I was having a quick look at the Amazon comments/reviews for my novel The Kingmaking following the Free Friday e-book giveaway that Barnes & Noble organised a short while ago. I wanted to see if the freebie had altered the Amazon Ranking list at all. (It had, when I looked Kingmaking was 26 in the top 100 Arthurian novels. It might not be there now though as these rankings seem to change by the hour).
Now, let me make it clear before I begin that I am not complaining about any of the negative reviews or comments (although someone has put "If I could give 0 stars I would". Fair enough, you didn't like the book and you would have preferred to not give it a star rating .... um, so why bother with writing a long and detailed review that thoroughly trashed it? )
Nor, I wish to emphasise, am I taking a swipe at American readers' views.
What caught my eye was the difference between UK and US comments about the book.
I'm not talking general reviews here - some people adore my Arthurian Trilogy, others haven't even bothered to finish Kingmaking as it wasn't to their liking. Fair enough, as I always say it would be a dull world if we all liked the same things.
What interested me was the diversity of why the book hadn't been received well by some readers - and the apparent difference between what is "acceptable" in the UK, but isn't in the US.
I'm mainly talking sex, violence, and deviation from the expected norm. The "traditional" Arthur is a chivalric, God-fearing King, who gathers together his noble knights to fight for the Christian Cause - and who seems to accept being publicly cuckolded by his wife and best mate. Add in a sorceress (Morgan le Fey) and a wizard (Merlin) and you have a Medieval tale of chivalric Knighthood. I dislike those stories. Hate them in fact - I think because they have absolutely no reality about them whatsoever.
I see Arthur as a post-Roman warlord who has to fight hard to gain his kingdom, and even harder to keep it. He is a rough, tough, no-nonsense guy. Frankly, if someone tried to f*ck his wife, that someone would be dead before he managed to grab his pants. In the early, first legends, we hear of Arthur stealing cattle from a monastery, of kicking a woman in the belly, and being responsible for the death of his own son. It was this Arthur I wanted to write about. Arthur the soldier, who drank and whored along with the rest of mankind at this period in history. (Which, incidentally, I set at around 450 AD)
Many American readers, I have noticed for my own books and those of other authors, do not like too much explicit sex or violence. Nor do they, in the case of Arthur, like him being portrayed as an ordinary man who has his brains in his breeches for much of the time. The preferred Arthur is the non-fornicating, non-womanising, goes to Church to pray, meek and demure Kingly saint.
While UK readers seem quite at ease in historical fiction novels with blood, guts, gore, and several romps in bed.
These quotes are from the 1 star reviews:
"The spiritual Arthur, the chivalric Arthur, the noble Arthur, the sleeping Arthur whose legend inspires hope for the British people are all gone. In their place is a greedy warlord who aspires to little more than women, power, booze, and, did I mention, women?"
Well yes, I wasn't writing the spiritual Arthur of inspirational hope was I?
This person has totally missed the point that the point of my novel was to NOT write the traditional legends.
"If you are a feeling reader who loves strong female characters and animals, I recommend that you look elsewhere."
So, to be acceptable for many US readers does historical fiction have to be of a bunny-hugging nice nature without sex outside of marriage, no rape scenes (God forbid!) no detail of battle - and especially no mention of blood or striking a woman. (Or of historic detail regarding the age of when girls were married. I was hauled over the coals by one reviewer for daring to write that Queen Emma was probably married (and bedded) at thirteen. Sorry, whoever that person was - that's history for you.)
UK readers seem to accept that most men in the past (especially soldiers/sailors) bedded whores more than their wives. That battles were bloody events and to be a successful leader you probably had to be tough and ruthless. Men didn't lead armies by patting their followers on the head and not wanting to stockpile the gold.
On Amazon.UK the lowest ratings are 2 stars with the comments apparently aimed at comments about my writing style (or lack of) rather than the content : "...the only characters with any decent characterization were Arthur and his half-saex wife. I found myself cheering her on far more than gwen."
Again stress I am not moaning about negative comments or anything, each to their own opinion - it is the diversity of that opinion which is of interest.
It occurs to me: could this difference of attitude towards an author's concept of "reality" in historical fiction be because we in Britain have a firmer grasp of history because there is so much of it around us? One of the things I really missed when I visited California was the lack of history. There was no sense of the past because there was almost no past there. Here in the UK it is so solid you have to wade through it.
So what do we, as authors of historical fiction do? Listen to the readers who do not want the sex or blood of relationships and battles in their reading material; do we leave the detail out? Or do we keep the gore and fornication in?
What made me laugh was a comment about my 1066 novel - one reader complained that it had too much detail of the battle in it. Well yes, you'd expect that in a book about the Battle of Hastings wouldn't you?