We’ve all danced that dance, the delicate ballet of the bookstore perusal. In a quiet space of crisp pages and bold covers, we ease ourselves between both the stacks and our fellow enthusiasts, waiting, waiting, waiting for that meathead who looks like he just escaped from the gym to get the hell away from the Fantasy section with his half-read copy of A Song of Ice and Fire so that you can get at all the swords-and-sorcery goodness you’ve been hoarding your cash for over the past two weeks.
In that place of unspoken shoulder glances and creeping feet, distant till chimes and “would would you like a bag with that sir” moments I found myself recently much vexed. I was haunting the historical fiction section, as regulars of this blog know I’m want to do, when three books lying side-by-side caught my eye.
Good, you may think. The cover artists have done their job! And they had, but it wasn’t the individual pieces of artwork that had drawn my attention, but rather the similarities between all three. They all bore some variation of a bow-wielding, cloaked warrior, with the title and byline in Ye Standarde Medieval Fonte.
Curious, I read the blurbs of all three. It emerged that, despite being by different authors and different publishers, they were all set during the Hundred Years War and featured some sort of archer protagonist. Two revolved around the battle of Poitiers, fought in 1359.
This set the braincogs turning. How were authors still scoring big publishers with material which had already been so well covered? Not a year ago the undisputed grandfather of the modern military historical fiction novel, Bernard Cornwell, released 1359, following the adventures of – you guessed it – an English archer at Poitiers. It’s natural that publishers want to cash in on hype by churning out works of a similar bent, but I hadn’t taken histfic as the sort of market notorious for such a manoeuvre. The Fifty Shades of Grey tribute section was on the other side of the bookstore.
Of course I’d noticed a lot of fiction covering the same historical basis before. Weeks earlier I’d unearthed no less than two trilogies and a standalone detailing the struggles of Robert the Bruce in Scotland’s Wars of Independence. The biggest offenders seem to be the Rome-based novels. Whole shelves groan beneath what could apparently be one vast, amorphous book entitled the Sword-Spear-Shield-Centurion-Legion-Eagle-Emperor-Wall-Gate-Destiny of Rome.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to be the author of any one of those books. I’d murder you, your husband and your kids for the opportunity to write punchy, yes-I-know-they-didn’t-speak-like-that-in-those-days HistFic. The Ancient Rome works of both Simon Scarrow and Conn Iggulden are some of my favourite book series out there. They’ve all done great to get where they are, on bookshelves where a thousand author wannabes like me can only glower up and dream.
But who is investing all their money and emotional spare time into all these histfic series and, if the answer is no one, who are the agents and publishing houses flogging this horse? I really don’t know the answer – should I feel encouraged that the appetite for the same settings and events seems bottomless, or should I think “aw crap, there’s no way anyone’s going to want to read another novel about Agincourt?” I’d like to think the former is true, but I can’t help but assume the latter. We’re told to constantly strive for originality, but how many different routes can you take towards the same destination?
Or is it really true that every author’s take is unique enough to warrant serious publishing consideration? Is the battle for originality truly one we can all enter with the hope of winning?