Monday, October 22, 2012
No, not that Hillary, which is spelled differently anyway. There's a probing profile in the most recent New Yorker magazine of English novelist Hilary Mantel, who is doing quite well for herself since she won the 2009 Man-Booker prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall. I must shamefully admit that I have not yet read Wolf Hall--that is, until I started it yesterday. (So far so good.) The profile, authored by Larissa MacFarquhar, is chock full of fascinating information about, and insights from, Mantel as well as some rather pointed commentary about historical fiction. There's too much of interest in the profile to cover in one little ol' blog post, so go get the magazine and read it. (Maybe you have already.) But a couple things really stood out for me that I'd like to discuss. First, MacFarquhar provides this rather loaded statement early in the article: "These days the historical novel is not quite respectable. It has difficulty distinguishing itself from its easy sister the historical romance. It is thought to involve irritating ways of talking, or excessive descriptions of clothes. The past, in fiction, has more prestige than the future, but as with the future, its prestige declines with its distance from the present." Really? Really? Are literary opinions really as myopic as that? After Atonement and Girl with a Pearl Earring and Quiet Americans and The Book of Salt and Memoirs of a Geisha and Oscar and Lucinda and Cold Mountain and Ragtime? Even after Wolf Hall itself and its followup Bring Up the Bodies, which won--just five days ago--the 2012 Man-Booker Prize? (This is the first time, by the way, that both a novel and its sequel have won the award. Kind of like the Godfather movies.)
Maybe so. I hate to say it, but maybe it's so. After all, Mantel enjoyed a long career as writer of mostly contemporary realist novels before she started Wolf Hall. And the reason she wrote mostly contemporary realist novels was because her very first fictional project, a historical novel set in the French Revolution, something she labored over painstakingly and lovingly for four years, was rejected out of hand by agents and publishers. As in without even reading it. As in without reading past the first sentence of her query letter. In the profile, Mantel tells a horrible if telling story: "'I wrote a letter to an agent saying would you look at my book, it's about the French Revolution, it's not a historical romance, and the letter came back saying, we do not take historical romances. . . They literally could not read my letter, because of the expectations surrounding the words 'French Revolution'--that it was bound to be about ladies with high hair.'" I've encountered the same blind prejudice, and much more recently than 1979, when Manel's first book was so soundly beaten back. Just weeks ago, I received a rejection letter in the mail from a magazine that is expressly commited to longer stories. The long short story may be the hardest fictional form to publish these days, so it's disheartening when one of the few periodicals seriously devoted to the form--a form which may be my favorite--delivers a laundry list of what it will and will not accept in terms of content. One thing it will not accept, the rejection slip explained, is "genre fiction"; and under the many kinds of fiction listed as "genre" there was "historical." Oh, really? So if I write a serious story about characters I care about and set it in the present, that's okay. But if I write a serious story about characters I care about and set it in the past it becomes "genre fiction"? Since when is human experience a "genre"? I have never in my whole career ever thought of myself as writing genre fiction, even when I wrote a novel that includes as part of its reality the idea of humanity being watched by an extraterrestrial race. (No, I'm not crazy, and, yes, it's actually a very serious book. Think of it as literary realism with aliens.)
This gets to the unique double nature of historical fiction, its "unstable reputation," as MacFarquhar puts it. Historical fiction is both a means of writing pulp and of getting to the most serious psychological realities of some of the most fascinating people and periods of the past. I just don't understand why a two-headed creature should so constantly be defined by only one of its heads. Especially by those who should know better.
Side notes: #1 The article on Mantel got me thinking of various other matters, related and unrelated to the author herself. One interesting tidbit that comes up in the profile is that prior to composing Wolf Hall, Mantel's favorite of her own novels was The Giant, O'Brien, a mythological treatment of Ireland. I am not one to ever tell an author (not even one of my students; especially not one of my students) as to where his or her imagination is "allowed" to go, but I have to admit to a certain disappointed sigh when I read Mantel's commentary on her book. I think Ireland has been mythologized by the English quite enough already, thank you.
#2 For historical fiction's sake, to say nothing of Mantel's, I'm glad that Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have earned such acclaim. I hope the same is true of the third book in the trilogy, upon which she is currently working. But I can't help but notice--on both sides of the Atlantic, but maybe especially on our side--an enduring fascination with Englands that no longer exist, whether that be Arthurian England, the England of feudal castles, the England of the Tudors, the England of the Enlightenment, Victorian and Edwardian England, the England of E.M. Forster, or the England of the great manor houses, those institutions that so famously came to an end not long after World War I. In short, the England of costumes and of Empire. Something about this has long pestered at me. As much as I love Shakespeare and the literature of his contemporaries; as much as I love eighteenth century novels; as much as I love Austen and George Eliot and the Brontes and Wordsworth; as much as I was charmed by those Merchant-Ivory period films in the 1980s and 90s; as much as I think television shows like Downton Abbey are craftily written and brilliantly acted (and probably a hell of a lot of fun to be involved with), I hope we can all recognize that it's a good thing that the world depicted in such films and shows is gone.
It's been a while since I spent a serious stretch of days in England--2006 really--but when I go there I'm always struck by the same idea: England's best days aren't back then; they're right now. This is not to underestimate the fiscal difficulties the country has recently suffered through. I am well aware of such difficulites--we started them! But England ranks not only as the leader of the EU but as one of the leading socialist democracies in the world; arguably the leading socialist democracy that is also significantly mulit-cultural. In the various quality-of-life and happiness surveys that get released periodically, the Scandinavian countries inevitably come out on top. But they are relatively small and relatively homogeneous entities. As an American, I tend to think that heterogeneity is valuable on principle, something to aspire to whatever its drawbacks. In recent decades, England has faced--and met--the extraordinary challenge of remaining both heterogeneous and socialist. It's a country from which the United States could learn a lot--if we could ever get over the seductive lie that being American always means being Better. It's a country in which, right now, probably the highest percentage of its citizens ever enjoy a passably comfortably life and a passably good education--a far higher number than under the Tudors, at least. That is no small feat. It is--and should be--a source of national pride. And it's why I'm glad that for every Merchant-Ivory costume drama or The Tudors or Merlin there's a Four Weddings and a Funeral or a Love Actually to remind Americans that there happens to be a vibrant England of NOW. I'll take that England over Forster's anyday. Except you can keep the rain.