28 January, 2006

The Virgin Queen. TV review

Well, well, you wait thirty years for a TV drama series about Elizabeth I and then two come along at once. I wonder if someone noticed in 2003 that it was the 400th anniversary of Elizabeth's death and this is the production lag? First up was Channel 4's drama Elizabeth, screened before Christmas. I missed the first episode so can't comment on that, but I watched the rest. I recall being mildly annoyed by some of the (to my mind) over-dramatic non-events, such as having Elizabeth meet Mary Queen of Scots in person (at least they made it a clandestine visit), having Elizabeth narrowly escape assassination by a knife-wielding Catholic, and having Elizabeth present at Robert Dudley's deathbed. But none of these mattered to the story, and Helen Mirren's superb portrayal of Elizabeth outshone any such minor quibbles.

So how did The Virgin Queen compare? On the evidence of the first episode, I would say it's not brilliant, but it's not bad either. The script was free of annoying dialogue, though I thought it was rather low on complexity and depth. I didn't get a strong sense of Elizabeth as a clever young woman surviving the aftermath of the Wyatt rebellion by her own wits, or of a keen political mind playing off factions, or of the deeply divided country she inherited. Elizabeth came over as a girl who happened to outlive her sister, rather than one who made her own fate.

Despite the dark, grainy shots of Traitors' Gate, dungeons and torture chambers, the Tower didn't conjure up for me the intended sense of dread. I got no strong sense that Elizabeth really feared she was about to die; perhaps the script was intended to show her being calm under pressure, but if so it didn't work for me. Sometimes the script also seemed excessively obvious; for example, it reminded us of Anne Boleyn's fate by having Elizabeth find her name carved on the wall of her chamber in the Tower. Compare that with the lines in Elizabeth R that do the equivalent job, which run something like "I shall have a swordsman from France. She could not deny me that. There is a precedent." Much more subtle, and to my mind much more effective.

Anne-Marie Duff made a convincing Elizabeth, although I didn't feel that the script gave her as much to work with as it could have. There seemed to be rather less steel in this Elizabeth and rather more of the giddy girl.

For me, the big disappointment was the portrayal of Robert Dudley. Given the series title, I imagine that Elizabeth's love life or lack thereof is going to be a key thread in this drama. For that to work, you need a powerful screen presence for Robert Dudley. I assume that if you're reading this blog you already know the story, but if not, Robert Dudley was widely believed at the time to be Elizabeth's lover, and their relationship (whatever its details) scandalised the courts of Europe and made ELizabeth deeply unpopular in her own country. Unless Elizabeth was a very silly woman, Robert Dudley must have exercised a tremendous attraction for her to risk her throne for him. In a TV drama, this demands that the actor has to be alpha-male hot. He should make the cathode ray tube sizzle and the remote control swoon. In James Bond terms, we're talking Sean Connery, at least. You know what I mean, ladies. So what possessed the casting director to choose someone who looks more like Roger Moore's kid brother? Tom Hardy does his best with the role, but he simply looks far too young for the part. He looks like a pampered boy, not even old enough to be married, let alone to be a charismatic adventurer bent on royal adultery. The script gives him no help either; he is made to say to Elizabeth that he married his wife because his father told him to. Not very alpha-male, poor boy. Unless later episodes reveal some hidden depths, I'm afraid I'm not going to find this a very convincing relationship. (Channel 4 cast Jeremy Irons, by the way. Now that's more like it).

Has anyone else seen either or both? (I make no apologies for insularity this time; both these series have 'Export' written all over them). What did you think?

22 January, 2006

Greenmantle. Radio review

BBC Radio 4 broadcast a dramatic adaptation of John Buchan's Greenmantle on Mon 26 and Tue 27 December 2005. Thanks to the marvels of technology, both episodes are available for the time being on the BBC's excellent Listen Again service, on the Classic Serial page.

I read Greenmantle a long time ago when as a not-quite-teenager I discovered the books of John Buchan, Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle at the local town library and got hooked on their adventure stories. Strictly speaking these don't count as historical fiction because they were contemporary when written, but never mind. I have fond memories of Greenmantle as a derring-do spy story in which our hero Richard Hannay foils a dastardly German spy plot in the Middle East around the time of the First World War. (I wonder if there's an equivalent cadre of popular German fiction from the period in which clean-cut German heroes foil dastardly British plots? I'd be most interested to hear from anyone who knows). Certainly that's how Radio 4 pitched the adaptation in their trailers. However, it turned out to be a disappointment.

All the heroes seemed to be identikit upper-class, stiff-upper-lip, I-say-steady-on-old-chap jolly good fellows, even the Dutchman and the American. The villain was a stereotyped bull-necked Hun. The principal female character, German aristocrat Hilda von Einem, was a mysterious, beautiful, enigmatic ice maiden with some mystical power over men and a plan for world domination, who reminded me irresistibly of CS Lewis's White Witch of Narnia. Not necessarily a problem so far; I don't go to a John Buchan spy story for subtle or complex characters.

But I do expect a rattling good yarn, and that seemed to be missing. The set-up was promising - German agents are trying to stir up a holy war against Britain in the Middle East; the only clue is a mysterious code scribbled on a scrap of paper by a dying British spy; Richard Hannay and friends are despatched across war-torn Europe to Constantinople in a desperate race against time to crack the code and foil the plot. But the most exciting thing that happened in the whole of the first episode (the journey across war-torn Europe) was a rather lacklustre fist-fight between Richard Hannay and the villainous Hun. The plot relied on a string of implausible coincidences; Richard Hannay's journey happens to bring him into contact with the Hun villain; he overhears a conversation that links Hilda von Einem to part of the code; he and the Dutchman get lost while out hunting and happen to walk into Hilda von Einem's villa to ask the way; he happens to look into the Hun villain's study (which conveniently happens to have shutters that don't meet) at just the moment that the villain is studying a map of vital strategic importance and just then the villain happens to walk out of the study so that Hannay can break in through the ill-fitting shutters and steal the map. Oh, please. By this time I'd given up and picked up my embroidery. The Russians came into it later, there was a battle, the villains all got killed and that was the end.

I shall have to re-read Greenmantle and find out whether my memory is at fault, or whether it's suffered in the adaptation process. Did anyone else hear the adaptation? Anyone else read the book?

15 January, 2006

Balderdash and Piffle: TV review

Balderdash and Piffle is a new BBC TV series exploring the origin and use of English words. It has a magazine format, with the main presenter Victoria Coren and various guest presenters each doing a piece on the origin of a particular word, interspersed with numerous short spots in which celebrities choose their favourite word and explain why they like it in about one sentence.

So far, the series has been consistently excellent. Victoria Coren is an intelligent and interested presenter. The guest presenters vary from charming to ebullient to erudite to irritatingly bumptious. Some of the stunts have real style; the first episode featured a Tiger Moth doing aerobatics to illustrate an appealing (but, sadly, unproven) derivation of the phrase 'pear-shaped'. Here are some of the other highlights from the first two episodes.

Ian Hislop, of Private Eye fame, demonstrating the principles of 'management-speak', complete with multicoloured Powerpoint presentation. I am normally sceptical about the concept of immutable 'rules' in writing, but management-speak suits rules. Here they are:
1. Take a noun (incentive)
2. Verbify it (incentivise)
3. Add some extraneous words - adverbs are good (proactively incentivise)
4. Convert to the passive voice (the team will be proactively incentivised)
5. Get the word 'stakeholders' in somehow (for the benefit of all our stakeholders, the team will be proactively incentivised)
Anyone who's worked in or for a corporation in the last 20 years will recognise this language; for anyone who hasn't, regular reading of Dilbert should help.

'Ploughman's Lunch' is not a traditional meal going back to the dawn of time, but was invented by a marketing executive in 1961 to increase sales of cheese (this has long been rumoured, but Victoria Coren unearthed documentary evidence and proved it).

In Old English, the word 'man' meant 'human' and did not become gender-specific until much later. Moreover, it goes back thousands of years to Sanskrit, and (rather wonderfully) is cognate with the same root as the word 'mind'.

A thought-provoking, informative and entertaining programme. A delight. I hope there's a second series.

For those of you who live beyond the shores of this sceptred isle and are shaking your heads at me for an insular Brit ('Fog in Channel. Continent cut off,' as the [apocryphal?] newspaper headline has it), there is a point to this post. If you think Balderdash and Piffle sounds interesting, you will probably enjoy BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth, which also explores the origin and use of English words in all their infinite variety. When there's a series being broadcast, the most recent episode is available over the Internet for a week after the broadcast (look under 'W' on the Listen Again page). You don't get the stunts, but you do get twice the content in half the time. Radio is like that. Whether by accident or design, the current edition (Sunday 15 January) also had an item on management-speak, called by their contributor 'Office English' or 'Offlish', and featuring that most diverting of corporate entertainments, Buzzword Bingo.

Character names in historical fiction

Names are vital in creating the right image for characters. For example, I find it hard to imagine Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights having anything like the same brooding presence if he had had an ordinary name like John or Richard, or to imagine James Bond having the same alpha-male impact if his friends called him Jimmy, or to imagine Jane Eyre with a fanciful name like Ginevra. So far, so obvious.

Historical fiction presents some additional twists on the issue, however. To my mind, the character names have to be authentic for the period and setting. I'd have real trouble reading a Regency romance where the heroine had a modern name like Kylie, for example, or a story set in Arthurian Britain where the heroes had Norman names, or a story set in Wales where the characters had Irish or Scottish names. I also feel strongly that if the characters are real people whose names are documented, the real name should be used. This produces some potential difficulties.

Firstly, in some historical settings there seem to have been quite a small number of very popular names, and so you find that several people in the story had the same name. How does the writer keep them separate so the reader can tell who is who? One way is to use nicknames (real or invented); Nigel Tranter used nicknames to differentiate between the four ladies named Marie who served Mary Queen of Scots in Warden of the Queen's March. Another way is to be creative with variants of the name. In Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, Sharon Penman has four important women called Eleanor and manages the names thus: Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III (Eleanor); Eleanor Plantagenet, sister of Henry III and wife of Simon de Montfort (Nell); Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I (Eleanora); Eleanor de Montfort, daughter of Simon de Montfort (Ellen).

Secondly, some historical names have gone completely out of use and are unfamiliar to a modern reader. Many Old English names disappeared in Britain in the centuries after the Norman Conquest, though a few remained in use or were revived in the Victorian period when there was a vogue for things Anglo-Saxon (e.g. Alfred, Edward, Edwin, Hilda, Ethel). Some of the Welsh names in the Mabinogion or the genealogies are still in use (e.g. Angharad, Owain, Cadwallader), others have vanished. My feeling on this is that unfamiliar names are not too much of a problem, because presumably people reading historical fiction are expecting to enter a world that isn't the same as the modern world and will take the names on trust. However, I think a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar names might be a problem. It doesn't bother me to find 'Angharad' in the Mabinogion even though I went to school with a girl called Angharad, or to find 'Edwin' in Bede even though I had a great-uncle called Edwin, but that's because I happen to know both names have been in use for centuries. But I can imagine that it might be jarring to someone who doesn't know that. So in my fiction set in seventh century Britain, I try to avoid names that are still in contemporary use. Where the character is a real historical figure and had a name that is still in use, I stick to the real name but use an archaic spelling instead of the modern one (e.g. Eadweard instead of Edward). (By the way, if you read the synopsis I submitted to Miss Snark's Crapometer, and find this confusing, it's because I changed all the names before submitting it. Call me sentimental, but some of my characters are real people who lived 1400 years ago, and although I didn't mind Miss Snark ridiculing me if I deserved it, I did not want her ridiculing them).

Thirdly, some names can conjure up a confusing image for a modern reader. For example, many Old English masculine names ended in -a. Now we are used to the idea that -a is a feminine ending, to the extent that a girl's name can be coined from a man's name by adding -a (e.g. Edwina, Nigella). So does it cause confusion to read about warriors called Lilla, Imma or Ida? JRR Tolkien changed the -a ending to -o for the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings for just this reason (see Appendix F), so Froda became Frodo and so on. I try to avoid it by using compound masculine names where possible, but where the Old English form is recorded (e.g., Lilla), I stick to it.

Any comments on this approach? Do you find unfamiliar names a problem when reading historical fiction? What could the writer do to help you keep the names straight?

10 January, 2006

The Dowager Duchess of Denver

By popular demand (two requests counts as popular demand, I'm easily pleased), here is the Dowager Duchess of Denver.

The setting is 1920s England. The Dowager is talking to her daughter, Mary. The subject of the conversation is one George Goyles, a firebrand political activist to whom Mary was previously engaged before breaking off the relationship under pressure from her brother Gerald. Mary is still infatuated with Goyles, to the extent that she has just falsely confessed to a murder that she believes (mistakenly) he committed. The Dowager is the first speaker.

"....He seemed to make a point of consulting nobody's convenience but his own. And you know, dear, you even said yourself you thought he was unnecessarily rude to poor old Lord Mountweazle."

"He said what he thought," said Mary. "Of course, Lord Mountweazle, poor dear, doesn't understand that the present generation is accustomed to discuss things with its elders, not just kow-tow to them. When George gave his opinion, he thought he was just contradicting."

"To be sure," said the Dowager, "when you flatly deny everything a person says it does sound like contradiction to the uninitiated. But all I remember saying to Peter was that Mr Goyles's manners seemed to me to lack polish and that he showed a lack of independence in his opinions."

"A lack of independence?" said Mary, wide-eyed.

"Well, dear, I thought so. What oft was thought and frequently much better expressed, as Pope says - or was it somebody else? But the worse you express yourself these days the more profound people think you - though that's nothing new. Like Browning and those quaint metaphysical people, when you never know whether they really mean their mistress or the Established Church, so bridegroomy and biblical - to say nothing of dear St. Augustine - the Hippo man, I mean, not the one who missionised over here, though I daresay he was delightful too, and in those days I suppose they didn't have annual sales of work and tea in the parish room, so it doesn't seem quite like what we mean nowadays by missionaries - he knew all about it - you remember about that mandrake - or is that the thing you had to get a big black dog for? Manichee, that's the word. What was his name? Was it Faustus? Or am I mixing him up with the old man in the opera?"

"Well, anyway," said Mary, without stopping to disentangle the Duchess' sequence of ideas, "George was the only person I really cared about - he still is. Only it did seem so hopeless. Perhaps you didn't say much about him, mother, but Gerald said lots - dreadful things!"

"Yes," said the Duchess, "he said what he thought. The present generation does, you know. To the uninitiated, I admit, dear, it does sound a little rude."

-Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy L. Sayers.

06 January, 2006

Role of women in historical fiction - Anglo-Saxon England

An extended version of this article, incorporating additional evidence and some points raised in the comment thread, can be found on my website.

See also the discussions going on over on Bernita's blog and Gabriele's blog. I'm picking up five related but not identical concepts of strong women from the comment thread on my earlier post. Let's look at them in turn.

The female warrior

Otherwise known as Xena, Warrior Princess. Alex points out in the comment thread that a number of female burials accompanied by shields and/or spears are known from archaelogical excavations and also adds the important caveat that we do not know whether the presence of weapons in a burial signifies occupation, status, both or neither. However, it would be perfectly possible to use these burials as evidence to support a Xena, Warrior Princess storyline. The absence of such women from the documentary record can be explained by the extremely limited amount of documentary evidence that has survived from the period, without needing to invoke Amanda's suggestion in the comment thread that such evidence could have been deliberately suppressed by later male rulers (though this idea could add an interesting twist to the storyline).

These burials could also be used to support a story about a woman who disguises herself as a man to become a warrior for whatever reason, like Eowyn in Lord of the Rings, or along the lines of Jennifer Lindsay's recent romance The Lady Soldier. (Alex: is there a female burial known with a high-status weapon, like a sword?)

It also seems to me likely that even if female warriors (in the sense of a 'professional' skilled fighter) were not a part of society at the time, there could have been a different attitude towards women who fought in defence. It doesn't seem out of place to me that the women would weigh in to defend their homes or villages against raiders as a matter of course, just as a modern woman might hit a burglar with a frying pan or knee a mugger in the groin. This is where I part company with Peter Jackson in the film Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (the culture of Rohan in the films is quite clearly based on an amalgam of Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures). I'd have expected at least some of the women at Helm's Deep to be up on the battlements with their old fathers and under-age sons, throwing rocks at Orcs, or collecting spent arrows for the archers, or tending the wounded, or bringing round water for the fighters (fighting in metal armour is extremely hard work and you get very sweaty and very thirsty; this isn't often mentioned and it was a nice touch to see it in Manda Scott's Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle). Perhaps a woman who fought like this might have been commemorated by a weapon burial when she died, even if she spent the rest of her life in the domestic sphere.

The ruling queen

Bernita reminded me in the comment thread that there is one documented example of a ruling queen, Sexburga, who ruled Wessex for one year around AD 495 according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Thank you, Bernita, I had forgotten about her. I should say that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is not thought to be a contemporary record until much later than AD 495, perhaps not until Alfred's reign in the 870s, and is not considered necessarily reliable in its earlier entries. However, let's take it at face value. Sexburga may have been ruling in her own right, or on behalf of a male relative (see below), or perhaps she might have been acting in a kind of caretaker role if the chosen male candidate for king was away or temporarily incapacitated at the time of his succession. If one takes the date at face value, AD 495 is about the time of Arthur's (legendary?) great victory over the Saxons at Badon Hill. I don't think we know whether the Gewissae (the kingdom that later became Wessex) fought there, or on what side. Perhaps they fought against Arthur and Sexburga was the last surviving royal adult after the battle? Perhaps they fought with Arthur and were away plundering the defeated lands all year, leaving her to manage the kingdom as regent? Who knows? And why did she rule for only one year, and did she step down, or die, or was she deposed? Again, who knows? If you wanted a ruling queen storyline, you could tell Sexburga's story. As we have genealogies and/or king lists for most of the other substantial kingdoms, I personally would be reluctant to intrude a ruling queen into one of them and argue that she was later expunged from the records. However, there are the tiny territories listed in the Tribal Hidage about which we know little or nothing, and it would be possible to use Sexburga as evidence to tell a story about a ruling queen of one of those, perhaps in the context of absorbing her territory into a larger unit (as with Duchess Anne of Brittany, who married into France in the 16th C and took her duchy with her).

Behind-the-throne queen as regent for an under-age heir or absent husband

There are powerful women like this in medieval and Renaissance Europe, e.g. Catherine de Medici ruling 16th C France through her sons, Mary of Guise as Regent of Scotland. In the Anglo-Saxon period, I would argue that Aethelflaed Lady of the Mercians fits into this category. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great and married to Aethelred of Mercia. She seems to have organised the defence and government of Mercia, first as her husband's equal and later on her own as his widow. She worked closely with her brother, Edward the Elder (King of Wessex), and between them they won Mercia back from the Danes and laid the foundations for the unification of England, rather like Ferdinand and Isabella's reconquista in 15th C Spain. However, Aethelflaed was always referred to as Lady of the Mercians, not queen, and I'd count her as ruling on her brother's behalf rather than in her own right. It may be that they considered themselves joint rulers of a united England, and she was running Mercia while he managed Wessex.

Women with dynastic or advisory influence

Universal agreement that there is abundant evidence that high-born women could and did play this kind of role.

Women with strength of character who remain within traditional female roles

Universal agreement that women can be strong characters without being involved in warfare or high politics. (Arguably the entire genre that is often unfairly dismissed as 'clog-and-shawl-sagas' comes under this heading).

- for the unfavourable change in women's status after the Norman Conquest, see Gabriele's post. She has covered everything I was going to say and the medieval period isn't my territory.
- regarding Matilda (or Maud), she was certainly hopeless at politics and diplomacy. But many kings were equally inept and managed to retain their thrones. It's a pity we can't go back and do the control experiment to see if a woman who was good at politics could have made her claim stand. My own opinion is that the prejudice against women rulers was too deeply ingrained at the time. Don't forget there had been no ruling queen in England for at least 500 years (if you count Sexburga) or 1000 years (if you go back to Boudica and Cartimandua in the 1st C AD), and we don't even know if their stories were remembered at the time. My feeling is that Matilda couldn't have overcome that cultural barrier even had she been a consummate politician. So when I told that story I did it in an invented world, where I could create a culture that had a tenuous tradition of female rule that was sufficient for a capable woman to build on.

04 January, 2006

Literary sunshine

Miss Snark has posted this priceless collection of (unintentionally) hilarious snippets from science fiction submissions.

Some of them border on surreal genius. However bad a day you're having, this is bound to brighten it up.

03 January, 2006

Posting frequency

Bernita said...
It is so nice you have begun to blog too.

Thank you, Bernita! I hope you continue to think so....

The thing I miss most now that I work from home instead of in an office is the company of intelligent people. I started blogging to remedy that lack, and so far it seems to be working better than I had dared to hope. I am so pleased that people are taking the time to read what I write and talk about it. Already there are stimulating ideas in the comment thread that I want to pick up and research and talk about some more.

But the holiday season is over and I have a job to hold down. I also like to edit and redraft before I post - the first drafts tend to sound like one of the Dowager Duchess of Denver's monologues from a Lord Peter Wimsey novel. So I won't be posting daily, much as I would like to. I hope to post once or twice a week on average. Don't go away.

02 January, 2006

Miss Snark reviews my synopsis

In an earlier post I mentioned Miss Snark's Synopsis Crapometer. She's now posted my synopsis. It hasn't been savaged, and what's more a few people have commented on it. I thought I'd respond to their comments here rather than cluttering up Miss Snark's blog. If you clicked through from the comment I left there, welcome.

David said: "By the seventh century, Lindsey was under the control of Mercia or Northumbria . . . whichever happened to be stronger..... I've reread my source. It could be that the kingdom of Lindsey got subjugated a little later than th sixth century as I previously thought. You could be completely right."

David, I'm flattered that you took the trouble to reread your source. The date of the story is early 7th century (AD 605, to be precise), and my reading of Bede* is that at this time Northumbria was still divided into Bernicia and Deira, and Mercia was still fragmented into Mercia and Middle Anglia and possibly some of the other odds and ends in the Tribal Hidage. It seems to me likely that Lindsey, which is about the same size as Deira, would have been an independent unit at the same time, although (as usual for this period) there is no definitive evidence either way. Aethelbert of Kent was 'Bretwalda' over the kingdoms south of the Humber (which would certainly have included Lindsey) when St Augustine died around AD 604-609 (Bede, Book II, Ch 3). It's not clear what, if any, real political power the 'Bretwalda' exercised over the other kingdoms, but if Lindsey had an overlord in AD 605 I think it would most likely have been Aethelbert of Kent.
This whole issue of consolidation/unity versus independence is fascinating, and one I'll explore in later books. Is it better to be a tiny independent kingdom with limited military muscle (and therefore vulnerable to being pushed around by a stronger neighbour), or is it better to be part of a larger grouping (but with some loss of sovereignty)? Hard call; and it looks sharply different from different points of view. (I daresay Sauron could argue he was trying to unify Middle Earth). Arguably the current debate over a 'federal European superstate' is a reflection of the same dilemma.

David said: "as far as I know, their women weren't allowed to be strong people. Saxon gender beliefs aren't really my 'thing.'"
Gabriele said: "To me, she comes across as strong, a woman able to run a farm, fight off attackers, and face reality in her relationship"
Anonymous said: "the women in the book are cool and kick ass - in a way that fits with the period."

Well spotted, Gabriele! Thank you.
Anonymous (I know who you are of course, but I won't blow your cover) had an unfair advantage in that she has read the book right through, and her comment is a very fair summary of what I am trying to achieve.
There's clear evidence that women had fairly high status in the Anglo-Saxon period, certainly much higher than they had after the Norman Conquest. See Kathleen Herbert's excellent book 'Peace Weavers and Shield Maidens', from Anglo-Saxon Books. Women could and did exercise considerable influence, as is clear from Bede's description of King Raedwald's wife advising (one could almost say dictating) her husband's religious and foreign policy (Bede, Book II, Ch. 12, Ch. 15) and Bede's comment on Abbess Hild, "kings and princes used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties and take it" (Bede, Book IV, Ch. 23). But is also clear that women had influence, not overt power. I know of no documented example of a queen ruling in her own right, and certainly no Xena Warrior Princess types.

Rick said "I suspect that a challenge for readers (and thus commercially) will be in the role of women. I suspect that Anonymous is right that they are kick ass cool. The problem is that the Anglo-Saxons lived before our idea of "romance" entered the culture."
Gabriele said "Lol, I am a woman but I like to read historical fiction without romance subplots, female MCs and all that"

I'm with Gabriele on this one. There are lots of people already writing romances, historical or otherwise, and doing it very well. I'll leave it to them. If it's a commercial problem, so be it.

Rick said: "this feels like a guy book. Don't take this wrong, but sort of Conan with a brain"

Great comment, Rick. You can call me Conan with a brain all you like, as long as the emphasis is on 'brain' and not on 'Conan'. It's not a guy book in the sense of a paperback with a picture of an explosion on the cover, what my dad would call "a good blood-and-thunder storybook", but neither is it a girl book in the sense of a boy-meets-girl-tragic-misunderstandings-occur-but-are-resolved-and-all-ends-happily romance.

Rick said: "Intelligence, yes, but intellect has a connotation of book learning"

My edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines 'intellect' as 'faculty of knowing and reasoning; understanding'. Yes, that's exactly what I meant. I don't think it necessarily implies book learning. Have we got a subtle difference between British and US English here, perhaps?

*Bede: 'Ecclesiastical History of the English People', written by the Venerable Bede at the monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria in AD 731. This is the primary source for the period. I work from the 1990 Penguin Classics translation. Bede is known as the 'father of English history' and generally regarded as reliable by most modern scholars. If you want to know more about him and his work, you can listen to an excellent discussion of Bede on BBC Radio 4's In Our Time programme.

01 January, 2006

Agents and publishers reject Booker winners

If you got a rejection letter for Christmas, this might take some of the sting out of it. Publishers toss Booker winners into the reject pile. Journalists at the Sunday Times typed out the first three chapters of two Booker-winning novels from the 1970s, changed the titles and the names of the characters, and sent them to 20 London literary agents and publishers as the work of a first-time author. Near-universal rejection ensued.

There are some more details and some comment from the industry in a companion piece. Booker winners need not apply. No-one seems very surprised. Indeed, this has been done before with similar results, as discussed in the Grumpy Old Bookman's essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile. So it probably doesn't demonstrate the decline and fall of UK publishing. What it does demonstrate is that "commercially published writing" and "good writing" are not necessarily the same thing. Which is not news, if only because "commercially published" is an objective fact but "good" is subjective and depends on the taste of the reader.

It would be interesting to see this done with commercial instead of literary fiction. I wonder if you'd get the same result if you tried it with The Eagle Has Landed or The Odessa File or the first Kay Scarpetta mystery?

Thanks to Alex Bordessa for posting the original link.