Thursday, March 08, 2007

Going to the dogs

Whatever happened to the historical novel?

When I was a stack boy for the Chattanooga Public Library, back in the early 1950s, in memory at least it seems that all the most popular fiction was historical. Every cartload of books to be shelved contained the works of Thomas Costain, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Samuel Shellabarger, Kathleen Winsor, A. J. Cronin, Frank Yerby, Daphne du Maurier, and so on. A quick google confirms my memory. I never read any of this stuff (I read very little of anything in those days), but my wife devoured it all as a teenage girl hungry for the rich tapestry of the past.

The current New York Times bestseller list contains, as far as I can discern, not a single work of historical fiction. It is all murder, spydom and intrigue set in the present. Number 15 is called You Suck ("A 19-year-old discovers that his girlfriend is a vampire -- and now, so is he.")

It is into this culture that I send Valentine and the soon-to-be-reissued In the Falcon's Claw. It takes a brave publisher to bring any work of historical fiction to print.

I have yet another work ready for press, a YA (young adult) novel set in Tudor England and Ireland, with, of course, a young Irish Catholic lad and English Protestant girl thrown together in the midst of violence. My daughter, who is deeply involved in children's book publishing, tells me it'll be a hard sell. It seems the only thing YA boys are reading these days is Harry Potter, and the only things girls read are Gossip Girls and Clique.

Oh, well, it is not only for kids that the past is dead. Even the nonfiction bestseller list gives scant evidence of interest in where we have come from. Instead we get Marley & Me ("A newspaper columnist and his wife learn some life lessons from their neurotic dog."), still number 5 after 70 weeks on the list. Sour grapes? Maybe I should get a dog.