Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news

A few announcements and links I've picked up here and there.

First is that I'm signing up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.  It's been a few years since I participated in a reading challenge, aside from the annual Goodreads one, and this one fits my current reading and interests.  The challenge is open to everyone, regardless of geographic location, so I'm in. There are many excellent historical novelists from Australia, and I like the concept behind the challenge: to support and promote books by Australian women.

It helps that I've already read three novels that fit the criteria, so I'm choosing the Miles level - reading six, reviewing at least four.  This should be no problem, especially with Kate Morton's The Lake House (which has cover art posted - go look!) and Kate Forsyth's The Wild Girl set to be published in the US this year, among others.  I also have Posie Graeme-Evans' Wild Wood on the TBR.

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A review I linked up on the Historical Novel Society's FB group yesterday has provoked a lot of discussion on the value (or not) that author's notes and bibliographies have for historical novels.  In her mostly positive New York Times review of Aislinn Hunter's new dual-period novel The World Before Us, Penelope Lively spent a paragraph criticizing the existence of Hunter's 3 1/2-page acknowledgments section.  An excerpt:

It seems to be mandatory nowadays for a novelist (especially a historical novelist) to conclude with an extensive list of source material, along with copious thanks in all directions, as if this were a doctoral thesis rather than a work of fiction. I wish this weren’t so. I don’t want to know about the ballast of research. I want simply to enjoy the author’s evocative skill without being told how it was primed.

Do these extras interest you as a reader, or do they pull you out of the experience?  You can see the acknowledgments pages via Google Books (scroll to the very end).  Hunter lists four main print resources and a number of people.  I was surprised that a reviewer would object to an author thanking her sources, including individuals who gave her access to private archives, answered her questions, and provided her with funding; it seemed like proper acknowledgment rather than scholarly excess.

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From a week ago last Sunday, Laura Miller's piece on "our enduring Tudor obsession" praises Wolf Hall (print and TV) while denigrating shows like The Tudors and what she terms "princess novels," such as those written by Jean Plaidy and Philippa Gregory, for their supposed emphasis on sex and fashion over serious matters such as politics.  Novelist Elizabeth Fremantle provides an excellent rebuttal to many of Miller's points for The History Girls blog.  The comments to the latter are worth reading, too.  Novelists who write about women's lives and issues still struggle to be taken seriously.

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The shortlist for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction was just announced, and out of the six titles, four have historical components:  A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie, taking place around WWI and later; How to Be Both by Ali Smith, a "literary double-take" set now and in 15th-c Italy; A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, moving from the late '50s forward; and The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, set in 1920s London.

28 comments:

  1. As a reader of historical fiction I like to have some idea that the author has taken trouble over their research. Mind you, Frank Yerby used to have an entire appendix after his novels and he didn't always get it right. ;-)

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  2. PS The Wild Girl is terrific. You'll enjoy it.

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    1. Great - I'm sure I will!

      I don't often check out the sources in bibliographies myself but like reading the stories behind the novel's creation. Plus it's nice to see where they got the information. In some cases it can show bias, too, or if they messed up somewhere. :)

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  3. I love to read those sections of books. Sometimes it inspires me to read some of those NF titles.

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    1. I love them too. Sometimes I read them, or at least glance at them, before starting the novel, which I'm sure would horrify some authors!

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  4. I like the author's notes if they are explaining fact versus fiction. I don't bother with the thank yous or the biblios. But I like to know if what I read was real or made up.

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    1. Same here - if the author made any major diversions from history, I like to know about it. The thank-yous are sometimes interesting to read for me, if they give insight into places the author visited or sources consulted.

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  5. I also love bibliographies and authors notes at the end of novels. They're an added bonus for those that want to read them.

    Very interesting about the Bailey's shortlist. A Spool of Blue Thread and The Paying Guests are on my reading wish list.

    The cover of Kate Morton's new book looks idyllic. I wonder if this is an existing mansion.

    Good luck with the AWW challenge!

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    1. Thanks! I'm looking forward to the challenge.

      You have me curious now about the mansion. I did some googling but nothing turned up immediately that fit (of course, there could be Photoshopping involved). I wouldn't mind visiting, wherever it is.

      I've been meaning to read Paying Guests for ages. I've heard mixed reports, but I always enjoy her novels.

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  6. Thanks for the heads-up on the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Will take a look.

    And on the acknowledgments/sources issue, I like it (especially knowing about the sources). And if some people don't, well, who's forcing them to read it anyway?

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    1. Totally agree with you there - readers can just skip right over them.

      The AWW challenge has occasional round-ups of historical fiction reviews - I've been reading them for a while, and they've introduced me to some novels I wouldn't have heard about otherwise.

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  7. I count on the write ups at the end of historical novels. I want to know what was real and what was fiction. Often times I am inspired to learn more on a particular subject and can use the author's references to guide me. I think the sources lend credibility to the writing.

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    1. Based on what I read in the Facebook discussion, some authors and their agents would agree - they're being asked to include some sources so readers can explore on their own and to support the idea that their novels have been well researched.

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  8. If author's notes and bibliography are offered at the end of the book, how can they detract from the reading experience. It's easy to read past the supertext numbers if they don't interest you--or the notes and bib can be offered without ANY intrusion into the text of the story. I don't understand why this is a problem and I think it adds to the value of the text--providing more of a glimpse into the time portrayed.

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    1. That's my view, too, that the author's notes and bibliography are extras, and that the novels will (and should) stand on their own just fine without them.

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  9. I like acknowledgments sections, because sources matter, and the author often says what liberties she took with the record, if any. When I'm not familiar with the subject, this is useful. Sometimes people name-drop, but when thanks are in order, I don't see why anyone should be offended.

    As for Laura Miller's piece, I see both sides. Speaking as a historian, I don't agree that feminist fiction must be written in a "gendered" way. The symbols are there to see, if the reader cares to see them. I recently read The Other Boleyn Girl, and Philippa Gregory's descriptions of how the women got into and out of their clothes made the point, never mind what they did between times.

    But I also see Laura Miller's point. To me, Gregory's characters seem one-sided, even trivial. Sex and politics go together, of course, but in this book, there's no other kind. The narrative, rife with repetitions of all sorts, never goes anywhere despite a strong premise (sibling rivalry).

    Is it high-brow to prefer Hilary Mantel (who, in my opinion, has stronger feminist credentials)? If so, sign me up.

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    1. I prefer Mantel also, if I had to pick just among the authors mentioned, and find Gregory's Tudor novels repetitious, even more so in those beyond TOBG.

      Miller does make some good points, but I also didn't agree with her generalizations. She picked books and authors that seemed to support her thesis rather than looking further, implying a dichotomy (Mantel vs. other Tudor novels) when it doesn't exist. She might consider taking a look at Suzannah Dunn or Margaret George, for example, for authors that explore Tudor politics from a female viewpoint in a nuanced, thoughtful way. I haven't read Fremantle's novels yet, but based on reviews I've read, she'd also fit that description.

      I also took issue with Miller's statement that "princess novels, as a rule, are fascinated by the retrograde fantasy of a received identity, of being born to a condition (nobility and/or beauty) that makes striving unnecessary." Rather, I would say that many times, despite their lavish gowns, these women's positions are hardly the subject of fantasy, and that their being born to royalty/nobility forces many of them into an unwanted role that makes striving futile.

      Her idea that Tudor fiction is a "chick thing" isn't true, either... C.J. Sansom is a big name in the field, for example.

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  10. I will have to check out the Australian challenge, finding more Aussie authors on my bookshelves these days. Lots of talent there. So excited for The Lake House, I don't think I will even read the blurb, just know that this is a pre-order for me (it's my birthday close to release day :).

    I love author's notes at the end of the book. Have read a couple books where they were at the beginning and it was a major spoiler, especially since it was a time period that wasn't familiar to me.

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    1. As soon as I saw Kate Morton had a new novel coming out, I preordered it. Didn't even matter what the plot was. And it's a week away from my birthday too!

      Publishers should take care not to put the author's note at the beginning if there are spoilers. How annoying!

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  11. I like the author's notes and the bibliography, especially if the story contradicted something that I thought I knew. I do check the nonfiction books, and if I can't find them, I'll look for something like them. It reassures me that the author cared enough to try to get the history right.

    Conversely, I get very angry at writers who don't bother to do the research...and I mean BLATANT errors, the kind that can be resolved by a two-minute search on Google. I feel that they don't want to do the actual work--which comes across to me as not respecting the readers.

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    1. Anonymous5:27 PM

      I feel the same way - and I've emailed publishers about the errors.

      Sarah OL

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    2. I agree, I've stopped reading books immediately if I saw blatant errors in the beginning. It doesn't bode well for the rest of the book.

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  12. SO interesting -- how we, each and every one of us, feels about, is attached to, our reading. What is in the front material, what is in the back material of fiction books, each of these surrounds those attachments, those emotions, those connections. If references to outside material become obtrusive WITHIN the fictional work, I also feel a level of discomfort. But, appended at the end, to reveal and acknowledge the collaboration that produced the effort, I stand in awe. Writing of historical fiction, with its related hundreds of hours of research, is an effort unlike others. Creative, of course. But simultaneously compelled to be faithful to the context, to the culture, to the environment displayed. THAT is where so much of the learning occurs. In the worlds of economics, business, and (at least I'm hopeful) politics, collaboration and building upon the good work and good research of others helps us to move forward without as much time wasted needlessly in recreating someone else's work. Knowledge management, as a discipline in which I participate on a professional basis, involves sharing of knowledge-wealth already created and is based upon such collaboration -- upon the idea of springboarding to ever-higher levels of understanding thanks to the work already done, the leads already provided, by those who have gone down similar paths before us. From there, even-higher levels of understanding, of research, become possible. And, one would assume, of even more wonderful historical novels in the future.

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    1. What a great way of putting it - thanks, Alex. And related to knowledge management, it also goes along with the concept of "scholarship as conversation" that librarians are introducing in their information literacy instruction.

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    2. "Scholarship as conversation!" Wouldn't THAT be a great theme for the upcoming presidential campaign? ;-)

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  13. Anne Ingram5:46 PM

    You provide such wonderful resources for the selection of historical novels. (I have always loved the genre, but before the digital age I had no way to invest my limited reading time wisely.) Although I'm now a disabled old lady, my life is brightened by the luxury of online home research and reading!.
    To select novels to read, I first found your reference books & then your equally helpful blog posts. I'm amazed that you respond so thoughtfully to the comments of so many of your readers. Thank you for all your help!

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    1. Hi, Anne! Thanks very much for your comments, and I'm glad you found my books and have been enjoying them. If I can help point you in the direction of any particular subject or type of historical novel, feel free to let me know!

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  14. I love reading the little clues and acknowledgements in the back of a historical novel. Keep them coming folks! :)

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