I was tasked to explore the literary genre of historical fiction and create insights that would perhaps provide some semblance of clarity to this tradition that has once again managed to gain significant traction in the publishing world. However, I realize that most of the rules are now rather vague. I found myself with the imperative to shift my perspective and instead focus on how this specific field of writing has become problematic, at least from a critical point of view.
In the simplest possible definition, historical fiction is any narrative that takes place within a specific time frame set in the past. It became one of the most popular modes of the novel that has persisted ever since the 10th century, producing works such as Lou Ghuanzong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Alexander Dumas’ Three Musketeers.
The tradition continued in the 20th century, where fictionists like Hemingway, Faulkner, Mailer, DeLillo, Llosa, Atwood, Eco, Mahfouz, Jong and Maclain have published novels that have both acknowledged and expanded the tradition. Quite recently, there has been a renewed interest in the genre, especially with the popularity of authors like Hilary Mantel, Ann Packer, Geraldine Brooks and David Mitchell.
With the advent of technology, the rapid publication rate both online and offline, and the unceasing initiative of writers to become ‘novel,’ to blur genres, to create new forms using a pastiche of various traditions, a postmodern sentiment that thankfully still echoes, the historical fiction that we knew has become a difficult subject for several reasons:
1. The genre needs to be defined once again
The temporal setting of the historical novel is, at present, subject to scrutiny. The multitude of events and the speed by which they are published, forgotten and shelved has made everyone’s perception of the past radically altered. This new status quo now begs the question: When is the past the past?
The number of years have always been a moot point in the discussion of the genre, as dozens of debates have been conducted, arguments have been pitched and campaigns have been launched, yet there is really no definite “x number of years.” Now, it is important more than ever. We believe that the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Renaissance Period, the two World Wars and even the Cold War satisfy the rule that it needs to be localized in the “past.” But what about Desert Storm? What about September 11? What about the campaign to find the so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction? What about the Arab Spring? The Death of Gadaffi? When does the contemporary period end and the past begin? When does present day fiction become historical fiction?
2. The genre needs to explore its idea of “history”
Fiction, like all forms of writing, requires curation, imagination and deception. A singular historical moment may be interesting enough for readers, but I doubt that the events that led up to it, or each of its moving parts, is enough to inspire curiosity. Thus, come one of historical fiction’s most captivating conundrums.
Should a writer portray something with piercing accuracy? Or should they approach something in a new light by infusing history with imagined personas, details and micro-events?
Should the writer satisfy history, convey every single minute truth that happened (the concept of “truth” in historical fiction is another topic that severely requires a discussion), position themselves as an unbiased scribe of what has happened, or should they first fulfill their mandate to produce something unfamiliar, to produce something appealing and dynamic, to produce something that would resemble ‘art’?
Historical fictionists may argue that both can be reconciled in the course of their writing, but it is important to measure and delineate how much of the novel is informed by fact and how much is informed by the literary imagination.
3. The genre needs to talk about the “gaps”
The previous discussion point also brings us to the subject of incomplete histories. When faced with these situations, every writer of historical fiction is responsible to plug in the gaps by exploring the various logical possibilities that can occur, hereby possibly compromising the truth and accuracy that readers expect from the genre.
This particular situation is most prevalent in novels that attempt to recreate the life of a significant historical figure. (Notice that these are called novels, instead of biographies, and some argue that they are, in fact, the biographical novel.) Some examples of these are Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, which recreates the life of Marilyn Monroe; Libra by Don DeLilo, which recreates the life of infamous lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, and Colm Toibin’s The Master, which recreates the life of Henry James during the last years of the 19th century.
Given there is certainly some interpretative action and a dose of imagination that goes into the plot development and writing process, it begs the question if what we’re reading can still be considered historical fiction. Does it still fall under the genre if some of the more salient plot points and motivations of the characters were informed by the imagination, probable as they may be? Again, we have to inquire, how much literary imagination should there be before it falls off the historical fiction wagon?
4. The genre needs to talk about the concept of ‘realism’
Perhaps the most confusing problem right now is the fact that historical fiction counts several fantastic and speculative types of writing as its sub-genre—one of them being alternative history.
Alternative history, which counts Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, as some of its important works, is essentially a narrative where a historical moment develops differently from reality. While it may use the past and the collective history as its premise, it is a conscious attempt to fictionalize a fixed timeline.
In this genre, there’s no longer a tension between accurate history and the literary imagination, simply because accurate history is voluntarily left behind for the pursuit of something purely fictional, despite that its components were ‘inspired’ by what has indeed happened. This, again, summons the need to ask, how can one explore a specific history when the work explicitly distances itself from it? Does it continue to be historical fiction when there has been an attempt to actually fictionalize and lie about history?
These are not complaints. They are not an attempt to bring back the conservative form of the genre or stifle its growth and the current expansion. I’m a staunch and aggressive advocate of modern writing. I’m an advocate of “defamiliarized” and literary writing. But I am deeply interested in criticism, in theory, in the writing of literature. My concern is that the genre, much like every form of writing that occurs, as all genres are supposed to be, has to be problematized. It has to be traced and recorded and discussed, critically. Through this, we can identity what historical fiction is, what it’s supposed to be, what it can be and how it can evolve. ☁