Rescuing Historical Fiction?

Do we need rescuing?  A recent mention of Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel “Wolf Hall” in The Economist said, “the book captured the upheavals of the Tudor period and was a critical and popular hit that rescued historical fiction from its bodice-ripper reputation.”

Whoa!  There’s only been one novel that isn’t a bodice ripper, and that’s Ms. Mantel’s?  I think she would be the first to remind The Economist that there are a lot, a very lot, of her fellow historical novelists who don’t write bodice rippers.  But the story, inadvertently, made a very good point.

Serious historical novels do suffer in the public mind (and that seems to include The Economist) by being confused with ‘women’s historical romance’ of the Rosemary Rogers sort in the 1970s–the ones with Fabio on the cover.  It didn’t help when Fabio himself stepped off the covers and started advertising “I can’t believe it’s not butter!” on TV.

Because so many events in history were operatic (heads were cut off, kings de-throned, rivals poisoned) it’s easy to feel that any literature dealing with that must be suspect, or trumped-up melodrama.

I know that when I am introduced to someone and they ask what I do and I say, “I write historical novels” I feel compelled to hurriedly add, “Not THAT kind!”

I wish there were a different designation for the non-bodice-ripper genre of historical fiction.  Does anyone have a good suggestion?  Until then, all of us who try to write serious historical fiction will have to keep adding the disclaimer, “Not THAT kind!”