What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Tudormania Lives -- Part Deux

Picking up -- briefly -- on an earlier post about the latest influx of Tudor-focused historical novels: it's not over yet!

The latest news is that historian and novelist Alison Weir has signed a contract to produce a series of six novels featuring, yes, you guessed it, each of the six wives of Henry VIII, for British publisher Headline, the first of which will see the light of day in 2016.

The news sparked quite a kerfuffle over on the Historical Novel Society's Facebook page, of which I'm a member. Reading between the lines, there are a handful of aspiring novelists out there interested in writing about other eras who seem to feel that the combination of the proven market clout of the Tudors and Alison Weir's ability to bridge the gap between popular history and popular fiction better than most writers, may do what lesser-known luminary of the historical crime writing world Lynn Shepherd alleged that JK Rowling was doing with her shift to adult fiction: using her celebrity to suck the oxygen out of the atmosphere and making it tougher for other writers to breathe.

Not that Weir is JK Rowling; she's just one of dozens of writers, ranging from those with household names (the ubiquitous Philippa Gregory) who have long made the Tudors her bread and butter, and to whom readers have gravitated as a result. (She's also earned a reputation for being far more generous than many of her peers with many of those aspiring writers, so kudos to her.)

That said: is there anything left to say about these six women?? To be blunt, they wore the crown matrimonial and weren't reigning queens. Arguably, Catherine of Aragon was significant for her heritage and the longevity of the marriage, but how many times is it entertaining to read a novel about the breakdown of the same marriage? Similarly, how many times is it fascinating to read about Anne Boleyn, when you know just how very, very badly the story ends for her? With biographies aplenty out there, and novels based on the latest scholarly research, what remains to be said? Catherine Howard met her end on the block as a teenager after a rather furtive little affair; it's tragic, but again, not the stuff of which countless novels of tremendous interest are made. Do we read the same story over and over again, or go in search of new fare?

I think the challenge for Weir will be to prove that she can approach these stories with a truly new angle. The challenge for publishers? That's a tougher one altogether. I want someone to prove to me that they are willing to take a risk and publish some novels set in less-usual eras and places, and by authors who aren't (yet) household names. For me, that means no Tudors, no Wars of the Roses, and very little from ancient Rome, World War I or World War II. In the coming weeks, I'll try to draw attention to a couple of these books -- and challenge readers to give them a chance, too.

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