historical fiction: where the boys aren’t(?)

Evidently I’m writing a fantasy novel.

This is news to me.

via GIPHY

So how did this happen?

Of all the sessions I attended at the HNS conference last week, the one about male protagonists was the most surprising. As far back as 2015 I’d heard murmurings that my choice of a male protagonist was unusual but I didn’t realize just how unusual.

Industry logic goes like this: historical fiction is written primarily by and for women. Women prefer to read from the points of view of other women. Hence, a female protagonist is all but required in order to market a book as “historical fiction”*. Hence, having Edward Kelley as my protagonist creates a hurdle to publication, at least in this genre.

Of course, historical fictions with male protagonists do exist, though they’re often marketed as something else. This results in oddities like “Wolf Hall” being shelved in literary (even though Hilary Mantel clearly thinks of herself as a historical fiction writer) and books from the POV of a male spy having women on the covers to meet reader expectations.

Which makes little sense because readers don’t actually expect this. Anecdotes aren’t data but the panel attendees–men and women alike–enjoyed reading male protagonists and want to see more of them. Authors enjoy writing them, even though some editors warn them off (!).

The trope persists due to a risk-averse publishing industry based on what I suspect are very old stats. This does a disservice to readers and authors alike in terms of publishability and findability.

Interestingly, fantasy/sci-fi has the opposite problem. Which led to my asking whether I should pitch the Work in Progress as fantasy, given my male protagonist and fantastical elements. The panelists replied with a resounding “yes”.

So, shall I pitch as fantasy and betray the sisterhood/fall under histfic readers’ radar, or pitch as historical fiction and possibly never publish at all? It’s a conundrum. Fortunately, I find this funny as well as frustrating.

I invite readers to share their favorite genre-bending media (not just books! Movie, tv, comic, game, etc. recs are all welcome!), particularly historical fiction not marketed as such. How did you find it? Did you have trouble finding it?

*Not that historical fiction can’t be about men: it often is, just through the eyes of the women around them. The notion is that women don’t mind reading about men, they just don’t want to walk in their shoes.

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Allison Thurman

Allison Thurman has always made stuff: out of fabric, metal, beads, even exaggerated fencing moves. Of late she makes stories out of weird history, with fragments of pop culture, unsolved mysteries, and science fiction mixed in for texture. She lives in a galaxy far, far away (well, the DC metro area) with too many books and swords.

16 thoughts on “historical fiction: where the boys aren’t(?)”

    1. It was to me too. The crowd at HNS-both writers and readers-WERE mostly women, but none mentioned not wanting to read male POV. To be fair, the panel I was self-selected for fans/writers of male protagonists, so YMMV.

      And yeah, no large, established industry turns on a dime 🙁

  1. My own favorite historical fiction with a male protagonist is The Bells by Richard Harvell, published in 2011. I doubt it would be traditionally published today. Then again, I think male authors are “allowed” to write male protagonists.

    Another one I like is The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott, which is marketed as a thriller. Male narrator but a woman on the cover. Likewise, the main character in Kathleen Grissom’s Glory Over Everything is a man, but there’s a woman on both the hardcover and paperback cover. The hardcover had me scratching my head till I realized that “historical fiction is written primarily by and for women” industry illogic. And these two novels were not the authors’ debuts.

    Women ARE allowed to write male protagonists in historical mysteries. I think of Tessa Harris’s Thomas Silkstone mysteries and C. S. Harris’s [but note the unisex initials] Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries. (I just now noticed these ladies have the same surname!)

    Could your novel be pitched as a historical mystery?

    1. 2011 (The Bells) an 2009 (The Coral Thief) aren’t that long ago, and IMHO excellent examples that “no dudes” is a guideline more than a rule. I do find it interesting that mystery seems friendlier to male MCs. I wonder why that is? The long legacy of Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, perhaps?

      Alas, I don’t think mine is much of a mystery – no crimes are solved. It is at least partly psychological thriller, so maybe I can work that angle as well, if I bring the creepiness the way I want to.

  2. Whatever would we do without “the industry” to tell us what our preferences are? ;p

    I’m happy with reading a POV that best suits the setting/story. Which means any gender will do in most genres. However one thing I loathe (and I am a female and speaking as a female here) in historical works, whether print or screen, is a female character being used as a means to shoehorn modern feminism into a past era/culture where it didn’t really exist. I’m aware of and love learning about individual women who broke social conventions in their time and place … they’re the pioneers who got us where we are today. A novel about them or including them … oh yes!!! But the scrappy little kitchen maid who advised Wellington on his military maneuvers? Nuh uh!!! (okay, I made that one up but it’s the type of thing I mean)

    Here’s a link to the current genre terms being used by the Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/aba/publications/FreeLCGFT/GENRE.pdf … maybe you’ll find something that fits in there. Note that in library classification we’ll assign multiple genre terms to a work if it doesn’ fit tidily into one.

    Samples of male protagonist historicals from my bookshelves … hmmm. The first third of Poppy Z. Brite’s “Triads” is from the POV of male characters in 1937 China who are also a part of the 1945 and modern day portions of the book. “The Three Musketeers” was historical fiction at the time it was written. Gregory Frost’s retelling of the “Tain” and “Remscela” … the legendary Irish hero Cú Chulainn is the primary character, just as he is in the original epic. Tom Holt’s “Olympiad”, “Alexander at the World’s End”, “Goatsong” and its sequel “The Walled Orchard” are all male POV (as is his “A Song for Nero” which I don’t own … yet … but have read). Eric Nicol’s “Dickens of the Mounted” (a humorous biographical novel about one of Charles Dickens’ sons who spent twelve years serving with Canada’s North West Mounted Police). Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s Alatriste novels, of course; non-Alatriste “The Siege” is also male POV. I think Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”, “Kidnapped”, and “The Master of Ballantrae” would count since, like Dumas, he was writing about times before his own. And then, dreadful creature that he is, there’s also George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman (Fraser’s history is impeccable even with Flashy smeared across it). Hmmm … now that I’ve typed ’em, all male authors except for Brite.
    I’ve got more in my library but they fall into the historical mystery category.

    1. Damn, how did I forget Alatriste? I need to catch up with those, among others…

      A few weeks ago the Historical Novel Society group on Facebook hosted a long discussion thread on the very topic of strong female characters and keeping them true to the constraints of their time periods. My disorganized thoughts include: we write books about exceptional figures (male and female, fictional and not) because there’s no story around people who don’t do anything out of the ordinary; that even though women might stick to the norms of their time that doesn’t mean they didn’t resent/fume about it, at least to themselves; and that women don’t have to be exceptions that take on male roles (queens, warriors) to have stories worth writing about: there’s plenty of suspense and tension and drama in traditional women’s lives.

      1. I agree … historical female characters who have opinions and attitudes about the social roles of their era and express them, whether still living within the constraints or finding ways to push those boundaries, are always interesting (so are male characters doing the same, for that matter) … I find reading everyday life of other times fascinating. Far more fascinating than the lives of the high and mighty and powerful. Because powers are mayflies while everyday life is essential and, in the long run, more important, and the powers can’t have their brief existences without it supporting them.

        P.S. Forgetting Alatriste???!!! Get a brain scan immediately!!! 😉 There’s a seventh novel, “El puente de los Asesinos”, which still hasn’t been translated into English … this one has Alatriste in Venice. I keep watching for it.

  3. Allison, the prejudice against male protagonists was certainly a reoccurring theme at the HNS conference. Yet, last year’s Good Reads Awards for historical fiction include “Gentleman in Moscow”, “News of the World,” “Last Days Night,” and “The North Water,” all with male protagonists! I think you just have to have a better-than-average hook. The two editors I pitched on my own manuscript–based in part on a novel Napoleon Bonaparte tried to write and with Napoleon himself as protagonist–both asked to see chapters and synopsis. We’ll see if my novel advances in the publishing process, but at least, it’s one more indication that there aren’t any hard and fast rules in publishing. Good luck with your manuscript! It was great to meet you at the conference.
    Margaret Rodenberg (www.findingnapoleon.com)

    1. Hi! Thanks for commenting!

      Indeed, for every rule there’s an exception – the interest in your manuscript is evidence of this. I hope industry sorts pay attention to the Goodreads results and other input from the reader community.

      Good luck with your queries!

  4. I suspect this has to do with other members of the “let’s get this party started” team in publishing. For years I’ve been mansplained “Gotta put a girl on the cover, Eileen, girls want to read about girls” (YA historical father and son story) and “Reader’s got to be an actress, Eileen, only women listen to fiction and they want to identify” (audio book of historical novel with intimate male point of view, mostly) Oy. Great blog post, Alison. Thank you!

    1. Um, I’m a woman; I listen to audiobooks ALL THE TIME; and I love having a man read to me. Also all historical novels with women on the cover have started to look the same to me.

      1. True, this. I’m thinking specifically of the excellent work Jim Dale did with the Harry Potter audiobooks (though that’s YA fantasy, not adult histfic). And yeah, women do love hearing a man’s voice – thirty years of Alan Rickman fans can’t all be wrong 😛

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