Thursday, June 15, 2006

Guest Blog: C.W. Gortner

[Novelist and Renaissance expert C.W. Gortner was kind enough to accept my invitation to write a historical fiction-related essay for this blog. I hope you enjoy his article! --slj]

Histo-Romance: The New Hybrid?

The good news – no, the great news!— is that historical fiction is booming. The genre has experienced a revival in the last five years that is nothing short of stupendous. Every major publishing house and many smaller and/or independent presses are issuing new titles, and there seems to be an increasing awareness among readers that historical fiction can offer both an entertaining and informative reading experience that transports us to other eras and places, while still honoring our need for emotional fulfillment. For many authors, myself included, this is fantastic news. I can recall the “drought years” of the mid-80s and 90s, when attempting to get agent representation, much less submission to editors, of an historical fiction book was a daunting task, at best. Though represented by renowned agents who had previously sold successful historical novels, of my four manuscripts that were circulated to acquisition editors in New York during these years, not one was bought. Many of my rejection letters were full of praise for the writing, the story, etc., and all carried the same dreaded caveat: “Unfortunately, we feel historical fiction is not doing well at this time . . .” It was enough to make me want to put away the proverbial quill and take up knitting! Perseverance became a lodestone that kept me writing even as I saw the dream of becoming published dwindle with each passing year. The consolidation of houses and loss of independent imprints, the quest for the next blockbuster book, seemed to have sounded the death-knell on a genre that had its break-out books, but mostly sold well in the mid-list arena. Several of my author friends either couldn’t get their options picked up or were switching genres; others held on by the skin of past successes, riding out what promised to be a long and bleak period. There were a few authors who survived and indeed thrived; Margaret George’s epics continued to appear, and Sharon Kay Penman thrilled readers with her marvelous evocations of the medieval world. But, by and large, these were exceptions.

Then came Philippa Gregory and the unexpected success of The Other Boleyn Girl. Originally issued in trade paperback in the United States, it did overwhelmingly well. Ms Gregory went on to pen several more hits, graduating to hardcover with The Virgin’s Lover and getting hardcover re-issues of her other two Tudor-themed novels. Sarah Dunant’s Birth of Venus burst onto the scene, as well, garnishing rave reviews and becoming a bestseller: suddenly, historical fiction was back in vogue! It seemed as if overnight, titles sprouted like flowers after a warm rain, as many publishers decided to test the moribund historical market once more. Devotees of the genre like me, who had resorted to combing used bookstores and shipping in UK titles at an exorbitant cost to satisfy my thirst, were now faced with an assortment of titles to choose from. I even snagged a publisher for my historical mystery / adventure novel, which every major NY house had rejected years before. Granted I was published by a tiny independent that has since stopped contracting authors under its royalty paying arm, but without the boon I might not have even found that! Historical fiction was everywhere. It was good to be alive.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this resurrection coincided to a certain degree with the crumbling of the historical romance empire. The staple of supermarket chains, with the heavily muscled hero in some form of costume and gorgeous heroine in semi-dishabille, had begun to lose market share; I heard from three romance-writer acquaintances that their publishers were scaling back on traditional romance, and branching out instead into the alternative “paranormal romance” area (thanks, in great part, to the phenomenal success of Laurell K. Hamilton’s books) and they, the writers, were now scrambling to produce more commercially viable titles. I’ve never been a romance reader. I must confess, however, that in the Drought Years I succumbed to a few books by Rosalind Laker, mainly because she set her tales in historical periods and I could take the strong romantic element, because she had done her research. I therefore greeted with some trepidation the news that traditional historical romance might be slipping into the same dark tunnel we had seen occur with historical fiction.

Then I began to notice an interesting development. While books like Birth of Venus were being hailed as literary first, historical only second, some publishers began to re-issue previously published and often older historical novels (Jean Plaidy’s profuse collection, Katherine by Anya Seton) and re-package previous historical romance titles with the new cover styles and thematic back cover text of “straight” historical fiction. At first, I was taken aback. I had always drawn an invisible division for myself as both a reader and as a writer: I read historical fiction. I write historical fiction. Time and place, character and history, are paramount to me in both experiences. While there could be, indeed sometimes must be, an element of romance (as people do fall in love), it was not the driving central theme of my work or reading: I wanted the fictional recreation of history to be front and center. Now, I faced books marketed as historical fiction that had been published previously as historical romance and I had to question my own bias. If it is a novel and there’s a historical element to the story, is it then historical fiction by definition? Or does a romantic plot line that dominates even the history and, indeed, in some cases, subverts it in order to exalt the hero and heroine’s love interest, classify itself by its very nature as romantic fiction? And who was I to make the distinction, anyway?

Still, the hybrid I’ve come to call “histo-romance” perturbed me. First, I knew that re-packaged titles meant that new voices to the scene, untested historical novelists with unique tales to tell, would have less of a chance at being heard, as it’s always easier and more profitable to bank on something with a track record. Re-issuing a novelist’s older romance titles if she/he had shown success in another genre, such as, say, historical mystery, would attract readers. I also knew of talented authors whose options had been dropped because of this phenomenon, or been told by their editors to add “more sex and/or romance” to their stories to appeal to the demographic the publisher aimed toward.

Books are precious commodities today. The cost of publishing, the shrinking pool of readers we keep hearing about, the sheer choices people can make today as to where to spend their entertainment dollars, have made the competition for readers more fierce than it has ever been. Successful books are rare; successful authors struggle to get there and to stay there, and while the resurgence in historical fiction is a blessing to fans like me, I do wonder where it will lead in the end. Are we experiencing a true boon, or a fabrication that only allows certain types of books? Is the distinction between historical fiction and historical romance blurring, while the division between historical fiction and literary historical novels widening? Is there still a place for that marvelous new novel that brings alive a time and a place we rarely hear about, and does not necessarily conform to a pre-assigned publishers’ marketing niche?

I don’t have answers to the questions, and perhaps, in the final say, it’s all good for readers – providing we continue to have access to the fresh voices, fresh stories, and fresh approaches that have, for as long as its been in existence, both revitalized and distinguished the tradition of historical fiction.

C.W. Gortner is the author of the Tudor adventure novel The Secret Lion and the forthcoming The Last Queen, about Juana the Mad of Castile. He reviews regularly for The Historical Novels Review. Visit him at:


  1. Thanks, Christopher, (again) for contributing a thought-provoking piece!

    My comments - I've seen (and read) a couple of these repackaged romance novels from the 1980s-90s. Most times, I had read them in their original editions. I do read historical romance (though I'm fairly selective) and have found it interesting to observe what reader reaction has been to these republished novels. This is undoubtedly an overgeneralization, but here goes, anyway. While readers who enjoy historical romance appreciate seeing these novels back in print, because there isn't much on the market like them anymore, historical fiction fans who don't read romance are more suspicious. This has been the typical reaction that HNR reviewers have had, at any rate; several such novels have received comments like "this is more of a romance than a straight historical novel." The readers feel misled.

    The term I usually use for these books is "romantic historical" - that's where Rosalind Laker fits in my criteria, too. Many of them are too lengthy and historically detailed and/or have too many secondary characters to be marketed as romances these days. Today, they may be closer to straight historical fiction, but perhaps not close enough.

  2. I think that's one of the things that bothered me about Karen Harper's Sweet Passion's Pain, soon to be reissued as The First Princess of Wales--too much romance. But at least the title and the cover of the original gave me fair warning. The cover of the reissue is a lot more vague. It has some cute little birds on it, though.

  3. Christopher, this is a very interesting essay. I found myself nodding quite a lot throughout, for as both reader and writer I find much truth in your words.

    I have noticed a hybrid of historical romance and straight historical fiction forming. I'm not much fussed about labels...the publishers' marketing departments will do what they feel they must to maximise sales. I've learnt to be cautious.

    What I do dislike is when the gloss of romance is added to historical characters whose real-life relationship doesn't justify such treatment at all. That's when I feel cheated.

    But I'm a historian as well as an author...perhaps the average reader of romance mightn't notice the discrepancies. Although I suspect many of them do!

    I read historical fiction with the expectation of finding all sorts of relationships depicted, including romantic ones.

    The historical romances I enjoy most have historical depth beyond the "wallpaper" history that seems to be the editorial preference.

    Lately I've wondered whether a modern-day publisher would put Georgette Heyer's Waterloo novel, An Infamous Army on the market. Or even Anya Seton's Katherine, which unfolds over so many years and which focusses on other characters in addition to Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt.

    I'm very selective about hist rom (or rom hist), buying by author name or based upon a review from a trusted source. I choose hist fic based upon reviews, author reputation, historical era. But I'm far more likely to try a new-to-me author in hist fic than hist rom!

    Does the HNR designate their review books as "romance" or "historical" or "romantic historical"? Do your reviewers self-select novels based upon personal preference?

  4. This is a very thought-provoking post and will take me a while longer to digest! I've noticed that cover design appears to play up the romance element in books that I'd count as mainstream historical fiction. Could this be consistent with the development of a new hybrid, at least as a marketing concept?

  5. The HNR doesn't categorize books by anything other than the century, although the reviews themselves regularly mention the genre - historical romance, historical novel with romantic elements, etc. The reviewers select their books based on personal preference, but in addition to that, the editors try to match reviewers to books as best we can.

    I'm inclined to think that the decline of "non-wallpaper" historical romance and the growth of "histo-romance" are directly related. There are more than a few authors best known for history-intensive romance that are now writing straight historical novels with romantic elements. Carrying their previous fans with them, no doubt, and gaining some new ones, too. But all the same, Christopher's comment ("Are we experiencing a true boon, or a fabrication that only allows certain types of books?") does concern me.

  6. Do you think the 'boom' is a narrowly focused fabrication, Sarah? You probably see a broader cross-section of published historical novels than many people would, so you're in a good position to judge. It strikes me as quite a likely consequence of an increased focus on bestsellers, which would tend to favour books aimed at the largest (perceived) market sector at the expense of those aimed at (perceived) minority interests. Category romance has been such a big seller for such a long time that I could imagine a marketing committee deciding to go after a slice of that market. But I don't have evidence to test the hypothesis.

  7. I think all things go in cycles, and it was about time for historical fiction to come back into vogue. There does seem to be a distinct focus on women's historical fiction. Probably no big surprise, since it's said women are 70-80% of the adult fiction reading market. What got me thinking was the recent focus on royal women, which I personally enjoy, and I can see why publishers are bringing some older royal-women romances back into print as straight historicals (even though they still read like romances, in many ways).

    But despite the "boom" in historical fiction, we are not as likely to see novels centered around royal men rather than their wives/mistresses/women of the court, for instance. There are probably a couple out there, but they're not coming to mind. I'm sure there are people writing such novels who are being told that they can't sell in today's market. And where have we heard that before?

  8. I've toned down the romance elements in my novels in order to make sure no publisher would say something like "add two or three more scenes between Ciaran and Julia, and give them a happy end."

    I don't think romances or histo-romances are an inferior genre (though some of those older pseudo-historical ones are crap) but I don't see myself as writing histo-romance. I write epic historical fiction with male MCs and a nice share of adventure and battles (more Cornwell than Chadwick*). And that's the category I want to see for the marketing of my books.

    * BTW I liked The Winter Mantle.

  9. Wow. I'm honored that my essay has generated such robust discussion. I think everyone has some very good points. The truth is, Sarah is right - women apparently account for approximately 70% of the reading public who buy books, so it would only make sense that publishers are aiming their books in that direction. For example, my novel "The Secret Lion", while set in Tudor England and featuring Elizabeth as a character, is narrated by a man, and I think it may have made it more difficult to sell. That said, my next book "The Last Queen", about Juana la Loca of Spain - which is about to be released - made the rounds in NY to the almost universal rejection of, "She's too unknown a character, too difficult to market." The one serious offer my agent got wanted me to resurrect the male lead so Juana and he could live happily ever after. I turned the offer down, to my agent's chagrin, because I figured historical fiction readers would never trust me again if I messed so overtly with established historical fact. This was years ago, of course, but it makes me wonder if some larger publishers have begun to equate "woman reader" with "romance reader" in a way that does serious historical fiction readers a disservice. Not all women like romantic fiction, right? Just as not all men read Bernard Cornwall. The generalizations involved in marketing often confuse the two, it seems to me, and I believe this tendency to market books to the least risky common denominator of the buying public probably means we are probably going to see more "histo-romances" as opposed to more historical fiction by new voices. I think it will get harder for the untried authors to get published, simply because, as Sarah pointed out, the market - while experiencing a boon in titles - is targeting itself to a certain segment of audience.

  10. "Not all women like romantic fiction, right?"

    Spot on, Christopher. I'm female, I like many kinds of fiction, and romance isn't very high up the list. I find sweeping generalisations, like "women want to read about other women" and "women want romance" profoundly insulting. It smacks of, "There, there, don't worry your pretty little head with complicated politics and social change, here's a story about a girl with lots of pretty dresses who gets married in the end." Grrrr.

  11. Lol Carla,
    I find those pretty girl with pretty dresses books boring. Nay, give me some nice battles. :)

    In most cases, even if the lead is female and/or the book written from a female POV, I root for some male character(s). And if I don't find any, I seldom finish the book.

    if an author twists the historical facts for a HEA, (s)he'd so end up on my Never Buy Again list. You did the right thing to decline that 'offer'.

    Ciaran and Julia are both fictive characters, but a HEA would still not be possible: he a pagan leader of the Eochaidh Riata (despite all his Roman education) having to fight to get his position back; she a Christian Roman patrician. She would not be able to adapt to his live, and his people would never accept her, love or no love. ;)

  12. Christopher Gortner5:54 PM

    Some fierce women here. I like it.
    You know, I hadn't thought about that Avon offer in years, until Sarah and I started chatting and the blog entry came up. At the time I said "No!" with resounding horror, I didn't know half as much as I do know about publishing - or about reader loyalty and savvy. I agree that declining it was wise of me; it made me stick to my guns and continue to write the books I felt I would want to read as a historical fiction enthusiast.

    Complicated politics is almost always a hard one to sell a publisher on; but I think that if it's done well, it shouldn't be a problem. The truth is, most of the royal people we like reading about were extremely political. This is why, I think we're seeing the trend Katherine Keer pointed out in her blog (Sarah mentions it) that historicals with lead characters who live just out of the spotlight are becoming popular.