent novel, Sacred Hearts, explores the secret world of Benedictine nuns in 1570 Ferrara, Italy—a cloistered “republic of women” where each choir sister had a voice and a vote in the daily chapter house meeting.

“Modern historians,” Dunant explains, “know that there is a multiplicity of history—there is more than one history, one fact. The history I’m using has been hard won over the past twenty to thirty years.” And this history allowed her to write novels about a past that simply wasn’t regarded as history even thirty years ago. For Sacred Hearts, she has drawn on two generations of young historians who examined court records of nuns who got into trouble.

Similarly, I could not have written my most recent novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, which is based on the true story of the Pendle Witches of 1612, without the drawing on groundbreaking social histories, such as Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic; landmark works on Reformation Studies, like Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and Ronald Hutton’s The Rise and Fall of Merry England; as well as recent studies on historical cunning folk.

Is the tide, then, changing? Will this new history open the door to a Renaissance in the historical novel? Will more and more authors draw on this wider window into ordinary people’s lives instead of rehashing the same old tired tales of Tudor royalty? Dunant believes that historical novelists possess every potential to be on the cutting edge of bringing this new history in an accessible form to a modern audience. “Wake up, there’s a revolution going on out there in historical fiction!” Dunant told Lucinda Byatt in their May 2010 Solander interview.

Marquee names only, please

Although the world of academic history has moved on light years since the 1950s, historical fiction often appears to be stuck in a rut. In these recessionary times, an increasingly conservative publishing market urges new and established authors alike to play it safe by writing about famous historical figures, such as Tudor royalty, instead of drawing on a social history of the less privileged.

Speaking at the 2007 Historical Novel Society Conference in Albany, New York, agent Irene Goodman stressed the importance of “marquee names” in finding an audience for one’s historical fiction. In the May 2010 issue of Solander, Goodman cited author Leslie Carroll’s leap from midlist obscurity to major success with the sale of her trilogy of novels about Marie Antoinette. Goodman is not alone in stressing the importance of marquee names.

“The trend simply cannot be denied,” Bethany Latham, Managing Editor of Historical Novels Review, observes. “For better or worse, publishers seem to prefer marquee names right now. They’re the path of least resistance—easier to market since, in the mind of many publishers, celebrity protagonist equals ready-made audience. There’s even a tendency for successful authors who began differently to evolve into something that better fits the prevailing mold—witness Philippa Gregory, who started out with the Wideacre Trilogy but has ended up with the familiar big-name Tudors and Plantagenets, and will be sticking with them for the foreseeable future.”

Popular fascination with historical It Girls like Anne Boleyn helped launch the incredible resurgence in historical fiction within the past decade, most notably through Gregory’s blockbuster, The Other Boleyn Girl. Literary agent Marcy Posner, speaking at the 2010 Historical Novel Society Conference in Manchester, UK, pointed out how Gregory’s glittering evocation of the Tudor Court inspired a large group of female readers to make the leap from historical romance to mainstream historicals. It seems only natural for agents and editors to look for work that contains the same kind of hook that proved so successful for Gregory.

“My experience was that when I sent some of my work to an agent,” says Elizabeth Ashworth, author of The de Lacy Inheritance, “she thought it was an engaging story and she liked my style of writing but she didn’t think she could sell my work to a publisher because it wasn’t about a well known king or queen. When I mentioned that I was working on another novel set in the reign of Edward III, she replied that if I wrote about Edward and Piers Gaveston, she might be interested. But that story has been written many times before and it was another story I wanted to tell – one about Lady Mabel Bradshaw who lived at that time but is relatively unknown.”

“The marquee name, especially female, has become almost a requirement in historical fiction,” says C.W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. “My novel, The Last Queen, languished unpublished for years, with several of my rejection letters pointing out that Juana [of Spain] was not a ‘known personage’. I persisted and eventually found success, but how many other writers give up?”

The insistence on marquee names was why author Jeri Westerson says she switched to writing historical mysteries. “I preferred to write about the everyman in an historical setting, but year after year, I was told by editors that my medieval stories needed to be about royalty or other noble personages. The kind of historical I wanted to write translated much better to the mystery genre. So now I write medieval mysteries (after some eleven years of peddling historical manuscripts and not selling them).” Her fourth Crispin Guest Medieval Noir, Troubled Bones, will be released in Fall 2011. However, other historical mystery writers embrace the marquee name trend by choosing a well known figure such as Elizabeth I or Oscar Wilde as their sleuth.

Susanne Dunlap, author of Liszt’s Kiss and The Musician’s Daughter, adds that in Young Adult Fiction, the pressure is to write “something that fits into the high school curriculum,” which may well involve including famous personalities.

The bias can sometimes be found among HNS members themselves. Historical Novels Review Book Review Editor Sarah Johnson has noticed that reviewers tend to clamour for books about big names while novels about less familiar characters and settings can be harder to place.

Not even the most elite literary circles are immune to this trend. Hilary Mantel’s Booker Award winning masterpiece Wolf Hall is set in Henry VIII’s court.

A lack of diversity in the genre?

So does this push to write about marquee names help or hinder historical fiction?

“This is the backwash of celebrity culture,” Dunant states, “and our greed for sensation and scandal. People read about Anne Boleyn when they tire of reading about Paris Hilton. We’ve gone back to kings and queens, a celebrity history, because we’ve squeezed Paris Hilton dry.”

Must we all write like latter day Jean Plaidys and Georgette Heyers in order to meet our publishers’ sales expectations? Bethany Latham laments to think that in today’s climate, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, the bestselling historical novel of all time, might not be published because Scarlet O’Hara is a nobody.

Alison Weir, speaking at the 2010 HNS Conference in Manchester, presents a different viewpoint, arguing that her novels on figures such as Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Aquitaine are a legitimate way of reclaiming women’s history, even though they are focused on elite women. As Keynote Speaker at the conference, Weir explained how she pitched a nonfiction biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine some years ago only to be told that not enough material existed on her to make her a worthy subject.

“I think many readers gravitate toward the familiar,” Sarah Johnson observes, “and historical fiction readers in particular often choose novels that help them gain insight into a real-life character’s mindset or behavior. In that sense, I can see why marquee names are so popular, and why authors are being encouraged to choose them as subjects. It’s an automatic ‘hook.’”

Johnson added that the industry’s insistence on marquee names has the unfortunate drawback of creating a “lack of diversity of the genre.”

“The push for ‘big names’ is primarily about name recognition,” state N. Gemini Sasson, author of The Crown in the Heather. “The casual historical fiction reader scanning the shelves at the local Target store is more likely to linger over a name she recognizes, pick up the book and buy it, than an unknown. I do wonder though when a saturation point for some of these historical persons will be reached and the scales tip the other way.”

“If I see another book on the Tudors, I’ll scream!”

Which begs the question: are historical fiction readers beginning to reach their saturation point with historical celebrities? Eager to ape Philippa Gregory’s success, many authors have tried to follow her formula, with mixed results. How many more novels about Tudor royalty can the public bear?

“Frankly, if I see another book on the Tudors, I’ll scream,” HNS member Monica Spence admits.

“When I’m book-buying, the Not Anne Boleyn Again Syndrome periodically strikes,” Bethany Latham confesses.

Anne Gilbert says that she tends to shy away from fictional biographies. “No matter how well-written they may be,” says Gilbert, “they tend to concentrate on pretty much the same well-known historical people.”

“There are only so many ‘ultra famous’ women we can write about, whom publishers find commercial enough,” C.W. Gortner observes. “Take, for example, Eleanor of Aquitaine; as fascinating as she is, how much more can be said about her without it becoming repetitious or whimsical in novelized form?”

A 2009 market research poll conducted by blogger Julianne Douglas on Writing the Renaissance indicates that only 11% of the people she surveyed buy historical fiction based on the appeal of marquee names alone. Readers want so much more out of their fiction: fascinating characters and storylines, arresting and richly realised settings.

Finding an audience

Following the Publisher's Weekly listings of best-selling historical fiction on her blog, Reading the Past, Sarah Johnson mentions Edward Rutherfurd, Lisa See, and Sandra Dallas as just a few commercially successful authors who have bucked the big name trend. Their novels reached a wide audience because they have additional hooks that attract readers, Johnson points out, such as strong book club potential, and they also appeal to many readers outside the core historical fiction audience. Bethany Latham praises Maggie O’Farrell as a successful author with a fresh, original voice, who is utterly unaffected by the celebrity trend, not to mention Kenneth Follett, whose blockbuster Fall of Giants saga depicts ordinary people against extraordinary historical backdrops.

However, HNS member Matt Phillips, who is writing a novel based on his ancestors on the Pennsylvania frontier, still feels that not enough historical fiction based on the lives of “real people” is reaching the reading public. “There are so many stories that can shed light on how the ‘average person’ lived, or might have lived, while also entertaining the reader, engaging his or her imagination and emotions authentically with the thrills and fears and hopes and challenges of living in another time. Yet relatively few such stories find their way to the shelves of our bookstores because publishers continue to emphasize the marquee names.”

What happens when new or midlist authors embrace the lives of people on the margins of history? Gabriella West’s novel Time of Grace (Wolfhound Press, 2002) is a daring work—a woman-centered look at a very male period in history, Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, and also a romance between two young women. “It was successfully published but I’m not sure it was published successfully,” West says. “It never really found its audience.”

Joyce Elson Moore’s has had a happier experience with her new novel, The Tapestry Shop, based on the life of Adam de la Halle, an obscure 13th-century musician. “His secular plays and music are still being performed,” Moore explains, “and he was one of the last and greatest of the trouveres (like troubadours in southern France). He penned the first version of the Robin Hood legend, and I felt like his story had to be told. The book is getting a lot of attention, and I think one reason is that it is different.”

Elizabeth Ashworth reports good sales on her own first novel, The de Lacy Inheritance. “I was lucky that my publisher Myrmidon Books was willing to take my novel, although the main character is a leper. It’s selling well and I think that proves the publishers wrong who maintain that readers only want to read about kings and queens.”

“Just give us variety.”

“To be honest, I’m not sure I’d be able to work with the constraints of a documented marquee name,” says Vanitha Sankaran, whose debut novel Watermark explores the life of a woman papermaker in late medieval France. “As a writer, I like the freedom of being able to create my own characters and stories while staying accurate to the era. As a reader, however, I’m interested in reading about all different t ypes of people, from the poor man trying to feed his pregnant wife to the merchant seeing his profits swallowed up by war. I wish publishers would take more risks across the whole genre and not focus on any time, place, or biographical person, but just give us variety.”

Sarah Johnson agrees that “those who stick narrowly to celebrity characters are missing out on some wonderful stories! In particular, the Editors’ Choice selections in Historical Novels Review demonstrate that historical fiction readers’ most highly recommended books don’t follow trends or fit into neat categories.”

N. Gemini Sasson sums it up beautifully: “There are less well known historical figures that have stories worth telling, every bit as compelling and dramatic as those whose stories have been told a hundred ways already. Sharing their lives would do nothing but enrich our view of the past.”

Perhaps we are indeed ready for a revolution in historical fiction.

“Time to Change the Marquee” by Julianne Douglas

“Bestselling Historical Novels of 2009” by Sarah Johnson