Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Redefining historical fiction, Amazon style

Two weeks ago I finished reading Rebecca Dean's Palace Circle for the Historical Novels Review. I'd been caught in a reading slump for nearly three months and was seeking a great escapist read, which the publicity material promised (no, I don't automatically believe that stuff, but I was hopeful). Fortunately for me, the book delivered. I gobbled it up over a weekend then quickly wrote my review, which you'll find online at the HNS site eventually.

In brief, Palace Circle is a sparkling historical novel set amid the privileged world of the upper crust in early 20th-century England and Cairo. The first section is seen from the viewpoint of an American named Delia who marries an English viscount. The main characters are aristocrats, politicians, and socialites, and sometimes all three. It's important to emphasize that the novel is at heart a family saga, one in the classic British mold (mould). The main characters are all fictional, and the "history" presented is mainly social history -- which is rendered extremely well -- with some political history thrown in as World War II gradually approaches. Historical characters flit by in the background and are name-dropped into the storyline on occasion, providing the overall feel of a 1920s-era gossip column. The effect was totally appropriate for the setting, or so I felt.

My review done, I headed to Amazon to check what others were saying about it. Magazine critics adored the book. There were also 18-odd customer reviews, with an average of three stars. Okay, some people loved it and others didn't, and readers have the right to voice their opinions. What took me aback were some of the reasons they cited for their low ratings. There was remarkable commonality among them. Thus I present an informal case study on the undeniable significance of marquee names and marquee events and how they have come to dominate certain types of historical fiction, to the point of -- at least in some readers' minds -- redefining the genre altogether.

So, what were some of their criticisms about the book? My summaries are in bold, with examples provided from the Amazon reviews.

The fictional characters don't participate in major historical events.

"Important events are made known to us by the author, instead of letting us witness them. It's incredibly frustrating and had me putting down the book before it was over." (L. Flora)

"I would have preferred more insights into the various characters, and the reality of their current events which I would have expected to be more crucial." (Marie)

The historical characters aren't prominent enough.

"A lot of famous names are mentioned here, though they don't really play a main role - famous personalities such as Edward and Wallis, Winston Churchill, Prince and later King Farouk, Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadat. I wished some of these characters would have received a bit more than a passing mention in this work…" (Z. Hayes; this was an exception, a 4-star review)

"The historical figures included in the novel aren't really a part of it, it's more like historical name dropping." (D. Joubert)

"Feels like famous names are thrown in just as filler." (KNSudha)

We don't get to "meet" any of the historical figures either.

"[Delia] meets and enchants people from Winston Churchill and his wife to the soon to be notorious David, Prince of Wales. But we never get to meet THEM other than by name." (NyiNya)

"Perhaps this continuous mention of famous personages is intended in order to classify Palace Circle as historical fiction. However, none of these figures do anything except appear at parties." (J. Perskie)

For all of these reasons, and more, it's really not historical fiction at all.

"I think this novel succeeds more as a period novel than a work of historical fiction." (Z. Hayes)

"Palace Circle does not seem to be historical fiction in the usual sense. Delia mentions famous people and places in history, and World War II is the backdrop for the story, but the historical aspect (at least in the beginning) isn't really fleshed out." (Guitarchick24)

"When I got this book from the publisher, it was billed as historical fiction and quite frankly this book is nothing close to historical fiction … My understanding of historical fiction is one peopled with characters from days past who take an active part in the movement of the dialogue and plot. That was absent here." (TrishNYC)

Furthermore, the author is no Philippa Gregory.

"It's unfortunate that the PR releases compare it to Philippa Gregory; it's not historical fiction." (D. Joubert)

"I have to completely disagree with the review which says 'Rebecca Dean has written a glorious novel that will sweep Philippa Gregory fans off their feet.' Stay true to Philippa Gregory until this author matures like a fine bottle of red wine!" (KK)

Philippa Gregory's name is all over the novel; there's a Nora Roberts quote on the cover ("If you like Philippa Gregory, you will love this book!") as well as a back cover blurb, which the Amazon reviewer cited above. The invocation of Gregory's name apparently indicates more than just a female-oriented historical novel with sweeping storytelling, romantic subplots, court intrigue, and bestseller potential. It can also imply the novel will have main characters that are not only real-life historical people, but also the movers and shakers of their time. Palace Circle fits most of the first set of categories, but not at all the second.

Do historical novels require celebrities to play more than passing roles, so that readers get the opportunity to "meet" them? Do major historical events have to be in the forefront constantly? This all reminds me of the curious reader reaction to Valerie Anand's The House of Lanyon, another British family saga that showed fictional characters interacting, in a historically appropriate fashion, with their social milieu. It also recalls Julianne's editorial comments on her recent market research survey, specifically her conclusions on society's obsession with celebrity.

In my latest reference tome, I wrote -- discussing the emphasis on social over political history in the works of Catherine Cookson and Janette Oke -- that the lack of reference to specific dates, outside events, and famous people in their novels doesn't diminish their value as historical fiction. I hope I'm not wrong.


  1. Thank you for this really interesting post, Sarah. I find it unfortunate that so many of the Amazon reviews are focusing on what "Palace Circle" is not (fiction focused on historically notable people and events) instead of what it is (a darn good story that happens to be set in the past). Perhaps "period novel" would be a more accurate term, and there might be merit in making the distinction, but this hasn't been a convention for publishers. I doubt the author was given this choice, and it seems unfair to hold that against her...

    ~DeAnna Cameron
    Author of THE BELLY DANCER
    Berkley Books, July 2009

  2. DeAnna, thanks for your comments! I agree "period novel" is an apt description. Unlike the reviewers, though, I don't think "historical novel" is any less apt. One thing I may not have gotten across very well in my post (maybe because I was trying to avoid precipitating my review!) was that there's a ton of historical detail in it that ties it to its place and time. For example, coming out as a debutante in 1930s London is something described very vividly, as is life in the British community in Cairo pre-WWII (and Britain's influence on the native monarchy), class differences, race relations, etc. All of these things the reader sees firsthand. But it's true, you don't glimpse Wallis Simpson for more than a couple pages at a time, and other times she comes up in conversations rather than in person. Some of the issue here could be a marketing thing, but there are also some reader expectations about historical novels that make themselves pretty clear in the reviews!

  3. Fascinating post Sarah. I do find the comparisons to Philippa Gregory quite interesting given that her last book was really not that well received even by her fans.

  4. I just finished my copy yesterday and found it very dull and uninteresting. The characters didn't have much life to them and frankly the plot was very very predictable. Those were my main concerns.

  5. I don't think you're wrong at all, Sarah. I'm kind of boggled by these complaints. Historical fiction = fiction set in history, right? A good historical novel contains history: social history, cultural history, medical history, etc, all those little details that make the world come alive. I had no idea some people didn't consider it historical if it didn't contain celebrities as main characters. It's kind of disturbing, actually -- only famous people are part of history? That's news to me.

  6. Heather pretty much sums it up for me, too. What got me interested in history, and what got me really hooked, was learning about the daily life of regular people. The throughline of human relationships, human nature, from "then" to now is fascinating. Famous folk have their place of course, but they're the .5% of the population and not representative. I think the obsession with celebrity in our culture does have something to do with it; I also think the focus on famous historical figures is a kind of shorthand or easy entree into history.

  7. Hi, Sarah --
    I didn't mean to imply that you were treating the author unfairly. Not at all. What I meant was the Amazon reviewers who are ranking the author poorly are being unfair. From what I've seen, the term "historical fiction" is applied to any novel set in the past that isn't primarily a romance (then it would be called "historical romance"). That covers *a lot* of territory, and maybe too much if it's setting up expectations for readers that the novel and author never intended. I think it's a great solution to add "period novel" to the book genre lexicon as a way to distinguish from "historical fiction" in the strict sense and "historical romance."

  8. DeAnna, I didn't take your comments that way at all, so no problem!

    I actually like the definition of HF to be broad, and to encompass sagas like Palace Circle provided they reflect the historical period accurately. The interesting thing is that Follett's Pillars of the Earth is another multigenerational tale with all fictional characters (and based around social and cultural rather than political history) yet you don't hear anyone saying that it's not "real" HF. Even though its characters don't behave like medieval people. There's a difference in reaction here, and I've been trying to get at why that is. Because of the Gregory comparison? Because the author teases by introducing some real people but having them stay in the background?

    The expectation held by those Amazon reviewers, that HF must contain celebrity appearances and/or focus on major events, bothers me. I've heard "period novel" used to describe novels with fictional characters, such as sagas, so it would fit here. I've also heard it used to describe "lite" HF, those with wallpaper backgrounds. This is just my view, but I'd include novels in the first category under the overall HF umbrella, along with works like Poldark, The Thorn Birds, John Jakes's sagas, etc.

  9. Julie, I agree with what you said - that focusing on historical characters can create an easy entree into history. In some cases (let me take this a little further) it may be seen as a cheap way of doing so - add real people to the storyline, have them interact with the fictional ones, and voila, instant HF. I think that's what some of the commenters were trying to get at. I'd counter this by saying that since the main character is an aristocrat/socialite, having her encounter the famous people only at parties and lunches is realistic.

    I'm not saying all these things primarily to defend the book (though I did enjoy it) but to understand more about why the reaction was as it was.

  10. Anonymous1:23 PM

    Interesting topic. Perhaps its the marketing of the book that lead buyers to expect historical fiction and involved more of the "real" people of the day - although I get the impression from the Amazon page that its a historical romance. There are a lot of reviews from Vine members and sometimes you don't get a lot of info on the book when you choose it through Vine, so perhaps they expected historical fiction revolving around read characters. Who knows?

    I enjoy a good solid historical romance, whether with "real" people in the forefront or not, but it still has to be well written and with good characterization and period details

    I do see several reviews on Amazon for this book from reviewers that I've followed over the years (including Ms. I) and most of the time I have similar opinions as they do, although occasionally we go sideways on the same book - that's life - we're not all going to like the same book every time.

  11. Yeah, it really is not anywhere close to historical romance. I don't often see novels of this type from American publishers nowadays (the author has written a previous novel that can be found on Amazon UK) so I would think the marketing would be tough to get right.

  12. dewey_decimal2:29 PM

    I think this is a very interesting question, as it mirrors some of the debate around the study and teaching of history itself. Traditionally, history was felt to consist only of the actions of major players on the world stage. In the 20th century, when historians started studying the history of common people, popular culture, and formerly marginalized groups such as women and racial minorities, it created a huge stir. There are still lots of people who feel that this sort of history shouldn't be taught in schools, and the curriculum should still be devoted to "dead white men."

    I think it's fair to say that this is a period novel, but also that period novels constitute a form of historical fiction. Would these people criticize Charles Dickens for not having Marie Antoinette star in A Tale of Two Cities?

  13. I think the definitions of books (historical fiction vs period piece) may be becoming crossed or blurred. If famous people of the time are supposed to have a prominent role in the book, then wouldn't the story be about them, and not the family that knows them and just had lunch together?

    I would say that most people probably saw Gregory's name on the cover and formed an instant opinion. Happy to read you liked the book. It's on my TBR.

  14. Great post, Sarah. I know you know what I thought of Palace Circle, and I have to say we're on the same page. I don't think characters have to be shown having actual conversations with historical figures to make them (the historical figures) come to life. I liked how Dean structured this novel--it wasn't all about the famous.

  15. Tammy, did your copy of Palace Circle contain a preview of the next book at the end? (Mine wasn't an ARC.) Because judging from what I read, I suspect it will fit the bill for readers who prefer to focus on historical characters. It doesn't appear to be a sequel.

  16. Wonderful post Sarah. I think that there are all kinds of different categories with-in the genre of historical fiction but they all share at least one thing. They are set in historical times.

  17. I am the Marie that was quoted from the Amazon review.. Regardless of what I "expected" as Historical Fiction, which I didn't since I just received this from someone at Bookreporter, I agree with what 'Ms I' had said (dull and uninteresting). When you read my full review you'll understand the context of what I was getting at; it was specifically intended for my review to state that I did not believe the characters were well developed enough in order to relate to them. Which I didn't. I felt that Delia and her elder daughter were quite shallow. They were at war and I didn't feel the characters minded much. Perhaps I expected too much, the blurbs about famous people etc. Whenever there are infidelities in marriages I fail to bond with the characters as well. One of the reason for not bonding with the characters was due to it's being split up into 5 parts for each character; you start off with Delia and you pretty much leave her in the dust as you move on. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and mine is posted here

  18. Hi Marie, thanks for stopping by and clarifying your opinion - I've seen other reviewers (on Amazon and elsewhere) say the same thing about the characterization and can understand where you all are coming from. I couldn't get the link at the end of your comment to work, though - was it to the full version of your review at Bookreporter? I'll see if I can find it.

  19. BTW, I agree with you on Delia's elder daughter - she was rather shallow (I thought her personality fit her lifestyle). Her section was the least compelling part of the book for me.

  20. Sara, I had tried to link to the Review on my blog, but it's the same as you saw on Amazon, I am sure.
    If the link doesn't work again, then on my blog under QuickFind Labels, 'palace circle' is there.
    The link is

    Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy being famous for reviews :) LOL
    insert big head here
    and definitely love the debate of it all.
    And I for one would not want to read a Phillipa Gregory Style book, perhaps that is another reason I didn't "love" this one? (The infidelity thing is too much for me as well, which jaded my view on another book I just read)

    And I really do not have such a grip on my own USA WWII history where I could relate the characters they mentioned to any previous knowledge. So as far as the HF perspective, I never really thought about what it should and shouldn't be. I think perhaps in this book I had wanted to learn a bit more about the life & times during the War, but it is hard to judge that when it did seem to focus on parties a lot more.

    So I just wanted to reiterate that my 3 star rating didn't get 5 stars because I disliked the style of the writing (separating the characters into sections, 5 sections is a bit much!)and I remembered about 2/3 through I simply was sick of it already, but I did manage to read it all.

    As far as opinions go on HF, they are so far in difference, I had loved Kate Emerson's Pleasure Palace and gave it 5 stars and I have seen it where it was not as well received.

    I gave Palace Circle to my mom to see how she felt about it (I told her it was 'okay') but the silly goose just got Satellite TV and can't pick up a book these days.

    I am going to be reading two more WWII books so we'll see how those wind up. And maybe I'll get some more knowledge in that area.

  21. I found this shocking. I read historical fiction to get the feel of a different era and culture. Famous name characters to me sometimes get in the way of that. But apparently I'm in the minority. I'll definitely keep this in mind when writing future books.

  22. I have this book on my TBR pile, and I'm still looking forward to reading it. I think it's sad that people expect historical fiction to only encompass the famous people. I find different historical periods interesting, and there are some situations where forcing the famous people into a setting would feel terribly contrived. I just like getting to know the characters an author has created, and seeing how they live within their times.

    I've actually read the Valerie Anand book you mention. It wasn't my favorite, but that was because I had trouble getting inside the heads of the main characters. This meant I often got a bit bored and frustrated while reading. However, given that the book concerned a merchant family, it would have been odd to see them hobnobbing with the famous aristocrats of their day.

  23. I would have felt really discouraged if the author had included, say, a scene in which the king revealed his inner feelings about Mrs. Simpson to Delia (or the reader). It would have been unnatural.

    Lynn, you may feel similarly about the characterization in this novel. The reader is an observer of the palace circle and its inhabitants, but from the outside, which for me highlighted how different their world was. I can see how others might find the characters shallow because of it, though I felt it was just a different approach. Her style reminded me of Charlotte Bingham (British saga writer) if anyone else has read her... also Penny Vincenzi.

    The sequel to Lanyon did have regular people hobnobbing with royalty, which seemed somewhat of a stretch.

  24. Very interesting discussion. I haven't read the novel in question but the topic did generate a series of questions for me. For example, when does a historical novel cease to be "historical"? Is it when fictional characters dominate the landscape, instead of historical personages? Or is it when the story ceases to be about historical events and/or these events are backdrops for a purely fictional storyline? Is a novel with a purely fictional story (no characters based on real-life people, no historical events mentioned or alluded to) that is set in, say, the 18th century historical because of its setting or does it require more to qualify? In other words, how much history vs fiction qualifies a book as historical fiction? The distinctions may seem minute, but as we have seen, some readers clearly have their own particular expectations.

    I personally feel that if a novel illuminates our human condition in a way that also gives us a glimpse into the past, then it is historical.

  25. Fascinating discussion, Sarah et al! I have not yet read Palace Circle, although I will now, precisely because it does NOT focus on the celebrity characters! I've never heard the term "period piece"--is that a "defined" genre, Sarah? I do agree with Christopher's definition of historical fiction--to me it is the attempt to recreate a past era and its ways of understanding the world that defines historical fiction. This can be achieved through various proportions of fictional vs. historical characters/events.

    (I just have to add, my word verification is "ovivest"--I pictured a jacket made of colored eggs, quite appropriate for Easter!)

  26. Julianne, I admit I was curious to hear your thoughts on this, given your survey! "Period novel" isn't really a defined term, except in the ways we've talked about it here. When it's used to describe films (and Wikipedia confirms this, so it must mean something, right? :) it can refer to a piece set in any historical period, not just those with fictional characters.

    That's funny! My verification word today is "creaker." Does that mean I'm getting old and crotchety?