The Quest for the New

Richard Lee

Richard Lee talks about the oddly contemporary nature of historical fiction.

In the panel debate at our annual conference last year, there seemed to be only one idea that all the panel members (Derek Wilson, Manda Scott, Jane Jakeman, Elizabeth Chadwick and I) fully agreed on. Most (I think!) of the delegates agreed too. There is no ‘classic’ writer of historical fiction whose books read as if they were written today. We stuck our necks out for a couple of authors – most successfully Mary Renault and George MacDonald Fraser – but if they are exceptions, we concluded, they are of the sort that proves the rule. We weren’t saying that we didn’t like ‘classic’ historicals – far from it. What we were agreeing is that historical fiction shows its time of composition as much as any other genre. Publishers would seem to agree with us. It is fairly rare to find a historical novel from (say) the Seventies still in print. If we go back further (here’s another version of the old debate: when is the cut-off period for a classic?) there are fewer than for any other genre.

The irony of this is clear. Historical fiction is an extremely contemporary genre. Claire Conville (cofounder of Conville and Walsh Literary Agency) paraphrased this for us in agent-speak at the conference. She said that historical fiction constantly needs to reinvent itself. She isn’t looking for old historical fiction. She wants new authors, and new authors are going to have to do something different.

All this made me look at the High Street bookshops in a slightly different way when I got home. It also made me rethink my own writing.

Of course, it is possible to get too tangled up worrying about ‘newness’. The flip-side of our discussion about historical novels showing their age is the logical conclusion that a new book will inevitably show its (new) time of composition: so why trouble about it? Also, to wheel out a truism of publishing, established authors are generally required to repeat their ‘formula’ each year, whatever they may personally wish to do, and where is the newness in that?

Nevertheless, last weekend, when I should have been doing other work at my own branch of Waterstone’s bookshop, I was trying to puzzle out the publishing ‘angle’ on each of the new historicals I came across. (‘Angle’, I think, in publishing-speak is another word for ‘new’ – and the best kind of ‘angle’ is that which can transform itself over a year or two into a ‘niche’). The disappointing result of this is that I couldn’t. I’m not about to get into the naming game, but all the old chestnuts are represented. There is fictional biography (mostly featuring artists or royalty), ‘victim’ literature (institutional abuse of minorities, individuals, or women), erotica and sex in various guises (including promiscuity, prostitution, homosexuality and illicit romance), slice-of-life novels (normal lives in extraordinary circumstances, like World War, or far-flung empire), and ‘genre’ novels (I found no very new authors amongst these).

I’m not saying that the books I found didn’t sound interesting. Some I have read and found excellent; several others are on my TBR pile. You will find details of all of them in the Review, and more besides. But none of them seemed to represent this Holy Grail of ‘newness’. Many, indeed, might be accused of being on a bandwagon of one sort or another (the most obvious of these is the Roman bandwagon, which the success of Gladiator set rolling).

So what does ‘new’ really mean?

In my own small experience of choosing original fiction for Solander, I know that I’m looking for something new, but also for something that I’m already interested in. I guess this is where the fashion bit comes in. The last two stories we have published are both by the excellent Marion Arnott. The first was a retelling of Delilah’s story from a humorous, feminine viewpoint. Is it a coincidence that I had read two feminine retellings of Bible stories in the previous few months (Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent and Angela Elwell Hunt’s Shadow Women)? Probably not. I wanted to publish the story because it is beautifully written and satisfying. But I am as certain that the other books I had read influenced my decision as I am that this influence was unconscious at the time for me. Marion’s story in this issue (which you should all read: I really feel I’m sticking my neck out publishing one author twice in a row, and I’m only doing it because the story has real quality) begins as a seemingly light-hearted romance. Again, though, the underlying subject-matter is one that is very well known, never long absent from screen or book. Was I aware of this when I chose the story? No, I wasn’t, and it made no conscious part of my decision. Then again, if I ask myself whether I would have been as excited by a similar story set on a train journey to Siberia, the answer has to be ‘no’.

It is now that I realise how appallingly difficult the odds are for new writers, or authors seeking to change identity or genre. I suspect most editors share something of my approach. We want to read a story that we feel is new, fresh, exciting, original – yet we unconsciously need it to resonate with something we recently enjoyed. It is a seeming contradiction. We passionately want a non-bandwagon story that fits on the bandwagon. This is why getting a first book accepted for publication is so ferociously difficult. No amount of market analysis or second-guessing does anyone a jot of good.

After ten years of thinking about all this, I have only two pieces of advice for new writers: (1) Keep writing, and write what you yourself feel to be new and exciting and challenging, and (2) Keep reading newly-published books for pleasure, and you will find that the zeitgeist influences your writing as unconsciously as it influences your potential editors.

First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Issue 13 (Spring 2003).

Posted by Sarah Johnson

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