Sunday, 19 December 2010

The Future of Literary Hist Fic

I was in Cambridge last week and, of course, I made the obligatory visit to Heffers where, amongst other things (including a happy hour spent in the medieval history section – yes, a whole section, not just a shelf!!) I found Testament in an alcove designated ‘Historical Crime’. As Waterstones seem to have stopped stocking Testament I was delighted to find it in Heffers but, whilst not at all dismayed to find it in a section which is likely to sell more copies than ‘general fiction’, I am slightly bemused to see it described as ‘crime’. Things happen in it which are, undoubtely, criminal but I wouldn’t say that they are the central thrust of the book. Perhaps Heffers is adopting the US publishing/bookselling genre of ‘crime/mystery’. Testament definitely fits into that as the whole thing pivots on the mystery of the wall painting.

The inclusion of my work in ‘historical crime’ made me think, though. The Black and The White would fit much more comfortably into that genre, though it’s not a conventional ‘murder mystery’ format. The book I’m currently researching and planning sits even more squarely in the crime genre. So, am I becoming a historical crime novelist?



Why not? Crime has always been a favourite genre of mine and, when done well and/or innovatively (Barbara Vine, Sophie Hannah, Kate Atkinson, M.R.Hall, to name but a few) it’s hard to beat. And I’m not on my own. There’s a huge market out there for well-written crime.

So am I cravenly going down a route I believe to be more marketable? Well, if I was doing it simply because it would be marketable, that would be craven but I’m not. My preoccupation with history and my love of crime plots were always going to come together eventually. (As it happens, the first novel I ever wrote was a split-time crime novel with a policeman as the main contemporary protagonist.)

But, whether or not I’m turning into a historical crime novelist, all this reflection has made me wonder: with the increasing genrification of fiction driven by publishers’ marketing departments, is there space, any more, for literary historical fiction of the kind represented by Rose Tremain’s Restoration, Maria McCann’s As Meat Loves Salt or - my own favourite - Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders?

I know that at least one of the MNW hist-fic crew had to resist suggestions that her work was basically a historical romance and fight for it to be a straightforward work of literature.

So, writers and readers of hist-fic, how do you like your history. Is it desirable (by which I don’t just mean ‘more marketable) for books to be ‘history plus’ - history plus romance, history plus crime, history which is basically famous people doing what they did in a fictionalised way? Or is there room for hist lit fic?

And, if so, what’s your favourite? (So I can ask for last minute Christmas books…)


Frances Garrood said...

Of course there's room for historical crime fiction! There's always room for a good story - that's the bottom line, and it's what people want; something to entertain, enthrall, absorb, whatever. As for favourites, I'm currently reading Helen Dunmore's latest novel - The Betrayal - so far my book of the year. Historical (Russia post WW2) but not crime. A brilliant and beautiful book (no paperback until 2011, but a bardback makes a lovely present...?).

BTW Birds and Bees if often found among the sex education books, which is far worse than Testament's location in Heffers!

(Have you had any news yet, Alis? I keep thinking of you.)

Alis said...

No news, yet, Frances. Will let you know. Thanks for thinking of me!

C. N. Nevets said...

I don't make a hard-and-fast rule of it, but there's something to be said for a mystery, crime, romance, or adventure to propel the story along. Without it, historic literature runs the risk of reveling. There's a place for that, too, but I think Michener did it up plenty.

Pam Mingle said...

I agree with Frances's comment--there's always room for a good story! I love historical fiction of any stripe. Some of my favorites: C.J. Sansom (mystery, sixteenth century); Hilary Mantel (literary, sixteenth century); Elizabeth Marshall (romance/adventure, medieval); Charles Finch (mystery, Victorian). I could go on, but I'm sure you've read many of these writers and more!

Alis said...

Nevets - reveling - yes!

Alis said...

Hi Pam - thanks for commenting. And thanks for the reccommendations, I've not read Elizabeth Marshall as it happens, so I shall follow her up!

Juxtabook said...

Yes to hist lit fic - my favourite is Testament! I also like A S Byatt's Possesion. I am very fond of historical crime, as you know. Literary historical crime sounds a winner!

And here's to a very good 2011 for you and your family!