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Tuesday 6 August 2013

Viva la difference?

Fairly short Tuesday Talk today as I am so behind with a huge list of things that should have already been done.

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?

"Hollicks' [sic] Arthur is nothing but another petty warlord, no different from any of history's other petty, brutal, unremembered warlords. The kind of lord no person in their right mind would follow once the gold runs out. Of course it's the author's right to spin such a tale - however, it rather misses the point of the Arthurian legends altogether." 

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." 
No comment.

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?


  1. Weird. I'm from the US, I tend to rather read your take than the flowery legends. The legend stories are fine, but it's nice to see characters from a different view. I tend to like grittier takes for the most part anyways.

    Maybe I'm just the exception to the rule. But it makes me wonder why they thought they were going to get more of the chivalric Arthur.

  2. I personally order books from Amazon UK so I can read them before they are released in the US. As an American I agree with your observation that we are lacking a solid past here. Furthermore, we water-down and sugar-coat what little history we do have. I am enthralled with Europe for the very reason that you are surrounded by thousands of years of history and are not afraid or ashamed that not all of it was sunshine and roses.

  3. Helen,

    As you know, it was your Arthurian books that I was actively seeking when I contacted you (and I hate to say how many years ago that was!). I bleieve you are correct, we in the US seem to prefer the flowery legends rather than a raw historical view as you've presented it. I believe that as you stated, the people of the UK seem to have a firmer grasp on real history than we in the US have; it may be due to the fact that this country is only a couple of hundred years old compared to the centuries upon centuries that Britian has been around. One thing I noticed when I visited London in 2009 was that the British people celebrate and preserve their history. Americans aren't like that, we're so willing to tear down something (building, park, house, etc) in order to make room for something 'new'. I agree with Karissa, I too have been fascinated by European history my whole life and I believe it is because it's very gritty and real - not all unicorns and glitter.

    I think it also has to do with the very British stalwart and straight forward way of seeing things vs. the US way of putting on rose colored glasses (we're the absolute best spin doctors in the world!!).

    I remember in 1981 when the movie Excalibur was released in the US. Our critics hated it; said it was too bloody, violent and the rape scene in the beginning with Uther and Igraine turned many people off - personally, I think it's one of the best depictions of Arthur I've seen, until the second half of the movie and the quest for the Holy Grail (too much fantasy at that point).

    Your Arthur would be a wonderful movie character.....

  4. thank you everyone for the praise (although I wasn't intentionally seeking it LOL) I think that maybe Hollywood is to blame for the Rose Tint over everything. Much of history is horrible - very horrible. Rape, murder, violence and abuse was the norm - men treated women as objects to be used, and I think many of us forget these things, possibly because it is more comfortable to dwell on nice, not nasty, things. I do tend to shake my head a bit when people comment about too much violence in a battle scene - I mean, it's a BATTLE....

  5. It's a bummer when any author pens an original plot based on a legend and some (perhaps many) readers object to originality as opposed to expected norm. Unfortunately, there are those who are unwilling to broaden their horizons by exploring the possibilities that oral myths & legends although based on elements of truth imagination will have played a part as each time the story has been retold it has embellishment attached by individual storytellers.

    As I said in a piece on my blog in reference to morals and the historical genre: "If you don’t like steamy and risqué sex, nor soldiers of fortune and strong heroines then my novels are not for you…"

    1. It somewhat baffles me that these people picked the book up in the first place because it clearly says on the cover what it is about. Maybe they can't read..... *laugh*

  6. Sex, war, politics; all part of life and medieval history. Thank you for writing it, Helen. And for embellishing as you chose to to make an interesting, readable story; not a History Book!

    1. thank you Jacqueline - hit the nail on the head. It's a _story_ !

  7. As you stated Helen, those were the times back during Medieval and Pre-medieval times. I also agree with the fact that US has a different view on History than the UK mostly because they do not have history that far back, being a much younger country. But I wonder why they like Diana Gabaldon's books so much as they definitely include Sex, Rape, (men and women), violence, War and Politics

    1. That's another thing that baffles me Gollygilly - look how populat horror writers are! I can only assume that some readers assume that "Historical Fiction" means historical _romance_.

  8. From past-less California, I say bring on the gore and fornication

  9. I know just how you feel Helen.

    My first novel 'A Wistful Eye' describes the harsh living and working conditions endured by my Titanic-building shipwright ancestor in 1910 and reflects how his hopes that Socialism would improve his lot were cruelly dashed. Amongst the 5* Amazon reviews came a 2* one from an American who declared that 'no-one who wants to live in the free world (free from Commies, I imagine he means) should read this book'.

    He is right of course, I should have changed history and had my great grandfather returning from his well-paid white collar job at Harland & Wolff to his detached house in a neat, middle-class Belfast suburb and call out to his elegantly dressed and coiffed wife'Hi honey, I'm home'. Instead, I had him drowning his sorrows in the pub and sounding off with his workmates about the threat posed to his livelihood by the Home Rule Bill and the machinations of the shipyard owners, then beating seven bells out of my great grandmother.

    I love your gritty style, Helen. Keep on telling it like it was, for those of us who like it real, regardless of on which side of the Atlantic we reside.

    1. Some people are just unbelievable aren't they?

  10. You're not alone - several US Amazon reviewers took exception to Rosemary Sutcliff's "Sword at Sunset" for similar reasons. I think one major difference between US and UK readers is that in the States there are a lot more people who are Christians of the fundamental variety.

    This is a typical example:
    "We have enjoyed several historical books by Rosemary Sutcliff, so were a bit jolted by scenes and thoughts that seem inappropriate and unnecessary. If certain events are deemed critical to the telling of the story, perhaps they can be conveyed in a more circumspect description. Those who have experienced sexual intimacy will understand well enough. Those who have not could be spared, such as teenagers whose don't need to be thinking about such things until they are married."

    I'm flabbergasted. Hello- we're not going to encounter sex whether it be hetero-, bi-, homo-, and/or other until after we're married??

    I couldn't resist this one and replied:

    This novel was one of a select few which were written for adults rather than children. When it was originally published the themes of incest, adultery and homosexuality weren't considered suitable stuff for younger readers, though I imagine they would hardly shock modern teenagers, and in fact a lot of Sutcliff's young fans back in the day read it anyway, as did I. (Luckily I had enlightened parents who encouraged me to think for myself, so I didn't have to wait until I was married, happily or otherwise, before I could read any great literature!)

    Incest and adultery, treachery and violence lie at the heart of the Arthurian cycle, which is essentially classic tragedy based on Celtic mythology full of bloodthirsty Dark Age deeds, so I'm not sure why any reader would expect a Disney fairytale. Having said that, Sutcliff did write a "King Arthur Trilogy" more in the romanticized "Camelot" style for younger readers which might be more suited to what you want.

    1. Three cheers for you! It is quite alarming that some parents do not expect their children to read anything about life until after marriage - which might explain why there are so many divorces of course.....
      Thank you for the feedback, very much appreciated!


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