Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Value of Name Recognition

Several months ago, I posted the poll in the sidebar asking visitors which of the featured sixteenth century historical figures they had never heard of before reading my blog. Twenty-five people answered before the poll closed. Here are their responses:

Marguerite de Navarre, author -- 2 (8%)
François I, King of France -- 3 (12%)
Catherine de Medici, Queen of France --3 (12%)
Henri II, King of France -- 3 (12%)
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor -- 4 (16%)
Diane de Poitier, Henri's mistress -- 5 (20%)
Anne de Montmorency, Constable of France -- 8 (32%)
Duchesse d'Etampes, François's mistress -- 10 (40%)
Jean and François Clouet, painters -- 13 (52%)
Clément Marot, poet -- 14 (56%)
Rosso Fiorentino, artist -- 18 (72%)
Louise Labé, poet -- 19 (76%)

The most popular person on the list, the one only two respondents (8% of the total) had never heard of previously, was François I's sister Marguerite d'Angoulême, Queen of Navarre. I was quite surprised to learn that readers were more familiar with Marguerite than with the king himself or the Holy Roman Emperor. Marguerite was a published author best known for the Heptaméron, a collection of tales modeled after Bocaccio's Decameron. Since many of this blog's readers are avid readers of literature, perhaps they have read Marguerite work. In any case, the Queen of Navarre has always fascinated me (a study of her religious philosophy figured prominently in my doctoral thesis), so I was quite pleased to learn that so many of my readers are familiar with her.

Next followed a group of figures which were unfamiliar to only three to five respondents (20% or less). These included François I, Catherine de Medici, her husband Henri II, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and Henri II's mistress Diane de Poitiers. These are all major political figures of the time, so I'd expect most readers interested in the sixteenth century to have run across them in some context. The famous love triangle involving Catherine, Henri and Diane receives much attention from popular historians and novelists. I was heartened to see that Emperor Charles V is a recognizable figure, since he plays an important role in the novel I am currently writing.

A third of the respondents had never heard of Anne de Montmorency, the Grand Constable of France, for many years the most powerful man in France after the king. Ten respondents (40%) did not recognize Anne d'Heilly, Madame d'Etampes, who was François's official mistress for more than twenty years and exerted great influence on the politics and art of her day. I was actually surprised that so many readers had encountered these two Annes before.

Artists and writers were the least well-known to those taking the poll. Jean and François Clouet, the father and son team who left us a pictorial guide to the personalities of the century in the form of hundreds of chalk portraits, were new to 52% of respondents. The court poet Clément Marot, secretary to Marguerite de Navarre and the poet credited with ushering French poetry into a new era, was familiar to only eleven of the twenty-five respondents. Only 28% recognized Rosso Fiorentino, the Italian master who became the artistic director at Fontainebleau and created the stunning combination of stucco work and painting in the grande galerie. (I must admit that I myself had never heard of him until I began researching the château!) Louise Labé, the first middle-class French woman to publish verse under her own name, fared even worse: only six of the twenty-five respondents had heard of her before stumbling upon my blog.

Why, you might wonder, did I post such a poll?

Marketing research, pure and simple.

Many publishers of historical fiction, I have learned, prefer books that feature recognizable historical figures over purely fictional ones. Readers of historical fiction, I hear again and again, are more likely to pick up a book that features characters whose names they recognize and about whom they already know something, no matter how little. Books faithful to an historical era but whose characters are wholly created by the author are supposedly a harder sell.

The names in the poll are all historical figures who appear in either my first manuscript or the book I am currently working on. I am quite pleased to discover that many of the characters in my current manuscript are well-known to readers: Marguerite, François, Henri, Diane, and Charles V. Madame d'Etampes, one of my two view-point characters, is familiar to more than half, as are the Clouets. Rosso Fiorentino, a major figure in the book, is less well-known, but as readers read historical fiction in the hope of learning something new, this should be more of a draw than a drawback. The novel's second viewpoint character, who shall remain nameless in order to maintain a measure of suspense, was an historical person about whom little more is known than her name, a situation that provides the best of both worlds for a novelist.

On the basis of my (admittedly unscientific) poll, then, I would hazard that the group of characters I have chosen to write about offers a level of familiarity that should attract readers' interest, punctuated by enough novelty to sustain it.

Many thanks to all who responded for assuaging the doubts of a tormented writer, and for satisfying my curiosity about the fame of people who seem almost like family to me!


Muse in the Fog said...

Thanks for breaking down the poll. I found it quite interesting. Have a great day!

Julianne said...

Thanks, Muse, glad you found it useful! I did.