Apr 8, 2013

A Question for Readers: Sub-genres of Historical Novels


There was a post recently regarding genres, sub-genres and their apparent lack of merits at the Historical Novel Society website. I can see, as an author, how frustrating it must feel to get their book published and yet have it not be pushed as a genre they intended. Such as the last title I've reviewed for HNS, The End of The Point.. which as a reader and not as a bookseller/publisher I would certainly classify as literary fiction (after having read it). I am not a literary novel type of person and if I thought it was MORE literary as opposed to HISTORICAL I would have passed. But when I see a book offered as epic saga family type novel set against the backdrop of the second World War, off the bat I am thinking 'historical' and lots of juicy passion in the writing kind of thing where I fall in love with characters (involved with the war effort, even) and I want to see a real story arc (beginning, middle, end) that is laced with historical details.

As a reader, that's what I need in order to be entertained. The literary novels I've read have just flat lined for me, such as Paul Auster's Sunset Park. I wanted to be cool and trendy and love the characters, but it was just depressing. I fear Jonathan Franzen might evoke the same thing for me. Obviously, readers have their own tastes and preferences and that's what makes blogging about books fun. Oprah has her picks, and I have mine. And then you have yours.

So if a book is slotted into a sub-genre of Literary Historical, I know that this is a title I am not going to enjoy since I've tried two of these recently. Isn't that a great service, to have this sub-genre classification? Same as the sub-genre of Christian Historicals. These are quite a lot like Historical romances, aka historical fiction.. but they are always going to have some measure of Christianity/faith based values as a theme or side story or something. If you are an atheist, wouldn't you appreciate knowing beforehand that the historical romance you are about to read is actually a Christian Historical and that perhaps you are going to get a large dose of bible thumping? (No disrespect, Jesus, you know I love you).

Sub-genres are a good thing, right? Are sub-genres too confusing for you? Steampunk, New Adult..these are other genres that I've said WHAT are those, lol.. because obviously that's not where my interests lie. Historically speaking, as a reader, don't you think you would appreciate the sub-genre breakdown where applicable? But yet it seems I was outnumbered on the discussion regarding sub-genres. It seems as an author, they find sub-genres frustrating. So what about the readers? 

And this sort of goes back to an older article at the HNS, Defining the Genre and another question I have. Historically speaking, how old does a topic/setting have to be in order to be slated under the historical fiction genre? HNS general rule of thumb is fifty years, so that makes anything set before the year 1963 historical. Have you read books that slightly mar that date line, and yet are still deemed historical worthy? (Turns out, the title mentioned in the beginning of this post The End of the Point just begins with 1940 but  jumps forward in timeline and the bulk is set during the sixties).

As a reader, would you support the use of sub-genres classification? Why or why not?

As a reader have you come across any novels that have been deemed historical fiction, and perhaps they should have been better served under a different genre or sub-genre?

Or.. am I just reading too much into things, and I shouldn't be going down that sub-genre path? Inquiring minds want to know.


  1. I do find sub genres helpful! I wouldn't necessarily NOT read a book if it is a sub genre of historical fiction I generally don't read but I find it helps me figure out what to expect. For example, if it is a historical mystery or thriller, I know to expect some exciting twists and turns or some other surprises along the way. Depending on what sort of reading mood I am in at that time, that classification might help push me to pick up the book now and read it or set it back on my TBR pile to read later down the road.

  2. Great topic for discussion, Marie.

    I think sub-genres are quite useful, and help me to determine if a particular book might or might not be for me. For example, I don't generally enjoy alternate histories, but they are one of historical fiction's sub-genres. I'd be pretty disappointed if I picked up what I thought was going to be a nice historical novel only to find out that it was based on "what if" rather than on actual history. Sub-genres also help me to keep my expectations in check -- for example, I don't expect the same attention to historical detail in historical mysteries or thrillers that I do in historical epics (If there is lots of detail I consider it a bonus).

    I agree with you about literary fiction. I'm not a big fan of them either (although there are some literary novels I've loved), whether they be historical literary fiction or modern literary fiction. If a work of historical fiction is considered literary I want to know this before I read it.

    In general, I like to know what to expect from what I'm reading before I start a book.

  3. I have to agree - I find sub-genres useful. I too am one that cannot read literary fiction. I like to know what sort of book I'm getting into when I pick it up. Maybe I'm not in the mood for romance or maybe I'm in the mood for a Christian or Biblical novel. I want to know more about that upfront.

  4. Subgenres help when I'm choosing what to read, but I'm pretty flexible about subgenres as long as the main genre is historical fiction. I can see where it would be frustrating to have a book marketed in a subgenre where it doesn't really belong, because that's going to upset readers who will be judging the book based on false expectations. But what really worries me is that 1963 is the cut-off for historical! I was born in 1963.

    1. Your novel is slated as Young Adult, Susan. I am curious to know, was that your original intention? (I really enjoyed it, and I don't typically read those titles marketed as YA).

    2. Hi Marie,
      Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I originally did write The Queen's Daughter with an adult audience in mind- and it was a couple hundred pages longer taking Joan through to the end of her life. But when the editor at Holt was interested in it as a YA book, I jumped at the chance to revise it for a YA (or cross-over) audience.

  5. Never thought about this topic before. I think sub-genres are a good thing, but who creates them and adheres to them? We would need one set system.
    Are they being used and I didn't know? Because that is so possible!

    I would use sub-genres because there is some CF I would like to read, but some that I have chosen in the past were too bible thumping for me. I like hints of religion, but not hard core.
    Sub-genres would be good for romances too. Romance with mystery versus straight bodice rippers.

    Oh the possibilities!!

  6. I love sub-genres as a reader for the reasons you mentioned, Marie -- navigational points, in a way. I think more than once I would have read a book differently had I been aware of the subgenre -- the blanket 'historical fiction' genre can mean so many things to so many people!

    As for how old is historical, I'm pretty loose-y goose-y with my definition: if it is novel written, set, framed in a past historical era that is not the one in which it was written, it can be a historical. Some novels, written now, and set squarely in the 1980s, for example, could be a historical (for me) -- because it is about a past era, those mores, those values, etc. (I haven't seen that done yet, but I'm saying I'd be open to that.)


But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. Hebrews 11:6