Historical Fiction Survey – She Says, He Says

Not surprisingly, women and men expressed different points of view in a recent survey of historical fiction readers. While 84% of participants were women, 129 men also responded, a sizeable number from which to draw conclusions.

Men and women have very different author preferences:

  • the top 5 for men are Bernard Cornwell, Ken Follett, CJ Sansom, Sharon Kay Penman and Patrick O’Brian; the top 5 for women are Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, Philippa Gregory, Diana Gabaldon and Bernard Cornwell
  • men prefer male authors; women prefer female authors

Women read more historical fiction than men:

  • 15.6% of men never read historical fiction compared with 4.5% of women
  • 45% of women report reading historical fiction at least half the time compared with 23% of men
  • men cite a preference for historical non-fiction and a lack of time as reasons to avoid historical fiction

And, there’s a wide difference in number of books read:

  • 55% of women read more than 30 books a year compared to 22% of men
  • 61% of women intend to read more than 30 books a year in future compared with only 28% of men

Genre and time period illustrate the Venus-Mars gap

  • women prefer strong female characters, the lives of significant historical figures or lesser known historical figures
  • men prefer significant historical figures, adventure stories and stories with a military angle
  • men dislike romance, women dislike military stories
  • favourite time periods for women are 13th-16th centuries and 19th century while men favour 19th and 20th century stories

Women are going digital more rapidly than men

  • women favour online sources for recommendations almost twice as much as men
  • men rely on newspapers and friends and browsing the bookstore more than women
  • men and women have switched to purchasing online in similar percentages, however women are more likely to use the library while men are more likely to buy at the bookstore
  • men are sticking with print books in much higher proportions than women

While reasons for reading HF overlap, the top reasons differ:

  • the top reason for women is to bring the past to life; men say they read historical fiction because it’s a great story

Personally, I’m surprised at the differences in digital activities and book reading habits. The survey data continues to be intriguing. As always, feedback is welcome.

Historical Fiction Would Be Better If … 2012 Historical Fiction Survey

588 readers responded with enthusiasm to the question “what detracts from your enjoyment of historical fiction”.

44% Inaccuracies – includes seeing modern sensibilities in a historic setting, anachronisms, dialogue that does not fit the period, poor research, moving major dates to suit a story line and so on.

2% Dialogue – several people complained that using too much dialogue from a long ago period takes away from the ease of reading.

9%  Sex & Violence – this refers to stories with too much sex and violence rather than too little 🙂 In addition, some readers specifically mentioned gory battle scenes.

15%  Too much detail – refers to stories weighted down with reams of historical detail, almost as though the author wanted to include every bit of research found on a particular aspect of history.

15% Pace, Plot & Character – in the main, these comments referred to problems that can cause any story to fail. Poor writing, unrealistic characters, slow pace, stories that are too sensational. A few comments spoke of ‘wallpaper historicals’ and ‘romance disguised as historical fiction’. Another reader referred to the problem of ‘history being a substitute for story.

And 24% offered a range of other reasons from ‘I just don’t like historical fiction’ to ‘I haven’t got enough time to read’.

Let’s hear from a few readers directly:

I don’t like authors who just put in “Wikipedia” paragraphs instead of building historical atmosphere. The dialogue and setting should be natural, and appropriate to the characters, not contrived to check the boxes of historicity. The atmospheric details shouldn’t be over-explained like a dictionary, either.

Inaccuracies (minor changes to historical events) are OK if needed by the story and justified/explained in an afterword. I generally judge on the quality of the writing – even a good yarn can be spoiled by sloppy writing.

When an author tries to force an accent in writing. Over the top Scots, ridculous medieval talk, cockney that’s hard to understand…

When the history of the period and the story aren’t seamlessly drawn. If one is sacrificed for the other, it makes the overall pace of the story drag.

When they author deviates heavily from the historical record, such as making up battles or encounters that did not happen. Very irritating.

Oversexualization, wild inaccuracies, grotesquely detailed scenes of violence (Game of Thrones, for example), marginalization and objectification of women.

Characters that don’t interest me, poor pacing and shoddy research.

Too much grit – gore & violence Too much bodice ripping – I prefer to stay outside the bedroom if possible; and if not, I don’t need a catalogue of body positions.

Dry writing style with too much information fired at the reader like a textbook or recited by rote instead of incorporating details by making them part of the story. I like to learn stuff without being aware that I’m learning.

What do you think? I’d love to hear more from both readers and writers on this topic.

Historical Fiction Survey – future topics

Wednesday’s post included the first report of results from a recent historical fiction survey. Many have expressed interest in further analysis, here’s a list of topics I have planned:

  • She Says He Says – a look at different perspectives of female and male respondents
  • Boom, Bust and Echo – how age plays a role in attitudes
  • High Volume Readers – implications from those who consume a lot of historical fiction
  • Favourite Authors Abound – the top 10 or 20 authors and more
  • Historical Fiction Would Be Better If – readers have a say in what detracts from their enjoyment
  • Historical Fiction Is Not For Me – top reasons cited against historical fiction
  • Technology Takes Over – favourite websites, blogs and social media sources for recommendations and discussion

Some topics will be easier to compile than others. I’ll post them as quickly as possible and will look forward to your thoughts and speculation.