I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which historical fiction is gendered. I’ll need to write something longer on this but in the meantime, a few thoughts and questions:
- We know that there are huge and apparently distinct markets for historical fiction aimed at men (eg military, nautical, crime) and women (eg … oh look, I could list the sub-genres, but it’s basically any novel with a woman in it).
- But we also know from research about childhood reading that girls and young women read books marketed to boys, while boys tend not to read books marketed at girls and young women. (Yeah, I know, not all boys. But it’s a thing. There’s science. What we do about that and how we talk about it is a different topic.)
- Assumptions about the historical fiction marketed to (and perhaps written for) women affects our reading. I am a woman who writes books with female protagonists. So, I am asked, where is the romance? * Readers enter a book with a gendered idea of what they will find there.
- A book with a woman on the cover apparently can’t be literary fiction set in the past. It must be some other sub-genre that fits under the grouping of ‘women’s writing.’
- This is also partly about attitudes to the genre. Historical fiction is a sprawling territory, from the formulaic to the experimental, with dozens of sub-genres and boundary-slipping soft edges. Lots of people see it as only one thing, which it hasn’t been for at least a hundred years.
I could bang on about gendered marketing and no doubt I will at some point, but what I wonder right now is: how much is marketing (including book design and packaging), how much is literary tradition or genre definition, and how much is imagined – and by whom? Writers, readers, publishers, PR and marketing people, reviewers?
What impact does all this have on the books we write and the way we read?
Do some authors write specifically for a gendered market – and succeed wildly? (That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is YES.) And what does that mean for expectations of the genre more broadly?
What does it say about the development and the future of the genre in all its forms?
I’ve said before that all my books are acts of subversion disguised as historical fiction and now I’m becoming even more interested in subverting the genre and the expectations around it. Career-limiting move, I expect. But what fun.
And now, for your reading pleasure, some thought-provoking insight and information from others.
Jerome de Groot’s The Historical Novel both attempts to address some of these issues, but then also includes chapters on books for women and books for men, and accepts the marketing definitions – so books for women are mostly romance, for example, (including Tudor books) without any consideration of historical crime or fantasy or fiction based on a proto-feminist protagonist outside the marriage plot. I find that troubling (a bit like his hilarious suggestion that The Resurrectionist is the first novel by an Australian to be concerned with histories other than our own). But he does write:
Historical novels by women and for women, then, whether romance or more literary, have often been dismissed by literary critics and marginalised by standard accounts, but there is a weight of argument that suggests this is an error: ‘historical fiction has been one of the major forms of women’s reading and writing in the second half of the twentieth century’ (Alison Light, 1989: 60) […] women writers have used the historical novel to express multiple, complex identities and used them as sites of possibility and potential.
In that influential article by Alison Light to which he refers, ‘Young Bess’: Historical Novels and Growing Up,’ she argues:
At best popular historical novels may have helped open up a space within which different groups of women have started to perceive how marginal their needs and concerns have usually been taken to be. They offer a number of new perspectives on the past, which sit less easily alongside text-book history.
And finally, Mary Tod’s annual historical fiction survey found the following (last year):
Within historical fiction, what type of story appeals to you?
Top three for men: fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events 74%; adventure 66%, stories with a military, naval angle 51%
Top three for women: fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events 71%; romance 44%; the life of a significant historical figure 40%. For women, two other reasons come close to the 40% figure suggesting that preferences are more varied.
Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel, Routledge, Milton Park, 2010, p 67.
Alison Light, ‘Young Bess’: Historical Novels and Growing Up’, Feminist Review, 1989, Vol.33 (1), p 57.
* Sometimes there is romance in my books, sometimes not. Sometimes there is love, rather than the lead-up to love (romance plot). Sometimes there is the opposite. Sometimes it may not be what you expect.