Are historical novels “speculative fiction”?

I’m finally posting more on this blog. What with all the moving around I’ve been doing, and the insane times we now inhabit, I haven’t posted lately.

So. Historical fiction. I’ve read some interesting historical novels lately, and I’m wondering. Speculative fiction or not? In the interest of readability, I’m going to divide this into two posts, one about the genre itself and one giving reviews of the two historical novels that made me start reading the genre voraciously again.

We play these defnition games with fictional artifacts of all types, and sometimes I wonder whether such definitions do much good. Insofar as ALL fiction, by its very nature, is speculative fiction, and the very term “speculative fiction” is therefore a tautology, I suppose that yes, historical novels are speculative fiction. But if we are using the usual fuzzy criteria–well? are they?

I maintain they are as speculative as science fiction. If science fiction projects us into a future or some alternate reality governed by the laws of science extrapolated into that future or alternate world, historical fiction projects us into a past we can never actually recover but, through speculative manipulation of historical documents and discoveries, builds a world just as compelling as the future or alternate world of the science fiction writer.

And just as speculative.

Back a bit. We cannot recover the past. We no doubt have a false sense of security that we can, but a lot of historical theory maintains we can’t. We can speculate about it, and speculate reasonably and responsibly, but we can’t ultimately know. (Not even, weirdly, our own personal past–see all the fascinating stuff about the dangers of writing memoir, for example.)

So what is historical fiction, anyway? If we zip off to that reliable (yes–really–pretty reliable) source of all information, Wikipedia, we see this: “Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. . . . An essential element of historical fiction is that it is set in the past and pays attention to the manners, social conditions and other details of the depicted period. Authors [of historical fiction] also frequently choose to explore notable historical figures in these settings, allowing readers to better understand how these individuals might have responded to their environments.”

The Wikipedia article goes on to extend its definition to more than literary fiction: to opera, stage plays, movies, comic books, and on and on. The article also describes a number of subgenres, including historical fantasy, which really does count in anyone’s understanding of speculative fiction. It’s the kind of fantasy I’ve been writing lately, which may be why the topic interests me so much.

Moving a little deeper, I found this fascinating article by Sarah Johnson on the web site of the Historical Novel Society. The article, “Defining the Genre: What are the rules for historical fiction?” originated as a paper delivered at the 2002 conference of the Associated Writing Programs. She begins by pointing out that everyone–readers, publishers, writers, book sellers–has a different idea of what “historical fiction” means.

Fiction set in the past. Sure. How far in the past? Ten years? Twenty-five? Fifty and older? (All of those have been used as defining criteria.) What about fiction written by an author who lived through that past time and place and is writing about it now? She gives the example of a writer born during the World War II era who writes a novel about the war years, and a reader born during the sixties who sees that world and those events as firmly part of the past.

Johnson also deplores the snobbery swirling about the historical novel. Many writers of books set in the past don’t think of their novels as “historical novels,” many publishers don’t pitch or promote such novels as “historical novels,” and critiques of the genre often teeter between those who regard such novels as cardboard tales merely tarted up with a few “thees” and “thous,” and those who comb through such novels for historical inaccuracies as if they are Ph.D. theses.

We can all think of interesting examples of the problems plaguing the genre. Mildred Taylor’s acclaimed Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, her Newbery Award winning children’s novel about the lives of black families in the Deep South, was published in 1976, and Taylor was born in 1943. According to Taylor, some of the incidents in that novel and the two others in the trilogy were based on the recollections of her own childhood, some on family stories, and some on research. Should it be called an historical novel? Would that be how it is perceived by a sixth-grader reading it today? A sixth-grader reading it in 1976?

What about Edith Wharton’s classic The Age of Innocence? Wharton, born in 1862, wrote the novel in 1920. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921. The events of the novel are set in the Gilded Age New York of Wharton’s childhood, beginning in the 1870s. Historical novel or not? Several students of mine, reading the novel, simply assumed Wharton wrote it in the 1870s. Another great novel of  the era, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, was written in 1925 about events roughly contemporary with 1925–not an historical novel, then. But readers today often see the book through an historical haze, and the several recent attempts to film the novel take an approach roughly the same as would be taken with the film of an historical novel. The films are historical fiction; the novel is not.

Everyone can agree, presumably, that Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, one of the books that made historical novels a genre to be reckoned with, is a no-doubter example of the category. Scott wrote the novel in 1819; it depicts a highly romanticized England of the 12th century. The big first American example is James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer, the first of his very popular novels about the American colonial period. He wrote it in 1841 in imitation of Scott.

A more recent example would be Toni Morrison’s matchless Beloved, a kind of anti-Uncle Tom’s Cabin based on a real instance of an escaped slave, Margaret Garner, who killed her own daughter in 1856 rather than let her grow up in slavery. Morrison wrote the novel in 1987; it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988.

How about Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series? Rollicking sea stories? Serious literary novels? Among the most carefully researched historical fiction ever penned? All of the above. And Hilary Mantel’s trilogy! Wolf Hall is the first; don’t miss it. The second, Bring Up the Bodies, is great, too, and the third of these superb novels of Tudor England, The Mirror and the Light, has just been published.

If we turn to other media, we might immediately think of Ridley Scott’s film, Gladiator, or Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. But what about Breaking Bad? What about Better Call Saul? Look at the phones all the characters carry. Look at the fax machines. These long-form television series are not about contemporary life. They take a look back–maybe not very far back, but . . .historical.

I’m going to claim historical fiction for my blog. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s