Monday, January 05, 2009

Historical Fiction

Just Another Genre

Vince Passaro from a review of Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth:

Despite that, however, I found myself, even amid my enjoyment, resisting the novel on moral and aesthetic grounds. Since so much of our serious fiction over the past two decades has been historical rather than contemporary, it will appear strange for me to say that historical fiction strikes me as fundamentally trivial or, at best, less important than fiction confronting the present, no matter how well crafted. Nevertheless, fiction focused on the past has become a kind of refuge for serious writers and readers alike. It has grown prevalent in inverse proportion to the diminishing sense that novels and novelists have any special cultural importance—a conviction now regarded as slightly ridiculous, but one that was unchallenged when Unsworth started his career in the mid-’60s.

Even very good historical fiction is, inevitably, genre writing; and while the best of genre writing—Chandler, say—can and should be regarded as literature, a literary culture that so consistently awards historical fiction over the more difficult and ever rarer novels that make an assault on the present is an anemic literary culture. It is worth noting that Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, the slave-trade book, split the Booker Prize in 1992 with a more famous and rather gooey historical fiction, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. And since the late ’80s, a slew of such novels have won major awards, including a few with considerably more teeth in them, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Pat Barker’s Regeneration.

You might think that a novel set in Iraq in 1914 would be particularly telling today; that we would become somehow better informed about ourselves by seeing played out, at the sensual level of good storytelling, the origins of the disaster in the Middle East. Yet again, I found myself resisting this idea. Every educated person knows that the mercenary and rapacious policies of Europe and the US created monsters all over the colonial world—there is hardly a large-scale tragedy that can’t be traced back to them—but who understands now what happened to this country after 2001, when former radicals hung flags out their windows and almost all our political leadership backed the destructive invasion of Iraq, as did frightening multitudes of sensible Americans; or what British novelist can explain what happened to Britain, where you can’t walk around large cities without being watched and videotaped? Where are the writers who are trying to capture all this in fiction?



Margaret said...

Wow. But no author can ever capture "all this" in a novel. Nor in an essay, nonfiction book, film.... We mere human beings have to take on a limited set of topics at a time.

To believe, as I do, that it's profoundly valuable to try to understand the history of how a situation like the current conflict in the Middle East began is not to say it's the only necessary sort of reflection. And vice-versa. Understanding history is not enough; we must also use that understanding to cast a better light of understanding on our present. But I fail to see how anyone who considers history "trivial" can ever gain a very deep understanding of our present. It's like saying you can understand the psychology of a troubled individual person without understanding the conditions under which that person grew up.

Others who do not consider historical fiction "trivial" can find over 5000 historical novels listed in categories by time and place at

D.M. McGowan said...

I can make a case that historical fiction serves the student far better better than the bare facts of history.
Not only can, but have in several instances. A small part of the evidence is exposed at