Write like a girl

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.

Book cover of Regency Buck

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.

Book cover of Hornblower

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.

Sources:

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.

The history in historical fiction

I recently chaired a debate between historical novelists and historians at the conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia‘What can historical novelists and historians learn from each other?

Our thoughtful and entertaining panellists were Jesse Blackadder, Gillian Polack, Rachel Le Rossignol, and Deborah Challinor.

It was great fun, but of course being in the chair meant I couldn’t answer any of my own questions.

But it’s my blog and I’ll rant if I want to.

So here begins a series of posts on thoughts about the intersections of history writing and historical fiction: arising in part from the conference debate, tracing the questions I posed (and also many that I didn’t get to ask), but also bubbling up from my own reading.  And some tips for writers of historical fiction on how to act on some of the issues raised.

Image of Balmain town hall

The HNSA conference in action: Balmain Town Hall. (Photo via HNSA facebook group)

So… this is where we began the other night:

Without history writing, without libraries and other collections, archaeologists, without the ancient recorders of events and daily life, what we novelists write would be fantasy. On the other hand, we know that fiction works as a gateway drug to history writing and research for both readers and writers. But how alike are these two forms – these two disciplines?

And what techniques, skills, tools and models might they share?

Of course the work of history is diverse, and practice and approaches change dramatically over time. But if historical imagination operates in both history writing and historical fiction, does it work differently – does it feel different to the writer as well as the reader? Does narration work differently? Does interpretation?

Does the history we present look different?

Those are some of the questions I’ll cover in the next few posts.

A proposition

If history writing and historical fiction are about  “understanding what it means to be human” (Carl Degler, 1980), are they part of the same project? Practitioners of both forms seek out  stories from the past, engage with them creatively, sort and interrogate them, pull them into some kind of narrative shape and interpret them for readers.

That seems so obvious, but the ongoing conversation between historians and historical novelists has been rather testy at times.  There is misunderstanding on both sides (if indeed they are ‘sides’) about the commonalities, purposes and practice of both disciplines.

You will often see, for example, historians portrayed in fiction as rigid, data-obsessed researchers (the same might be said of many fictional portrayals of librarians – and academics). They are gatekeepers guarding facts, keeping novelists and readers in the dark about what really happened.

And yet writers of historical fiction depend on writers of history texts – creators of secondary sources – for the information they use to build their imagined worlds; worlds that are, according to Jerome de Groot, “manifestly false but historically detailed.”

What’s going on here? Let’s try to clear the air.

It ought to be clear to us all that the writing of history is a creative process, just like the writing of fiction. It has been since the days of Herodotus. Equally, we can all recognise the depth of research that goes into many works of fiction. So we have a great deal in common. But our approaches may be different – of which more in a later post.

There is, as Gillian Polack pointed out during the debate and in her own writing, an idea of history and historians based on nineteenth century concepts of not just the historian figure but also what the field of history is, does and means. The discipline – the work of interrogating and engaging with the meaning of history, even our understanding of what that word means – changed radically during the twentieth century, and continues to change. But many people haven’t noticed.

I agree with Gillian that historical novelists tend to see ‘history’ in its nineteenth century guise – that thing we all fell in love with in school or in early historical novels – and our responses to the corpus of history writing are seen through this lens. That means we also run the risk of seeing even primary sources and the research process itself from this limited viewpoint. Without an understanding of historiography, of approaches to the work of history, we run the risk of relying on outdated concepts and disproved theories.

Here’s a simple but striking example, discussed by Gillian in one of her articles: Historicising the Historical Novel: How Fiction Writers Talk About The Middle Ages. As a medievalist as well as a writer of fiction, she can see how many novelists view the Middle Ages through the lens of nineteenth century British and French medievalism – that gorgeous romanticised William Morris tapestry version that projected Victorian values onto a certain version of ‘the past’, and influenced many generations of historical novelists. It is, as Deborah Challinor memorably pointed out in the debate, the past without the pus – without a realistic view of life for real people.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often sound off about the myth of authenticity: this idea that fiction can somehow capture the actual experience and voice of people in the past. It’s nonsense. Or rather, it’s not authenticity, but an expected form of the genre, perfected by Walter Scott and others.

What writers create and readers have come to expect is the medievalist view of the world (even of eras that are not medieval) – it has nothing to do with authenticity, and may indeed have little to do with actual history.

If that’s what you’re writing, all well and good. Recognise it for what it is – medievalist fiction. That’s a thing. But it doesn’t need to run the risk of being incorrect or based on out-of-date data.

What next?

So what can we learn and do?

Keep up to date with new thinking and writing about the theory of history. I find it fascinating: you might not.

At the very least, read current research about the era on which you write, explore new data and interpretations. (I’ll post later about research methods and historical thinking.)

Write with clear(er) eyes about our subjects. We can enrich our world-building and characterisation with recent findings, and our own work with primary sources will be enlivened and informed by the latest analysis by experts in the field – and in other fields. I follow archaeologists and anthropologists as well as historians, for example, and read updates and debates everywhere I can, from Twitter to  specialist history societies, from academic or professional journals (available free and online through your nearest state or national library) to popular media such as the BBC’s History magazine or Inside History.

History and fiction are a tag team, sometimes taking turns, sometimes working in tandem, to deepen our understanding and imagination – Tom Griffiths, ‘History and the Creative Imagination’,  History Australia, 6: 3, 2009.

Some reading suggestions

If you really want to get your teeth into some of these issues, try these:

Is History Fiction? Ann Curthoys and John Docker, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2006.

Re-thinking History, Keith Jenkins, Routledge Classics, London, 2003 (first published 1991)

The Historical Novel, Jerome de Groot, Routledge, London, 2009

The Fiction of Narrative (Essays), Hayden White, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2010.

You might be able to access the journal Rethinking History through your library.

And here’s a list of Gillian Polack’s publications.

To be continued…