Historical Fiction: Is It Just For Women?

Alexander-John-White-Repose

I realized that my bone to pick with the agent was her implication that women only want to read about female protagonists.  As if there were no room for deviation from the formula.  I’d like to think that we as a readership can find interest in stories other than those where we may resemble the main character.

When I decided to write a historical novel about a real-life, turn-of-the-century school for orphaned and indigent boys, it seemed obvious to me that the most interesting point of view would be that of the boys at the school.  Maybe my choice was colored by all the historical fiction I had been reading lately.  All the female protagonists had started to seem the same.  They’re plucky!  They like to read!  They are smarter/more talented than all the men around them, and yet they can’t even vote!  Of course, there were many, many women like this in history, and that’s heartbreaking – but as a reader, I wanted more variety.

When I met face-to-face with a young agent who had read my manuscript, she had good things to say.  She thought my premise was interesting and my writing was excellent.  The problem she identified, however, was a showstopper.  “Historical fiction readers are women,” she told me.  “And women want to read books with female protagonists.”  As I tried to figure out how I felt about these two statements, she advised, “If I were you, I would put this manuscript in a drawer, and tomorrow I would start writing a novel with a female protagonist.”

Now you tell me.

Since I wasn’t ready to give up on my completed manuscript, I considered the agent’s claims.  First off, are historical fiction reader mostly women?  To get the full picture, consider the abundant studies that show that women undoubtedly read more fiction than men.  Within the genre of historical fiction, the bald statistics can hide the fact that there are sub-genres which skew toward a male audience (political, military); if you remove the Ken Folletts from the picture, surveys reveal all those women reading Philippa Gregory.  Score a point for the agent on that one.

But what about her other claim – that women historical fiction readers want their protagonists without Y chromosomes?  A quick stroll through Amazon will tell you that the plucky heroine – the very one I had tired of – is a mainstay of bestselling historical novels.  And it makes intuitive sense; why wouldn’t a female readership want to read about strong women?  But I realized that my bone to pick with the agent was her implication that women only want to read about female protagonists.  As if there were no room for deviation from the formula.  I’d like to think that we as a readership can find interest in stories other than those where we may resemble the main character.

And beyond that, I ended up feeling that a book about twelve-year-old homeless and indigent boys would appeal to the ultimate female historical fiction reader:  moms.  As a mother, I get surprisingly caught up in the tension of any narrative where children are in danger or are treated poorly (take Emma Donogue’s Room as an extreme example).  And since I’m constantly trying to figure out the enigma that is my own children, I love reading stories from the perspective of children.  Feedback I received from early readers of my novel who are moms echoed these feelings.  Aren’t moms a great demographic for historical fiction?  Where’s the problem?

The truth is that traditional publishing has been turned on its ear by eBooks, self publishing and the Internet.  Their old business models don’t work very well anymore, but the industry has yet to completely crack the code on how to be profitable in the new world – a world is still rapidly changing.  So they stick to what has traditionally sold.  Why stick your neck out for something that hasn’t yet been proven profitable?

Of course, this is the kind of conservative, risk-averse thinking that doomed companies like Borders, who never developed an online outlet, or Blockbuster, who passed on the chance to buy Netflix.  But people want to buy books with a few mouse clicks and binge-watch their favorite shows, and the people have spoken.

I ended up publishing  – unagented – with a small publishing company who could see beyond repeating formulas for past successes.  I’m about to find out if readers of historical fiction like stories about twelve-year-old boys.  Whether they do or don’t, the stories I’m considering for my next novel all happen to require at least one female protagonist.  But don’t expect her to like reading.

Connie Hertzberg Mayo is a longtime resident of the Boston area. Her debut novel,The Island of Worthy Boys, will be published by She Writes Press in October 2015.  Find out more at www.conniemayo.com.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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