The May issue of SOLANDER asks why historical fiction doesn’t sell as well as teen vampire books; I think part of the answer is to be found within SOLANDER’s pages. Here, as elsewhere in the historical fiction world, the tone many writers take is akin to that of cranky adults scolding young children to eat their vegetables and forego cake.
I was particularly struck by the Letters section in which an HNS Member takes to task the writers of historical mysteries set in Ancient Egypt & Rome for being set “into a culture where detective style investigations didn’t take place” and then goes on to criticize best-selling author Wilbur Smith.
I cite this not to dispute anyone’s right to like what she likes, but to demonstrate what I think is an unfortunate attitude I’d like to discourage in my fellow historical fiction authors. In my opinion, we should approach history with far more humility. Second, I’d like to avoid attitudes that undermine the commercialism of the genre.
With regard to the point that detective investigations didn’t take place in ancient Rome…that is not a foregone conclusion. While it is true that the Romans didn’t even have the equivalent of a police force until the Augustan Age and that the Romans were untroubled by murders that would demand explanation in the modern world, the fact remains that our own criminal justice system derives, in part, from the Romans. They did have trials. They were interested in justice. And most importantly, the ancient Romans weren’t another species.
We are often struck dumb by the differences between our culture and theirs, when we ought to be humbled at how much we are the same. To insist that no person in ancient Rome could have had an instinct to solve mysteries in detective-like fashion is, to my mind, a presumptuous point of view–one that probably alienates readers and adds nothing to our understanding of history.
To the second point, there are all sorts of styles of historical fiction, and we ought not marginalize the flavors we don’t prefer. I believe it’s destructive to the commercial prospects of the genre to imply that the novels of Wilbur Smith are somehow less respectable than those of Colleen McCullough because the latter hews to an enumerative style and the former combines epochs to create epic stories. Both of these authors have seen commercial success and I’ve enjoyed each of them; their audiences overlap. McCullough may have penned the most scholarly fiction written about ancient Rome, but in my reading experience of them both, there isn’t a page of that series that could compete with Wilbur Smith on an emotional level. Neither is inherently better than the other. Wilbur Smith’s River God enchanted a generation of readers who might not otherwise have ever picked up a book about Ancient Egypt, and he’s to be commended for it, not condemned.
As writers it’s our job to serve up a literary banquet. Some of our guests are going to like asparagus and some of them are going to like sweets, and some of them are going to want some of each. If we want to make the commercial market more viable for historical fiction, it seems to me that we ought to encourage the diversity, not rail against it.
Historical fiction doesn’t have to be good for us. It doesn’t have to be filled with fiber. It’s sufficient that it rouses an interest in the time period. That it teaches a little bit and inspires the reader to learn more. It is fiction. It is meant to fill in all the sweet spaces that history leaves blank. This kind of confection can’t rot your teeth, so let them eat cake!