Friday, July 30, 2010

Historical fiction's double identity

As my Van Gogh novel developed over the past four years, so did my attention to historical fiction. And what strikes me as one of the great curiosities about form is that it both can and can't be assigned the "genre" label. With the possible exception of science fiction, I'm not sure there's a fictional genre out there that leads such a double creative life, that has such a schizophrenic reception among readers and writers. On one hand, for decades historical fiction has been the locus for writers--many of them, let me say, perfectly hard working people--who aren't really intent on or concerned about creating books that can be lauded as "literary" so much as books they contribute to already existing and familiar genres. Many historical novels, for instance, were and still are little more than gussied up mass market romances or adventure books. There is too an abiding and popular genre of historical mysteries. And, of course, plenty of authors have written historical novels for children and young adults (some of them fine, and occasionally classic, books). While authors who write such books often do carry out quite extensive and valuable period research--research that does find its way into their novels--the end products are the type that cause historical fiction to get tossed into that long list of typically sneered at genre fictions. You know the list. You've seen it in every discussion of the literary marketplace, and in every journal's description of what it does or (more likely) doesn't want: romance, western, horror, suspense, children's, fantasy, sci-fi, sports, mystery, crime, etc. Now it goes beyond the purposes of this post to debate whether we ought to sneer at such genres at all--I know a lot of awfully smart people who say we shouldn't--but it's safe to say that the genres do earn sneers, even in this era of the ubiquitous, bestselling vampire novel that delights and consumes (no pun intended) so many people, even when so many stylish young writers (I see them in my classes) are absorbed by and committed to writing fantasy.

But here's the thing about historical fiction. Even while it lives out a full, happy, abiding life among the genres, at the same time it is embraced--increasingly so--by many "literary" writers. (I don't like the term, but for convenience sake I have to use it.) Don't get me wrong. There have always been acclaimed historical novels. But I feel an especially keen interest in the form now, even among younger authors, which certainly would not have been true in the past. Every year at conferences like AWP sections, sometimes multiple sections, on historical fiction are featured and are well attended--and not by anyone wishing to write a romance book. Some literary writers--Ron Hansen comes to mind--have more or less made their careers writing historical novels; others--e.g., Madison Smartt Bell--have completely re-made their careers, earning considerably more prestige for their historical novels than any others. Hansen and Bell have no interest in hack work and don't for a second think of themselves as doing such work. Because they aren't. (Read their books if you doubt my word.)

When you think about it, there's no reason why character-driven, realistic fiction need only be situated in contemporary times. You place the exact same character-driven, realistic story a hundred or five hundred years in the past and suddenly it's given the label of historical fiction, even though for the author he's not fundamentally doing anything different from his last novel, set in L.A. in 2007. Oh, for sure, there are some additional concerns. A great deal more research becomes necessary. (But nearly every piece of fiction requires some research.) And if the author is working with an actual figure out of history the author must struggle with the parameters of what "really happened" to this person versus what the author wants to have happen in the novel. These are not unimportant matters, but still at the end of the day the writing process for a literary historical novel is not that much different from writing any literary novel.

Historical fiction is quite the two (or three or six) headed monster, and it appears to be at an interesting crossroads. Tell one reader you're writing a historical novel and you earn a tolerant, even condescending, smile; tell another reader the same thing and you earn awe. Meanwhile, more and more authors give the form a try, discovering its pleasures and considerable challenges. "Form," I just said. Should I have written "genre"? I'm trying not to.

In a coming post: The intriguing case of Caleb Carr. Can an author explore both form and genre in the same novel?


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