Historical fiction dilemma # 3: Readership

I don’t suppose you’ve read Peter Raven: Under Fire. It’s an odd book. I read it late last year – and I acknowledge that it’s vaguely in competition to my own, but then again I’ve read more kids’ naval adventure books than most people, so it’s an informed opinion. Under Fire is trying to be both an adventure for boys 10 to 12, and a romance for girls a bit older. It’s going for a balance between Hornblower and Hillary Duff.
Either story might have worked. Trying to do both makes its narrative jump and its pace jerk. One minute you’re in a naval battle, the next a ballroom. I also fear that the young male readers will be turned off by the romance bits.
I can hear it now. “Is this a kissing book?”
Yes and no.
But I can sympathise with the author, Michael Malloy. There are few kids’ adventure books read avidly by both girls and boys. The exceptions include some of the biggest titles in publishing (Harry Potter, Narnia, Deltora), so clearly it’s a balancing act you want to get right, unless you’ve got a very specific readership in mind. Boys won’t read a book with a girl on the cover, or a female protagonist. It’s sad, but there you go.
On the other hand, years ago I knew many women who wouldn’t read books by men (it was the ’80s). “What about War and Peace?” I’d ask. But I did understand. They’d spent a lifetime looking for their lives to be reflected in books – you could be Elizabeth Bennett or Madame Bovary, throwing yourself at Darcy or throwing yourself under a train, and there wasn’t too much in between, or that’s how it seemed. So once they got their hands on books by women like Fay Weldon or Iris Murdoch, or even good old Marge Piercy, they weren’t about to go back to hacks like Hemingway. It was a phase. Perhaps a necessary one. Without it, there’d have been no Virago, no Women’s Press.
It wasn’t just about gender. It was the same for working men – or unemployed men, for that matter – before Lawrence and Wells. It was the same for queers before Genet or Baldwin, for … well, you get the idea.
Can you remember what that was like? To search high and low for a protagonist who sounded like you; who lived, if not your life, at least something vaguely recognisable or felt and thought about the world in a way you understood; to read about someone you could have been or could be or perhaps might once have been?
Now women readers have the luxury of relating to everyone from Bridget Jones to Lily Brett to Jhumpa Lahiri. We can choose to align ourselves with a whole world of characters, navigate through myriad worlds and lives.
So readership has become a very specialised thing. There are no more truths universally acknowledged. There’s Young Adult Chick Lit. Coming-of-Age Westerns. Christian Thrillers. Africana Science Fantasy. Visionary and Metaphysical Fiction.
Each one of these has a market, a readership of varying sizes (especially in the US), a shelf at Borders, and quite often a formula that allows readers to recognise a familiar genre.
At present I’m working on a time slip novel. It’s got its own genre (time slip is of course a long-established tradition, but it’s now divided into sub-genres).
The Swashbuckler books are conscious tributes to nautical adventure books from O’Brien to Sabatini, but with a tomboy protagonist. The girl pirate book is almost a genre in itself now (mostly aimed at girls). Genre is fun.
Readership is different, and perhaps more complex. Genre is internal – it’s about writing as craft, as tradition. Writing for a readership is about making connections, about voice, about listening. I think.

Historical fiction dilemma #2: Voice

Historical fiction dilemma #1: Ethics

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