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Why is historical fiction such a popular genre?

For discussions of historical fiction. Threads that do not relate to historical fiction should be started in the Chat forum or elsewhere on the forum, depending on the topic.
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Keep them coming!

Post by darbrasfield » Sun February 13th, 2011, 1:59 pm

Thank you for all of the responses! I love hearing from you all!

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Post by sweetpotatoboy » Sun February 13th, 2011, 2:40 pm

I can't really answer why it's such a popular genre. (And is it really "such" a popular genre? compared to what?)

I can only really answer why I like it (and I think that's most people have done here).

For me, I think it's two aspects.
Firstly, I am very much history full stop. So historical fiction is an entertaining way of discovering history.

Secondly, something along the lines of what EC2 said. If I want real, contemporary life, it's outside my door. Why do I need to read a fictional version of it? (Not that I don't read or enjoy contemporary fiction, but it has to give me something extra.) I often smirk a little when I read comments about contemporary novels or drama that praise how realistic the dialogue is or how difficult it is to write realistic contemporary dialogue and behaviour. Maybe it is difficult, I don't know. But I can sit on a bus or loiter in a supermarket any day of the week to hear realistic contemporary dialogue. So contemporary fiction has to give me a setting - geographically, socially, professionally, emotionally etc. - that I don't experience normally to be rewarding.

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Post by fljustice » Sun February 13th, 2011, 5:33 pm

[quote=""sweetpotatoboy""]I can't really answer why it's such a popular genre. (And is it really "such" a popular genre? compared to what?)[/quote]

That's what first struck me about the question. I've always thought of HF as a niche genre attracting a distinct minority of readers. I went to Google to see if I could corroborate my hunch and didn't find much. The closest I came was this set of statistics from RWA 2009:

(source: Simba Information)

* Romance: $1.36 billion
* Religion/inspirational: $770 million
* Mystery: $674 million
* Science fiction/fantasy: $554 million
* Classic literary fiction: $462 million

These are sales not number of books published or sold, but HF isn't broken out. It is certainly a sub-genre in romance, mystery and fantasy. I'm not sure what "classic" literary fiction is. Austen and Dickens or any literary fiction?

In any case, I love HF (to read and to write) as does everyone on this forum, else why would we be here? I'm a history geek. I love to see where we've been and how we got here. As Margaret said, it's uplifting to see how much better things are now; primarily due to technology and communication systems. However, it's also sad to see how little has changed in human nature. Every time I read about modern politics and religious strife, I shake my head...and grab a good book to escape back to when our human foibles had much more manageable consequences.
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Post by annis » Sun February 13th, 2011, 6:52 pm

I read HF as I do fantasy, because I enjoy immersing myself in another world- so I guess it's a form of escapism. However ever since I was little I've loved history, myth and legend (blame JRR Tolkien and Rosemary Sutcliff, among others!)

Ariadne recently posted the results of survey done by students on why people read HF, which may be of interest here. Several of us felt that these respondents perhaps are referring to historical romance when they claim they like to escape to a happier place :)
Link here if anyone else wants to follow up.
http://readingthepast.blogspot.com/2011 ... es_22.html

I'n a pessimist, and as I commented on Ariadne's post:

"I’m puzzled by the desire expressed by readers to get away from the wars and grim stories in modern fiction, though. What part of history are they reading about?! One thing a study of history shows us is that the more things change the more they stay the same, especially in regard to warfare and the ability of humankind to do terrible things to each other in the names of religion, ideological belief and nationalism. Arguably the first recorded work of HF, written by Homer, was about the Greek war with Troy, undertaken much more to gain access to the rich trade routes Troy controlled than to retrieve the beautiful Helen!

Perhaps, as someone else suggested, many of the readers surveyed mostly read historical romance, where the unfortunate realities of any given period never get in the way of a happy ending :) "

I can't even look back and feel that we've made progress - at least people in past ages only destroyed each other - we've gone one better in attempting to destroy the very world we live in :(

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Post by princess garnet » Mon February 14th, 2011, 2:52 am

For me, historical fiction allows a window to another time and what it was like. I appreciate older novelists such as Margaret Campbell Barnes, Eleanor Hibbert, and Margaret Irwin for setting the standard of telling a good story and following historical record. Although there'll be minor errors or how someone's character is viewed is based on the historical scholarship at the time of their writing.

MLE, I agree with you on fantasy! It can be frustrating trying keep track of series or characters used in one series resurface in another. Or keeping the series chronology straight when the author jumps back and forth from one character cast to another!
Last edited by princess garnet on Mon February 14th, 2011, 2:55 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Ludmilla » Mon February 14th, 2011, 6:31 pm

[quote=""annis""]I read HF as I do fantasy, because I enjoy immersing myself in another world- so I guess it's a form of escapism. However ever since I was little I've loved history, myth and legend (blame JRR Tolkien and Rosemary Sutcliff, among others!)


Same here, only I didn't read Tolkien until I was a YA and I didn't discover Sutcliff until much later. It all started with fairy tales and myths and legends which led to researching ancient cultures and seeking out literature that evoked them in some way. I probably shouldn't admit this, but I'm such a misanthrope that I'd rather spend time immersed in my books than with most people I know IRL. If book characters start to annoy me, I can put the book down or wall bang. Can't do that with real people who annoy me! LOL!
(source: Simba Information)

* Romance: $1.36 billion
I guess all those people who claim they don't read romance are in denial? Most of those Romance sales are paperback aren't they? I would imagine a sizeable percentage of them are historical as well.

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Post by Matt Phillips » Mon February 14th, 2011, 9:13 pm

As others have said, history has always appealed overwhelmingly to me because - perhaps uniquely among types of knowledge - it consists of people, places and events that were once real, in our world, but no longer exist.

As for historical fiction specifically, I think James Alexander Thom put it well in his recent book, The Art and Craft of Historical Fiction. I'm paraphrasing, but basically he said the historian writing non-fiction is standing in the present and explaining the past to readers whose frame of mind remains in the present. The historical novelist, by contrast, aims to move readers' frames of mind into the past and show history from the perspective of those who lived it.

Historical fiction, in other words, is history from the inside-out, while historical non-fiction is history from the outside-in. Both are appealing and both have their place, but for me, the former works much better as entertainment and sometimes even as education (if done well).

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Post by Michy » Mon February 14th, 2011, 11:03 pm

[quote=""sweetpotatoboy""] I often smirk a little when I read comments about contemporary novels or drama that praise how realistic the dialogue is or how difficult it is to write realistic contemporary dialogue and behaviour. Maybe it is difficult, I don't know. [/quote] I think it must indeed be difficult, because so few writers can do it well. Most of them overdo it, and their characters come off like caricatures, or like a bunch of highly-strung, tightly-wound obsessives who need to take tranquilizers. I'm speaking of American writers, of course; maybe British writers do a better job of capturing contemporary behavior and speech - ?
Last edited by Michy on Mon February 14th, 2011, 11:19 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Carla » Tue February 15th, 2011, 8:00 pm

I can't answer why it's popular. I like HF because I'm interested in how society worked in another time and place. People may not change all that much, but the social values and expectations that shape their lives and behaviour do. HF can show a historical society and the people in it on their own terms (or at any rate the author's imagination of it).

Also because HF is a way of exploring the gaps in history. Often we don't know exactly what happened - e.g. we know the Princes in the Tower disappeared some time after the summer of 1483, but we don't know what happened to them, or when, or whodunnit. (Or, picking a more diffuse example, we know that in 400 AD Britain was a province of the Roman Empire and that by 600 AD it was a mosaic of small independent kingdoms, but what happened in between to change one into the other is obscure). A historian can lay out the evidence, suggest a variety of possibilities, and then has to say "It is not known what happened". HF can pick one of the possibilities and play out how and why it might have happened.

HF I think can complement history. If you read George MacDonald Fraser's history of the Border Reivers The Steel Bonnets, you come away with a fair understanding of what happened along the Anglo-Scottish border over two or three centuries and some idea about the politics and political players that made it happen. If you read his novel The Candlemas Road, you see the strange and violent culture of the Reivers acted out on and by individuals, and almost feel as if you are part of it yourself. Read The Steel Bonnets and you know about the Reivers; read The Candlemas Road and you understand.
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Post by LoveHistory » Tue February 15th, 2011, 10:02 pm

I don't see HF as popular compared to other genres. It has become more popular in recent years due to the success of some authors in reaching a larger audience (Phillipa Gregory for example). It's still considered a niche genre to a point. So it's not popular overall. However, HF readers are very loyal and enthusiastic regarding the genre, praising the great books and recommending them to friends or fellow readers. Once you are into reading HF, you are in it for life.

Oh, and I would mention what I like about HF, but everyone else has already said it so much better than I could.

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