Tuesday, June 19, 2007

More notes from the conference

I realize you may be tired of hearing about the conference, but there are more links I just have to post, because unlike me, some people in the audience actually took notes and reported back, on their blogs, in great detail.

Suzanne Adair, author of the Revolutionary War mystery Paper Woman and a member of Mary Sharratt's "rewriting the role of women" panel, kept a travel diary of sorts, and if you want to know what C.C. Humphreys, Irene Goodman, our invited editors, and Diana Gabaldon talked about in their sessions, read her blog. The conference-related entries are on June 8 and 9. This is the most comprehensive writeup I've seen so far, given that, of course, it was impossible for any one person to attend everything.

At History Hoydens (a blog I need to add to my sidebar) novelist Amanda Elyot discusses the differences between historical fiction and historical romance, along with reader expectations of each. Excellent genre analysis, although I'm not so sure about the "French" thing. I haven't seen all that many historical romances set in France, yet in historical fiction, I can name quite a few recent and successful novels - those of Susan Carroll, Sandra Gulland, Maggie Anton, Debra Finerman, Susan Vreeland - although (hmm) most of their novels, with perhaps the exception of Anton (about the daughters of the medieval Jewish scholar Rashi, who I don't think many mainstream audiences have heard of, yet) their novels have so-called "marquee names" in them. Such as Catherine de Medici, Josephine Bonaparte ...

Also, imho, if you're writing literary historical fiction, the editorial preferences for historical fiction expressed in this blog entry (and which do exist) are not nearly so firm. I haven't yet started my "literary fiction" chapter, but I know from my own observations that in terms of setting, time period, and fictional vs. historical characters, they're all over the place. (Sorry, I got sidetracked, but my upcoming book will be all about this stuff.) Anyway, both this entry and the lengthy comment trail are well worth reading, along with her earlier summary of Cindy Vallar and James L. Nelson's "Bringing Pirates to Life" session. The same holds true for Elyot's own novel Too Great a Lady about Emma Hamilton, which I reviewed for HNR's May issue.

Last but not least, conference attendee Anne Beggs did a funny writeup of the "Writing Love Scenes: How Much Sex is Too Much" panel (and if you went to the panel because of the catchy title, you can thank me, because I made it up - one of the hidden contributions I made to this conference). Apparently this panel was a big hit, although I missed it because I was at Tamara Mazzei's very informative panel on publishing options.

And here I intended this to be a short post, just a few links here and there, because I have to pack up review books tonight.


  1. Thanks for the links :) Will have to explore them.

    Re: France, yeah, I agree - having been told by many in the HRF world that my books set in France just won't fly, especially for a new author.

  2. It's unfortunate, isn't it? A few years ago, I read an article by librarian/readers' advisor Kris Ramsdell called "Getting Behind Reader Taboos: What's Wrong With France?" from the Romance Writers' Report. (Maybe it was you who turned me on to it?) Very illuminating. Seems to me the romance market has opened up for some new settings, but not yet France.

  3. I don't know what is so bad about France. I can't even link it to the recent anti-French sentiments expressed by America around 2004 or so because French-set historicals have rarely flown for readers. I could say it is ironic considering the romantic and luxurious connotations France(Paris) holds for Americans, but the English-speaking press hasn't spun a favorable impression of the country and its people--ever.

  4. Rashi is definitely a "marquee" name in the Jewish community. This is a very well-written book, and the reader needn't be Jewish to enjoy it.

  5. I probably should have been clearer in my blog post on historyhoydens that I was referring primarily to what the publishing world considers "commercial fiction" as opposed to what they term "literary" fiction. Most of the books I refer to that broke the rules would probably fall into that arcane and nebulous territory called "literary fiction". So what the heck is "literary"? Does it have to do with tone? More sophisticated wordsmithing?

    I've heard one agent describe (and this is her view of what publishers think ... not the agent's personal opinion) that "literary" equals "boring" and "a book no one buys," whereas "commercial" fiction is "what will sell."

    Sophisticated and highbrow versus "bourgeois"?

    Makes you want to take a sledgehammer to that narrow view of the marketplace, and the consumer/reader!

    Can something be literary AND commercial? I certainly think so (think Sarah Dunant's 2 recent books, IN THE COMPANY OF THE COURTESAN and BIRTH OF VENUS). I would guess that MARCH is now considered "literary fiction," especially since it bears the imprimatur of the Pulitzer Prize.

  6. What I'd call "literary fiction" has to do with style, tone, pacing (not always, but often), and whether the authors are deliberately using the past as a vehicle for expressing contemporary themes. (The latter can get me in trouble, as some commercial novels do this well, too - like anything by Steven Pressfield.) But the separation between commercial and literary isn't always so clear, and it's something I'm struggling with as I update my next "guide to the genre" book. Sometimes the difference has more to do with marketing than writing style, and whether a publisher feels an author should be taken seriously by critics and readers.

    For me, there aren't any value judgments attached to either one. It's hard to get away with literary snobbishness as a librarian or readers' advisor - you won't get very far as either with that attitude.

    Many recent historical novels are both commercial AND literary (those by Dunant, Chevalier, Naslund, even Diamant's The Red Tent) - I'd agree with that. I've heard Irene Goodman's comments on "marquee names," but it seems to me there are also "marquee settings" and even themes. As in: Renaissance Italy, Biblical women, artists, the French Revolution, even.

  7. I've had a French Revolution novel idea for years now, but every time I propose it to my agent, I hear "Eek, not FRANCE!"

    I agree with you, Sarah. I think Revolutionary France is definitely a "marquee era."

    I have another idea for a marquee era (different era) book, but with fictional leading characters and historical supporting characters; but I'll keep it under my hat for now. I'm hearing that editors are gun-shy about it, too, and I need to write the book to prove them wrong!

  8. The French Revolution thing struck me when I was browsing the fall HarperCollins catalog this weekend and saw mention of James Tipton's Annette Vallon: A Novel about the French Revolution. The era must be a greater selling point than the fact that she was William Wordsworth's mistress.

    (Or maybe that would have made it seem too literary? It's not listed as literary fiction.)