Monday, 12 March 2018
In my role as The Times' reviewer of historical fiction, I read a lot of books. I've also been a judge for the Historical Writers Association in two of the past four years. I estimate that over those four years I have read more than 300 works of historical fiction. Most engage, some disappoint, a few utterly transport me. But there is, from what I can see, minimal correlation between excellence and sales.
I was thinking of this on Wednesday night. I was at a talk by the brilliant writer of comic spy novels, Mick Herron. Mick told us that he had made slight ripples with his first six books. He wrote primarily to amuse himself. His career is a story of late blooming. He changed publishers and his new outfit, John Murray have championed him onto the bestseller lists.
But this is, as he said, unusual these days. It is all about the debuts. Make waves with your first book and a decent career beckons. Make ripples, and you will bob unnoticed forever. It is, to the say the least, dispiriting.
In further musings, I thought of those writers of historical fiction whose books ought to thunk into the public consciousness with a tremendous splash. The underrated ones. The unsung ones. The ones whose prose shimmers in the darkness.
I thought I would share a few of those on my very subjective list.
Maria McCann is a historical ventriloquist. There is no writer of historical fiction I know whose words feel so steeped in time and place. She is the queen of authenticity. Her first two books were set in the seventeenth Century. Her debut, As Meat Loves Salt, is a dark tale set in the English Civil War. Her third, Ace, King, Knave, used thieves cant to bring the eighteenth century to life. McCann has garnered praise, fans, and even a slot on the Richard and Judy list - but this doesn't seem to have translated into an extensive audience. Why not? It's a mystery.
Oh, how I love Philip Kazan's novels. My favourite is his last one, The Painter of Souls, about the early life of Filippo Lippi. It has everything you would want a in a book about early Renaissance art: beauty and an unmatched sense of place. But it also has a joyousness to it. Lippi loves life. It's easier I think, to write tragedy than joy. Kazan's next book is out next month. It's a departure - moving to the second World War in Greece. I'm almost scared to start it; I just keep looking at it and stroking it.
The War of the Roses has enjoyed a flurry of popularity in recent times. There have been some big names tackling the interminable toing and froing of Henrys and Edwards. I am an admirer of Toby Clements' Kingmaker series. But Livi Michael's trilogy of books Rebellion, Succession and Accession ought to be widely lauded. They are astute, vibrant and beautifully written.
I asked around among my writer friends. Who should be more successful than they are? ME was the unspoken answer, but with typical generosity, other names were proffered. Jason Goodwin and Susan Fletcher were new names to me, but were championed by writers who know their stuff. Carol Birch, too, was mentioned. I adored her book Jamrach's Menagerie and yes, she definitely gets a spot on the list.
Who else should we be lauding, History Girls?