When is a historical novel not a historical novel?

Unknown-27This week’s issue of The Bookseller magazine landed on the mat this morning, which is always a pleasant distraction. They are previewing July releases, so I skipped to the historical fiction section. James Wilde, Hereward: End of Days (blood and mayhem Norman style) and Wendy Wallace, The Sacred River (Victorian ladies travelling to Egypt). That’s all. Then there is a historical adventure section: James McGee, The Blooding, James Holland, The Devil’s Pact, Michael Arnold, Assassin’s Reign – soldier stories in 19th, 20th and 17th century settings respectively. I wonder why the James Wilde wasn’t in this section? Then there is an historical crime section. The Medieval Murderers, The False Virgin. I have no problem with that. Then another section for Historical Debuts, with Diana Bretherick’s prize-winning City of Devils (19th Century) and James Heneage’s The Walls of Byzantium (15th Century). All fine as far as it goes, but surely confusing?

But then there are these books that are NOT historical (apparently).

9780062120397.jpgArturo Perez-Reverte The Siege. (1811 Cadiz – designated ‘literary’). Philipp Meyer The Son (multi-period – designated ‘literary’). There are several other literary multi period novels, and a ‘literary debut’ about 18th Century French foodie (Jonathan Grimwood, The Last Banquet). Then up pops Robert Goddard in the Crime and Thriller section with a novel set in 1919 (The Ways of the World) – as does Benjamin Black’s Holy Orders set in 1950s Dublin, David Thomas’s Ostland set in 40s and 50s Berlin, Dan Smith’s Red Winter, set in 1920s Russia. Meanwhile under ‘Commercial’ and ‘Saga’ respectively, we have 1950s Kent (Caitlin Davies, Family Likeness) and wartime romance (Lily Baxter, The Shopkeeper’s Daughter).

So – of the titles featured – only about half of the historicals are labelled as such. And, if anyone tracks the sales with relation to genres – what’s hot, and what’s not – historical fiction won’t be tagged on roughly half its titles.

I think these definitions of genre originate with the publishers. I wonder, really, what validity they have. I certainly believe that anyone trying to assess the popularity or marketability of historical fiction needs to bear in mind how the data is distorted.

Posted by Richard Lee


  1. Teresa
    April 5, 2013

    I think part of the problem is that a lot of people still think of historical fiction in terms of historical romance, so many publishers don’t want to label their books as such. Which is so stupid, but I’ve given up trying to explain that a) there’s nothing actually WRONG with historical romance and b) that HR is only one part of the overall Historical Fiction genre which encompasses fiction set in the past.

  2. Kathryn Johnson
    April 5, 2013

    Richard, I agree–very strange. I can only add that, apparently, some readers who write reviews on such sites as Goodreads or Amazon, also have their opinion on what is historical fiction, or not. My series, writing as Mary Hart Perry, is inspired by the lives of Queen Victoria’s daughters. I label the stories romantic Victorian thrillers, if pressed to define them. To me, they are historical fiction. (No, they are not biographical;they’re–repeat–fiction.) But a few reader/reviewers have warned others, “If you want to read historical fiction, this isn’t it.” Hmmmm…. Ah well, maybe fiction, historical or otherwise, is in the eyes of the beholder? Equally puzzled, Kathryn Johnson (aka Mary Hart Perry)

  3. Imma
    April 5, 2013

    Since in many cases, classify a book, in particular a good one, historical and non, is an arduous task, perhaps, a solution to this problem might be found in “multi-labeling” a book,that is, placing it in a range of genres to which it may belong.

  4. Carole Freeman
    April 5, 2013

    I have brought up this subject numerous times whether on my blog, History’s Odds and Sods or on many historical book groups I belong too on FB. What do readers and authors consider Historical Fiction? To me, (and this is only my “opinion” on the subject), any book that is written about the past ( a time for which the reader, could not have experienced first hand) and is fictional in nature should be considered Historical Fiction. Historical Fiction-
    1) blends fictional characters and stories with historical settings and facts.
    2)blends real people from the past in historical based settings with fictional characters in the story or fictional conversations and possibly another story line.
    Also, I believe there are sub-genre’s (or groups) under the HF genre itself. These would be such classifications as:
    Historical Thrillers, Historical Mysteries, Historical Romance, Historical Fantasies (such as The Mists of Avalon..) or Gothic Historical Fiction( Historical fiction with a prevailing atmosphere of mystery and terror) and so on. Whatever the story, it should always make the reader believe the novel is a plausible explanation of the past. I would love to hear others comments on my opinion here.

  5. Marie Burton
    April 6, 2013

    From a reader’s standpoint, I did not like the last two literary historical novels I had read; I would definitely want that genre to be labeled a sub-genre and not disguised as straight Historical Fiction in the future.

  6. Deborah Swift
    April 6, 2013

    Yes, this has always frustrated me as a writer. Obviously readers of general fiction are reading historical fiction. Richard and Judy often have historical novels on their heavily promoted lists,such as the excellent The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh, but these are not labelled as historical novels.My suspicion is that publishers think that the book is more likely to be reviewed by the mainstream press if labelled ‘literary’ rather than ‘historical.’ The boundaries between literary and commercial fiction have always been a bit blurry,annd The Bookseller lists just illustrate that point! Thanks for posting, interesting to see that breakdown.

  7. Nicola Griffith
    April 6, 2013

    A paper magazines, like physical bookshelves, dictate choice: this or that. Electronic media (whether retail sites or review sites) can tag items as many times as they like. A book can be literary and historical and adventure and so on.

    And, more and more, I wonder if publishers, when faced with having to choose in terms of physical labels (which shelf the bookseller will put the book on) are thinking that the era doesn’t matter that much to readers. What matters to readers is the overall flavour of the book: adventure, romance, family rivalry, exquisite distillation of human behaviour, and so on.

    Just a thought…

  8. Danielle Huffman-Hanni
    April 6, 2013

    How confusing and frustrating! I would define historical fiction as any story set in the past but can’t be concretely looked as modern. Depending upon the age of the reader, something set in the 1950s could be historical, it would be to me since I’m in my 30s, yet for someone who grew up during that time period, it may not be.
    I know we humans love to be able to categorize everything but there seems to be too many genres to complicate things with sub-genres. I daresay many historical fiction books could very easily qualify as historical adventure, historical romance, literary, etc. So which one would get the top billing? Also, look at the Steampunk genre. It gets labeled under sci-fi/fantasy yet one of its key components is the stories are usually set in the past, more often than not, the Victorian age to early 1900s.
    Too many labels when all that should matter is how intriguing the story is, regardless of genre.

  9. Judith Schara
    April 8, 2013

    This gets complicated further if you write in genre that straddles both contemporary time and historical time – a time slip or time travel novel (I’m still not sure which term is correct). My recently completed novel has over half set in an extensively researched time past and the rest in contemporary times. I am struggling to find an accurate label. So surely a book seller would be confused. As far as I know there is no book store section devoted to time slip/time travel. These ambiguous novels are usually dumped in Romance, Science fiction and fantasy, or straight historical.Right now I am thinking Historical Fiction time slip. Any comments will be appreciated.And I would love to see the HNS develop a labeling system that would eliminate these problems.

  10. Helen Hollick
    April 10, 2013

    My Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy was clearly labelled HF when it was originally published, is still advertised as that now the books are Indie here in the UK – and ditto by Sourcebooks in the US. The blurb centres around the fact that there is no Merlin or magic in my stories, this is the “what might have really happened story of Arthur” – yet time and again, there they are under fantasy because they are about King Arthur.

    • Judith Schara
      April 10, 2013

      Helen, I think a book is doomed to be labled fantasy(by booksellers) when you write about a person or time that is prehistory (without acknowledged documentation and/or there is any element of magic in the story.Of course, magic was part of all history. It’s our culture that wants to deny its existence.
      Since your trilogy is clearly labled HF, is the problem with how Amazon / or booksellers shelve it? That’s where I think the problems are festerin! Might be out of our control.