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There’s No Such Thing as Historical Fiction

26 July 2017

From The Literary Hub:

It might sound odd to say it, but there is no such thing as historical fiction. And yet if you write a literary novel set in the past, let’s say before the 1950s—though in truth, it might well be much later than that—it is a label impossible to escape. The agents, book scouts and publishers with a wistful sigh shunt you into the historical trap. The author, as the novel is brought to book, might be surprised to discover the term appearing in the jacket text forewarning the unwary reader. Watch then as the book is published and reviewers rush to box the novel as historical fiction.

The novelist bristles because the term denotes a difference. Whichever way one looks, “historical fiction” in code, category and casual shorthand, is a term that sets it apart from the contemporary novel. It is assumed, generally speaking, that the contemporary novel speaks of the times we live in, and the historical novel does something else. It is not uncommon to read journalists lauding a contemporary novel for showing us how we live now.

. . . .

Let’s suppose you are a novelist writing fiction set in an historical era. Ask yourself this question: What reader from 1817 would recognize themselves in a novel written 200 years later? That reader would collapse in a cold swoon and wake up bereft and bewildered. The novelist can expertly summon a voice. They might evoke with uncanny accuracy the morals and codes of an era. For sure they will step carefully through the minefield of anachronisms—or blow themselves up in the name of revisionism. But any idea of an authentic past in the novel is illusion—the historical novel is an act of prestidigitation.

The novel itself is formed by unspoken rules that govern what a modern reader will recognize, borne by the history of all the novels written before it—(“The ugly fact is books are made out of books,” as Cormac McCarthy once put it). A novelist can summon what the reader believes to be an authentic past but it is an impossibility to write truthfully of any other time than your own.

. . . .

Of course, we read the “historical novel” and marvel at its simulation of the past. But pay attention and you will see the historical novel can speak with cool clarity about what is timeless in the present. The modern novelist through the prism of the past seeks to remove the reader from the noise and rush of the now. A space is made around the reader. The novelist says, let us not be concerned with who we are now, but what we are always. For the historical novel, if it sees clearly, can show us how the modern world is governed by ancient forces: power versus weakness, truth versus falsehood, life versus death. And always there is the problem of living: how can we live well, or how can we survive within a world ranged against such enormous forces?

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub 

“It is an inescapable fact that the consciousness of the writer, the deeper meanings of language, and any articulation of a world view, are shaped by the heat and pressure of the times the writer lives in . . . .  A novelist can summon what the reader believes to be an authentic past but it is an impossibility to write truthfully of any other time than your own. . . . Historical fiction is contemporary fiction and cannot be anything else.”

PG wonders if this means reading a Jane Austen novel is a completely different experience from reading a novel written by a skilled author of regency romances in 2017.

Does the modern reader misunderstand a great many of the fictional events, circumstances and emotions Jane writes about because her consciousness was shaped by a far different time and society than those in which a modern reader lives?

While Mrs. PG is an expert author of regency romances and PG is not, PG understands the experience of reading a good regency created by a modern author and the experience of reading an Austen novel is similar. Indeed, due to the fixed number of Austen novels and the desires of many readers not to end their experience with the Regency world after they finish the last one, many modern regency romances sell quite well.

As illustrated in the last quoted paragraph PG excerpted, at the end of the OP, the author describes a different view, one with which PG agrees, “Does the historical novel steal a trick from the classical novel? Perhaps it does. If you declutter the novel of the contemporary tumult, it will seek the same unswerving truths that hold us true to the classics.”

PG posits that human nature doesn’t change with the passage of decades and centuries. The surroundings, technologies, manners of speaking and writing, contemporary social expectations, etc., will certainly change, but human nature will not.

We recognize the nature of the characters that Jane describes from our own experiences with 21st century humans. The emotions Jane illustrates are the same emotions we have felt and still feel.

And isn’t that lovely?


23 Comments to “There’s No Such Thing as Historical Fiction”

  1. Sounds like the grumblings of an author who’s upset their new novel won’t be touted as “The Next Girl on the Train” book everyone will be reading.

    If you want to be the Next Girl On the Train, write the Next Girl On the Train! Don’t write what you love and then complain when the world doesn’t give a flip.

    • T.S. Starkenberg

      That gives me a pretty good idea for a novel: “The Girl Next to the Girl on the Train.” Same basic plot, just told from the viewpoint of the girl in the adjacent seat.

      Spoiler: The Girl Next-door to the Girl Next to the Girl on the Train committed the murder.

  2. Another post where I want to bang my head against the nearest wall two sentences in, only to be saved by PG’s commentary.

    Thank you.

  3. “PG wonders if this means reading a Jane Austen novel is a completely different experience from reading a novel written by a skilled author of regency romances in 2017.”

    Mostly, yes. Each will be a product of their time. They will be about as similar as Manhunter and Red Dragon (two movies based on the same book, yet shot 20 years apart).

    Austen described what she lived through, while the Regency author will describe something they studied. It’s not the same.

  4. I disagree with this emphatically. Historical fiction feels very different to me as a reader from fiction that was written contemporary with the exact same period, not just because the way they use words is different but for the very reason the post author says historical fiction is contemporary. Reading Emma is a wholly different experience than reading a historical fiction book set in the same period with the same tone and general themes.

    I dislike historical fiction. I like much of the fiction that was written in a now historical era.

    Historical fiction is written about a time the author is removed from. It’s a different beast to write well than fiction written about a time the author is not removed from, and the job of historical fiction, just as science fiction or pretty much any fiction, is to speak to the readers of the author’s present and future.

    The fact that it does speak to those readers doesn’t make it less set in a historical era or less historical fiction.

    • agreed

    • Part of the problem as I see it is most writers don’t do a very good job of placing themselves into the past they are trying to write in.

      As a kid, I remember my grandparents having a party-line phone, you had to let it ring for a bit to make sure it was actually for you and not one of the other two houses on that line (and pick up and see if you got a dial tone before calling out (one neighbor’s cat was forever knocking their phone off the hook! With their permission I installed a cut-off switch outside their house so people didn’t have to bang on their door at all hours of the day and night.)

      Today’s kids (and a lot of writers) can’t even imagine a world without instant communication at their fingertips, and it shows in their planning, their actions and how they write about it.

      What do you mean you had to start a fire and let it burn down a bit before you could start cooking? Reading by the flickering flame of a candle? Gas lights? A short wave radio was your main (and fastest!) way of getting news of the happenings of the rest of the world? 😉

      • I remember one writer saying that his editor sent his manuscript–set in the 1980s or thereabouts–back to him with a note pointing out that you can’t smoke on airliners, so he should remove that from the book. Because the editor probably wasn’t even born back in the days when you still could.

  5. Agree with Nate and Liana (I wrote ‘Emma’ for a second there).

    I prefer to read stories about other time periods from people who were there. Half the fun is seeing the world through the eyes of someone from that time period. I consider Jane Austen or Heliodorus to be jumping off points for learning more about their respective time periods. Plus I actually like picking up their vocabulary or phrasings, which opens up new avenues in itself.

    Generally, I don’t delve into historical fiction unless I’m assured that two sins are not in play: 1) Did Not Do the Research, and 2) Imposing Twenty-First Century Notions On People Who Would Not Have Them.

    If someone Did the Research I’m willing to trust that 2 won’t be true of their work. Gary Jennings learned to read Nahuatl. I understand Georgette Heyer looked to diaries and letters for her source material. I respect that and I’m more willing to trust them.

    • Did-Not-Do-Research and Imposing-Current-Mores-on-the-Past are both sins that make me want to throw things when, as a reader, I encounter them. All too many contemporary writers are guilty of them, alas.

  6. Speaking as somebody who writes historical fiction, I reckon Jamie, Nate and Liana have been reading the wrong novels! But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? Well researched, well written historical fiction gives me pretty much the same experience as the fiction of the time. But the writer has to take the time and trouble to enter that world, and that means doing the research and then setting the research aside and telling the story in the light of your own knowledge, rather than trying to squeeze in as many facts as possible. Much as an actor inhabits a role. The problems arise when as a reader you know a period well – I know a lot about 18th century lowland Scotland, for instance – so that some glaring inaccuracy will throw you out of the world of the book. It would be fair to say that the less you know, the less that happens. My husband, an ex commercial diver and yacht skipper, feels much the same about contemporary film and TV programmes involving sailing and diving whereas I don’t notice the mistakes! I think PG’s comment is spot on though. Human nature doesn’t change that much. Just because life was precarious for so many people in 18th century Scotland, even a little research into primary sources – kirk session minutes, letters etc – reveals that people felt just as devastated by tragedy, just as elated by love and success, just as irritated by their anti-social neighbours. Problems arise, however, when readers expect 18th century men and women to behave like 21st century men and women. So, speaking about my recent novel about Robert Burns’s wife, Jean Armour, I was sometimes asked why – during their tempestuous courtship, when she was banished to another town by disapproving parents – she had obeyed them and not dared to run off with Rab. Which for a respectable eighteenth century young woman of very limited means would have been literally unthinkable. Hilary Mantel, recently, talked about historical characters not thinking thoughts that they could not possibly have – something that any historical novelist worth her salt will bear in mind. For myself, I’m currently reading the Poldark novels – immensely well written stories. I’m no expert in the Cornwall of that time, although I know a lot about the time itself. I’m finding them very hard to put down!

    • I’ve read good ones though! That really aren’t historically inaccurate! They still feel different though. Even if they get the characters to feel like characters of their time and everything’s accurate, the language is vastly different because there’s a reason you have footnotes on historically written contemporary fiction and not modern historical fiction. It’s a very rare beast that really is identical to the works of a previous age, especially as the concerns of the writers and readers are so different. It’s not impossible. I’ve encountered some and enjoyed them. But they are generally different things and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Historical fiction is a great genre, it’s just not my genre.

  7. Well, Winston Graham took us back to 18th C. Cornwall in a way I wish I could emulate in my medieval-set fic. He was a true master.

  8. Richard Hershberger

    The linked article is incoherent. It begins as a complaint about being put in a genre ghetto and then rambles off in a different direction entirely.

    But as for the question of the difference between reading a novel by Jane Austen and a novel set in Jane Austen’s time, they absolutely are different experiences. Can the modern writer recreate her writing style? Perhaps, though it is rare. Can the modern writer recreate her themes? Even less likely. An Austen novel is a package of themes. Which appeal to me can be different from which appeal to you. A modern writer attempt a pastiche of Austen will be strongly biased to recreate certain aspects of Austen’s writing, while overlooking others. I have read a few pastiches of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. They were uniformly dreadful, latching onto certain unsubtle aspects of the character of Flashman wile completely missing what was going on around.

    Then there is a difference that even the best modern writer can’t overcome. If I am reading Austen and I find something surprising in the setting, I can only take it at face value as the product of her lived experience. If I am reading a modern novel set in her day and find something similarly surprising, I cannot but wonder if this is the product of good research, or bad.

  9. God Bless the free market, for its wealth of offerings frees us from reading what we don’t like.

  10. I label my work alternative history because I play with the past and change things, as well as adding telepathic dragon-like creatures. However, what people comment on is how much history is in the book and how true to the sense of the time I manage to bring the characters. I spent about a year reading about the outbreak of WWI, about the nobility of the Habsburg Empire, about life during that time and how people responded to the war. It is not history (no foot notes, I’m not arguing a thesis) but I tried very hard to put readers into the shoes of a member of the Hungarian gentry. Is it what a person of the time would have thought and done? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I tried to get as close as is possible a hundred years and a continent away from things. *shrug* That’s all I can do, really.

  11. I agree with the prevailing opinion here. Reading Jane Austen and reading, say, a regency romance by Julia Quinn, are two entirely different experiences. They can’t even compare. And I have to admit (even though purists might disown me for this) that I like Georgette Hayer or Julia Quinn or Mary Balogh better than Austen. Austen takes work, while the others read like cake – a simple pleasure.

  12. Intriguing outlook! Though taking Austen as a template for discussion, yes she was writing within her contemporary world about her time, (in my personal opinion) by way of escapist rose-tinted perspective of her era, which spanned the Georgian period and let’s be honest it was a tough time with war raging on the Continent and goods from overseas in short supply (Chinese silks, Italian satin and velvet, tea, wine, coffee, etc running the gauntlet against French warships who impounded and more, same as we did to French trading ships).

    Was Northanger Abbey set in the Regency – I think not by JA’s descriptions which imply the wealthier earlier Georgian period. Hence the A-line (Empire line) day frocks and pinafore dresses within the Regency set novels, sometimes two made up from the more flouncy earlier Georgian gowns, and why muslin gowns became so popular because it was the cheapest material on the block, so to speak. I’ve been accused (as a rebel author of Regency set novels) of writing archaic language that doesn’t reflect Regency England, the accusations lodged as “I cannot believe people spoke like that” well little does that American reader know people still talk like that (dialect) down in the dark depths of the West Country just as they did in Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen’s time. 😉 As for historical chroniclers through the ages, many had political and or personal agendas. I shall shut up, now

  13. Felix J. Torres

    I’m not sure I get what the fuss is about.
    Isn’t the key word “fiction”?
    Fiction is an expression of the authors thoughts and imagination and (where necessary) research. So each author’s work is by default a reflection of their life, personality, and times?

    Of course Jane Austen’s works will offer a different experience than Georgette Heyer or any other author writing stories in that general millieau. So what?

    Is anybody actually pretending otherwise? Does anybody think readers don’t know the difference? Or care? Readers want an interesting and entertaining story. If it happens to be distinctive and different than what came before then so much the better.

    I might see a case for debate if the subject were historical non-fiction but otherwise I’m with Mr Hershberger: the OP is… confused?
    …raising a non-issue for reasons of… what?

    Is there a point I’m missing?

    Or is the OP author just clueless about readers?

  14. I’m not sure I get what the fuss is about.

    Literary exhibitionism.

  15. Al the Great and Powerful

    I would rise to disagree with the OP, starting with this:

    “It is assumed, generally speaking, that the contemporary novel speaks of the times we live in, and the historical novel does something else. It is not uncommon to read journalists lauding a contemporary novel for showing us how we live now.”

    but I choose to avoid ‘contemporary novels’ because they are the odious LitFic. Genre novels are fine in my opinion, they encapsulate a period already because thats what Genre does. But the culture/history is a character too, an interesting one, that changes over time and that shapes the other characters actions.

    The problem with LitFic is that that appears to be ALL they do. The worst reading assignments I ever had were ‘contemporary’ stories, full of uninteresting, unlikeable characters and lacking any kind of plot or character development. Even worse, because ‘contemporary’ novelists are living in the now, they appear to think they don’t need to give me any cultural or historical background to flesh out the story or lend purpose. DO NOT WANT.

    Al the Great and Powerful Hater of Contemporary Novels as Such

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