Traditional Publishing

The big idea: should we abolish literary genres? – Tuesday November 28, 2023

In her Reith lecture of 2017, recently published for the first time in a posthumous collection of nonfiction, A Memoir of My Former Self, Hilary Mantel recalled the beginnings of her career as a novelist. It was the 1970s. “In those days historical fiction wasn’t respectable or respected,” she recalled. “It meant historical romance. If you read a brilliant novel like I, Claudius, you didn’t taint it with the genre label, you just thought of it as literature. So, I was shy about naming what I was doing. All the same, I began. I wanted to find a novel I liked, about the French Revolution. I couldn’t, so I started making one.”

She made A Place of Greater Safety, an exceptional ensemble portrayal of the revolutionaries Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins, but although the novel was completed in 1979, it wasn’t published until 1992 – widely rejected, as she later explained, because although she thought the French Revolution was the most interesting thing in the world, the reading public didn’t agree, or publishers had concluded they didn’t. She decided to write a contemporary novel – Every Day Is Mother’s Day – purely to get published; A Place of Greater Safety emerged only when she contributed to a Guardian piece about writers’ unpublished first novels.

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