28 August, 2010

Reports of the death of my genre...

If publishing is as dead as a doornail, then publishing aimed at men is dead as a coffin-nail (which, per Dickens, is the most lifeless bit of ironmongery imaginable.)

According to nautical novelist James Nelson, "Historical fiction for men is dead." I can't argue much with him, at least in the US market. When we look at Amazon categories and agents purportedly devoted to historical fiction, what we really find are a bunch of romance novels set in certain time periods other than the present. As Nelson says, "You can write five books a year about Anne Boleyn and they all sell." According to the latest issue of Solander, he has now sailed on to the more lucrative waters of nonfiction.

A.L. Berridge, bestselling author of Honour and the Sword and all-around fabulous lady, is selling loads of books in the U.K. and has a sequel coming, but isn' published in the U.S. yet. The reason? Her book doesn't have a Big Romance, and Men Don't Read.

Meanwhile there's C.W. Gortner, charter member of the so-called Historical Boys. His novels all feature a strong female lead in first person tell-all memoir style. In other words, the Historical Boy is writing for girls. Christopher's books are doing quite well in the U.S.. I have always suspected he uses the C.W. byline so that women will assume that he is in fact a woman who's using the initials in order to pass for male.

The worst part is, I'm guilty of being part of the problem. Before I got into the book production side of things I was not much of a book consumer. I read the same old Heinlein and Bradbury and Tolkien until I wore out the covers, and filled up the rest of my fiction reading with the likes of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Otherwise, when I bought a book it was non-fiction. Now I read a lot more, but most of it is research. My latest Amazon order includes a technical manual on mummy preparation and an Osprey reference book on French cavalry uniforms.

In my inexpert analysis, the problem of manly historical fiction in the U.S. is that we have a conceit that History Must Feature Americans. By this conceit I mean that we insist on producing movies like U-571, where the plot gets written so that it is Americans, not Brits, who steal the Enigma machine. Don't get Ms. Berridge started on that one!

Thus, American novelists looking for manly action--i.e. war--have a limited historical window to exploit. While British authors have all sorts of juicy swashbuckling wars in which to place their heroes, America begins in 1776 and all the romance (small 'r', not the genre) is gone by about 1917. We don't have the dashing Napoleonic period to exploit, that gave us heroic English warriors like Horatio Hornblower and Richard Sharpe. We get the Civil War and Jeff Shaara, and not long after that the machine guns come along and ruin it for everyone.

In between, we have the special historical genre of the Western. We have some great stories of WWII. But when we think of works of fiction in those eras, the mind turns to John Wayne as much as it does to Louis L'amour.

Is it simply that the story of American manly action is better told in film than in print?

For now, I'm grateful for the fact that there is more than one country where people read in English. Apparently some of the people in these countries are men, and women who do not need every book they read to feature a Woman Who Loves Beneath Her Station or a Queen Who Just Wants To Be Kissed.

I realise that my books may need to take on a different flavour to succeed in such markets, but one must do what one must do.


  1. Hmm, good points all Richard - truthful and rightly pessimistic view of American tastes and decline of reading (the Empire looks all pre-stage free fall from many vantage points including the cultural). Glad to see you're getting a handle on the new spelling requirements - up to you now how grey a picture you'll paint!

  2. Thanks, m'Lud! Here's hoping my Napoleonic horror book gets turned into a U.S. movie after its U.K. release, touching off an Internet firestorm of complaint that Andrew Jackson did not, in fact, win the Battle of Quatre Bras. (never mind the fact that there were also no walking dead present)

  3. Hi Richard,
    This is an interesting post, with lots of room for thought.

    I absolutely agree that selling historical fiction aimed at the elusive male reader is quite challenging. However, the success of such novelists as Bernard Cornwall, Scott Odin, Ben Kane, and Christian Cameron, among others, demonstrates that the historical can still be effectively sold to men, albeit with a heavy slant toward warfare and antiquity. The UK market, however, does seem to be more receptive to the male historical than the US.

    Still, I recently sold three books in the US and UK about a Tudor spy. The books of course appeal to female readers - who comprise nearly 80% of regular book buyers - but my protagonist is male. Both my editors are fine with it; they think the trend is shifting.

    Nevertheless, the current predominance of memoir-style novels with strong female leads remains based in great extent on past successes (think “Other Boleyn Girl”) and current book-buying preferences. I would love to write a historical from a king's point of view but with publishing under siege, for most editors the tried-and-proven formulas are the most appealing. I don’t necessarily agree with this but it’s a hard fact that transcends genre and one most fiction writers must face. Internationally, every market is different, of course, so we see more male-dominated storylines in countries where men buy more books.

    On a personal note, while I enjoyed your theory, the truth is far more mundane: I use my initials because when I self-published my first novel, the designer couldn’t fit my full name on the cover without obstructing the illustration. We elected to go with C.W. to match the trend among other mystery/suspense novelists of using their initials. That self-published book was The Secret Lion, which was one of the three recently acquired, to be re-issued as THE TUDOR SECRET in 2011. When my agent later sold my other novels to Random House, they liked the initials. Perhaps because, yes, it obscures my gender to some extent, though anyone looking at the photo on the back flap will see a bald dude!

    Best of luck with your writing. I wish you much success.

  4. Thank you, Christopher! Your insight here on the market and choices facing the fiction writer is invaluable.

    I'm still reading 'Confessions' and enjoying your spooky-mystical Catherine de Medici very much, and looking forward to your Tudor spy trio.

    Also very interesting account on the byline choice, and I appreciate your good-natured response to my off-handed and un-called-for comment :)

    As for me, I am probably going to have to do something about my own name... it's at least as long as yours, and a lot of people are just going to assume Bourgeois is a pseudoynm anyway...

  5. I thought your byline theory was funny. I just wish I were that forward-thinking :)

    Yes, Bourgeois does sound a bit like a pseudonymn but, hey, if they can fit it on the cover . . .

    So nice to hear you're enjoying Mme de Medici.

  6. Hi, Richard,

    Ah, you knew that would fetch me, didn't you? Thank you for those very kind words, even if you did put me in the same sentence as that unmentionable film.

    But yes, this is thought-provoking stuff. Certainly the Manly Historical is flourishing over here in the UK, with not only Bernard Cornwell, but also Conn Iggulden, Simon Scarrow, Patrick O'Brien, Alexander Kent, Allan Mallinson et al, to say nothing of the late and very much lamented George McDonald Fraser. But do you notice what else they have in common?

    Yep. There's a reason why I'm A.L.Berridge. The presumption over here is that while women will read books by either gender, Men Don't Read Books By Women. How true that is I don't know, and there's definitely been no real attempt to hide my identity - to which the 'she' in the biography on the flap is a little bit of a clue. I suppose the theory is that an obviously female name on the cover might deter a male from picking up the offending tome at all.

    Is there any truth in that, do you think? Is it reflected in your own bookshelves? Or is it just evidence that stereotyping is alive and well over here too?

  7. Well, I have to admit that my own bookshelves feature Messrs. Cornwell and O'Brien, also Lambdin, the aforementioned Tolkien, Heinlein, Clavell, Burroughs, McGuire, and of course Gortner! So I'm guilty as charged, at least until my copy of 'Honour' arrives in the mail--er, the post, that is.

    I suppose I can be R.S. Bourgeois if I publish in the U.S. first, but use something like Dick Scott if I go the U.K. route. And perhaps a nice pair of breeches for the jacket photo.

  8. Guilty indeed!
    But how can we expect publishers to get over these stereotypes until we (as both writers and readers) climb over them ourselves?
    I'm very heartened to see a man (C.W.Gortner) writing memoir-style historical fiction about women, and have immediately ordered 'The Last Queen' as a result of your recommendation. I'm a reader who likes detailed and impeccably researched historical fact in her fiction, but I also want to experience what it really meant in terms of human experience and emotion.
    Until we offer both we're not really historical novelists. To know the precise firing mechanism of an Enfield rifle is one thing, but to know what it feels like to fire one is another - and what it feels like to see a man fall dead with your ball in his face quite another still.
    Historical fact is the whole thing - the information, the experience, and the emotion. Men have to cross traditional gender boundaries to do it, and so do women.
    But from what I've seen of 'Saint Mark's Body' I'd guess you know that already...

  9. Great post and comments, and highly relevant to my work in progress, set in Revolutionary War America with a father and son serving as the protagonists.

    I wonder if this is a supply or demand issue. Are publishers missing out on a big potential segment of male historical fiction readers, or are they right in going with what's tried and true and tilting historical fiction offerings heavily toward women readers? Hard to say.

    As for the "limited historical window" of action-oriented fictional possibilities in American settings, I take a more sanguine view. True, at the elite levels, American history probably doesn't offer novelists as much of the warfare, intrigue, scandal and other material as the royal houses of Europe do, but the backdrop of events from colonial times forward offers great possibilities for conflict and drama using fictitious characters. In the 18th century alone, you have the clash of cultures and imperial ambitions on the colonial frontier, followed by a clash of republican ideals with a distant monarchy that inspired many thousands of Americans to take up arms for both sides. There are countless stories at the average person's level that are waiting to be told all throughout American history.

  10. Hard to say, Michael, indeed. There was no market for teen vampire romance just a few years ago, and now there are entire bookstore shelves devoted to this... this... no, I can't quite call it a 'genre'.

    Point well taken on the availability of American settings for historical fiction. There are indeed some good stories in there--the Tory Widow series comes to mind.

    Good luck with your WIP! I hope you come back to keep me honest on the proper care and feeding of Brown Bess muskets, and the tactical deployment of volunteer riflemen.

  11. You could try writing for the boys' YA historical market. There are lots of subjects you could cover.

    The Pony Express
    Alaskan or Californian gold rush
    Civil War
    War of 1812
    Revolutionary War
    Any of the rebellions like the Whiskey Rebellion

    A sort of get them while they are young kinda thing and they'll continue to read it when they become adults.

  12. Lyra, I'm counting on the previous generation of YA writers to soften those boys up for my grownup books :) seriously, I want my work to cross over, but I don't love YA enough to do it. Thanks for the comment!

  13. My first love is science fiction. But I'm also a lover of history and I have a B.A. in History. All the YA I see in historical fiction is also written toward the female.

    Perhaps I'll write a YA toward the guys. All my historical ideas have male POVs anyways.