Awards and historicals

AscansmHi, here's Jo thinking about awards and historicals.

The wider literary world doesn't take romance novels seriously, and historical romance perhaps lies at the bottom of that particular pile. The term "bodice rippers" was created to ridicule the books, but I haveSweet-savage to admit that it arose in the — to me — dark days of the rape sagas, when clothes were ripped from well-endowed heroines, who apparently were severely inhibited (corset too tight?) and needed violence to realize she wanted to orgasm with the guy. 

But on to awards.

The long list has just been announced for the Orange Prize  for fiction by women. Chair Joanna Trollop was quoted in the Guardian as saying, "Yes, there are a fair number of historical novels, but they vary hugely from a gay cabaret artist in Berlin in the second world war to Island-of-wings-cover-imagea preacher going off to deal with lost souls on a Hebridean island in the 1830s."

It's the "but" that interests me. It's as if historical fiction being on the list needs some apology.

This is the long list, and I admit, I haven't read any of them. Have you? Comments?

  • Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg (Quercus) – Swedish; 1st Novel
  • On the Floor by Aifric Campbell (Serpent's Tail) – Irish; 3rd Novel
  • The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen (The Clerkenwell Press) – American; 4th Novel
  • The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue (Picador) – Irish; 7th Novel
  • Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Serpent's Tail) – Canadian; 2nd Novel
  • The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape) – Irish; 5th Novel
  • The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki (Headline Review) – British; 5th Novel
  • Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (Quercus) – American; 4th Novel
  • Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding (Bloomsbury) – British; 3rd Novel
  • Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (Faber & Faber) – British; 2nd Novel
  • The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) – British; 2nd Novel
  • The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy (Jonathan Cape) – British; 6th Novel Song-of-Achilles
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Harvill Secker) – American; 1st Novel
  • The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury) – American; 1st Novel
  • Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick (Atlantic Books) – American; 7th Novel
  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury) – American; 6th Novel
  • There but for the by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton) – British; 5th Novel
  • The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard (Alma Books) – British; 2nd Novel
  • Tides of War by Stella Tillyard (Chatto & Windus) – British; 1st Novel
  • The Submission by Amy Waldman (William Heinemann) – American; 1st Novel

I don't count Second World War as historical, given that so many living people were around at the time, so I think this is the "astonishing" collection of historicals.

Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, the love story of Achilles and Patroclus.

Karin Altenberg's Island of Wings, a marriage tested by St Kilda in the 1830s

TidesStella Tillyard's Tides of War, a marriage tested by the Peninsular war

Three love stories — not so very far from historical romance on the spectrum. What some would say sets them apart is roots deep in reality. Achilles and Patroclus is based on such reality as we have about Ancient Greece. Island of Wings apparently draws on the diaries of a minister of the time. Stella Tillyard is a well known Georgian historian and I gather her novel is notable for period detail.

Historical romances, perhaps by definition, do not use real protagonists, but many are notable for accurate period detail. The balance is probably different, however, for the historical romance author gets bonus points for using her period knowledge unobtrusively, whereas the historical novelist gets them almost by weight. That is not snarky, or even a criticism. Different readers look for different ingredients in fiction and it's lovely to see the ingredients used well and appropriately.

There have been award-winning historical novels that aren't love stories, so is the above list a fluke, or is it something to do with we women writers who so often find human love relationships the most fascinating part of history? Or is that true?

HighlandstormsHere's another award. The UK Romantic Novelists Association just had its award ceremony and the winner for historical is Highland Storms by Christina Courtenay

Follow the link for more details and an excerpt.

You can also see the short list here, and perhaps find some new, interesting reading.


What do you think about the acceptability of historicals in the literary world? Is it a matter of real or almost-real protagonists, the weight of factual detail, or is it mostly presentation — titles and covers? My enquiring mind wants to know.