As the general fiction editor here at BookPage, most every novel published eventually makes its way across my desk (or at least spends time piled on it). So it’s easy to spot trends. Some are extremely transitory (cover trends, Amish vampires); others, part of a publishing shift (other cover trends, regular vampires). One thing that seems to be firmly in the latter category is the rise of historical fiction.
Of course, this is not a new genre, but the number of hopeful historical fiction bestsellers has gone up exponentially over the past few years. Many of this fall’s most touted debuts and literary releases? Historicals. The favorite for this year’s Man Booker Prize? A historical. Some of 2012′s biggest bestsellers were the type of book I like to call “novels—now starring real people,” which, with their stories of the inner lives of historical figures (usually involving romantic intrigue), have won over readers of contemporary commercial fiction. It’s starting to feel like a writer has to be a colossus—or at least some sort of preternaturally talented literary phenom—to get noticed for a book set in the present day. (Writing about the future also gives you a pretty decent chance, but that’s for another post.)
I have a few theories about why this genre is especially popular with today’s authors, publishers and readers.
Our multi-tasking lifestyle. No one wants to be doing just one thing when they could be doing two. These novels offer readers an escape—but they’re also teaching you something!
Gravitas. It’s hard to shake 200+ years of criticism of the novel as a frivolous waste of time. Reading historical fiction calms these anxieties for readers. And that added dose of seriousness—these authors probably read other books in order to write their novel! none of this daydreaming over Starbucks nonsense—also gives writers and publishers a better chance at the Holy Grail: a novel that sells well, yet isn’t completely cut off from critical praise.
Reality TV. Today we are accustomed to having “real” lives served up as entertainment. See also: the rising popularity of memoirs. Please note that both these things came into their own just before the “novels featuring real people” trend really took off. Coincidence?
It’s a “hook.” Having a factual angle gives book clubs something to chew on and media types something to probe into. And lord knows the only thing better than selling your book to 10 people at the same time is getting your author five minutes with Matt Lauer.
Today’s world is not that great, but it could be worse. Reading historical fiction lets us get lost in the past (That dress sounds gorgeous! I wish I had a butler.), while at the same time letting us feel slightly superior about modern advancements (cell phones, indoor plumbing, more progressive attitudes toward women and minorities—you know, the important things). A win-win.
But those are just my theories. What are yours? Do you have a favorite historical novel from 2012? (I’m going to go with The Lifeboat.)