I've been thinking for several years now that we are living through a golden age for historical fiction. Of course I realize that almost since novels have been written writers have played with the idea of setting their stories in earlier historical periods. But I can't think of an era in which the ambition to do so is as widely embraced by solid, literary writers--even young literary writers--as it is now. Again, I'm talking about literary historical fiction, not historical romance novels or historical mysteries, which have been popular for decades and will continue to be so. I'm referring to literary fiction written by mainstream contemporary authors, authors who aspire to write serious, realistic books regardless of the era their books are set in, but who happen more and more to be setting their novels in the past. And there may be no more evident proof for this trend than the awards-giving season just passed. Four of the six books shortlisted for the 2013 Man-Booker Prize are historical fictions (including the eventual winner). At least two of the five finalists for our own 2013 National Book Award are historical fictions (including the eventual winner). And if you are of the ilk (as many are) to argue that historical fiction isn't just a matter of an author writing about a period of time before he or she was born but writing about an era of special historical interest (even if the author lived through it) or a period far enough in the past that it must be approached as an historical period not merely "the way we live now," then we should also count Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers (set in 70s New York) as historical fiction, bringing the total for National Book Award finalist up to 3 out of 5. Furthermore, just last week I was listening to the radio show Here and Now on NPR while book reviewer Lynn Neary offered up her unranked recommendations for the best fictional reading of 2013. Neary named seven books in all, six of which--that's right six out of seven--qualify as historical fictions. And she didn't even include two of the more prominent historical novels from 2013: Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland and Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries. Both of those are quite accomplished books, with The Luminaries, in my opinion, ranking as completely spectacular, one of the most memorable reading experiences I've had in a long time. (Soon to come on this blog will be my own proselytizing review of the book.)
So what's going on? Accepting my premise that we're living through a golden age of literary historical fiction, naturally leads to the question of Why. Why are so many literary writers, both the young and the established, turning to previous eras for inspiration? One obvious reason is implicit encouragement from publishers. Just as, in the years following the astonishing success of the Harry Potter series and then the Twilight series, many writers thought to try their hand at YA--and, by the way, in college writing programs these days it's not uncommon to meet student writers seeking to specialize exclusively in YA, an unknown trend when I was a student in a college writing program--as publishers let go their prejudice against historical fiction as a merely a matter of pretty costumes and exotic houses, as more of these books get published and earn acclaim for their authors, up-and-coming authors become increasingly influenced by and enthusiastic about the genre. This simply must be the core reason.
But it's not the only reason. One can be successful (or not) and earn acclaim (or not) with almost any kind of book. I think just as important a compulsion is the sense that writing historical fiction marks one as a writer who likes to take on serious, ambitious, even lofty challenges. Every good literary novel will be serious, of course, but there's something about a historical novel that strikes readers, rightly or wrongly, as especially serious, and writers can't help but be influenced by this realization. Perhaps it's all the research that typically accompanies the writing of a historical novel; perhaps it's the challenge of using that research to credibly represent the past; perhaps it's the challenge of turning that research into story. For whatever reason, writing a historical novel is a special pleasure for those who do so. It touches on so many different parts of our imaginative and intellectual and even academic selves. Every fiction one writes is (or can be) a source of pleasure, but the satisfaction of composing a good, successful historical fiction is unique.
And I think maybe this leads to a final reason for historical fiction's emergence, a reason that ties back to the first I mentioned. In an era in which--as agents and publishers have been telling us for too many years--the reading of literary fiction is on the decline and the selling of literary fiction is as hard as it's ever been, having a historical premise for a story sets it apart, makes it seem unique, gives it a recognizable and extremely useful identity: to agents, to publishers, to marketers, to booksellers, and to readers. Finally, it might just be that historical fiction not only is a unique satisfaction for the one who writes it but makes for a more unique, sexy novel on the bookstore shelf. As a lover of the genre, if this means an increase in the number of good, commercially viable literary historical novels, I'm all for it. After all, it's lead us to this current Golden Age, and I couldn't be happier.
Sidelight: In case anyone reading this blog is a fan of sonnets as well as of historical fiction, you should check out my other blog, Payperazzi, in which I am currently providing a report on last semester's Sonnet Writing Workshop class, including the e-anthology we put together.