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.

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