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Of the genre: Historical fiction

November 16, 2009

Reading ‘The Living Reed’ by Pearl S Buck got me thinking about this.

Pearl S Buck lived for several decades in China and so we have reason to believe, most of her depections of the county and her people must be close to accurate. But Ms Buck on Korea? I’m not so sure of the authenticity of the facts presented . But, that should be alright, this is historical fiction. Or is it really alright? I am glad I thought of this now, after having read several books that fall into the said category.

Andrew Graham Dixon, a British art historian says –

The historical novel has always been a literary form at war with itself. The very term, implying a fiction somehow grounded in fact – a lie with obscure obligations to the truth – is suggestive of the contradictions of the genre.

It is not only him, many think, historical fiction is “history told as a story”. Actually, it is not! It is fiction. Some would say “fiction set in the past” which I find more acceptable but, do not completely agree with.

Defining historical fiction is tricky. Many things here are subjective. There are many opinions on how far in the past must a work be – for it to be classified historical rather than contemporary. Sir Walter Scott suggested that “historical” means, at least two generations in the past. More recent authors have suggested that 25 years would be a reasonable amount. Society of historical fiction says, the events in the book must have happened fifty or more years in the past.

Whose past is it? The authors or the readers? Some argue, it is the authors past saying, “The author should never personally experience the era described “. This, for a good reason: most stories are not just vivid imaginations of the authors. They are in fact closely related either consciously or unconsciously to the views of the author on an event. The view is more often than not, more dramatic if the author lived during the era. This bias, tends to distort the presentation of the event, as opposed to an unbiased presentation, that is based on research.

Some would say, it is the reader’s past that differentiates contemporary and historical fiction. I have seen “The diary of a young girl” being categorized as historical fiction. Going by this, all biographies / autobiographies, at some point in the future, would be historical fiction. But if we go with the “author’s past” definition, some very important works that have been long categorized as historical fiction would no longer fall into this – works like story of Wenamun, The Good Earth, etc.

A more interesting question is – does the book not have some obligation to the truth? How much of truth must be there? and, how much fiction is allowed before the book is classified as fantasy? The answer depends on who you ask.

Sarah Johnson, Assistant Professor, Eastern Illinois University defines two historical fictions – one, “genre historical fiction” and another “literary historical fiction”

“Genre historical fiction,” by which I mean historical fiction that simply goes out to tell a good story, has always been popular with readers, if library circulation figures are anything to go by.

In this liberal description, the inspiration is from historical facts which is not necessarily same as truth. To avoid taking off tangentially, let’s just say, history is a body of material that has survived over time and political interests of people. This would let some books bordering between fanstasy and history sneek into historical fiction.

The goal of literary historical fiction is not to show readers exactly what life was like in a historical time period, although it may have that effect. Rather, authors who write literary historical center their tales not on the historical setting but on the plot, which may help us better understand the differences (or parallels) between then and now, and on characters who manage to transcend time and speak to us from their own perspective in a way that we, today, can understand. One definition of literary historical fiction is “fiction set in the past but which emphasizes themes that pertain back to the present.”

This, I think is the upper limit, as in, the border between historical fiction and history text books. Most books I’ve read fall between the two bounds Sarah speaks of. As a reader of historical fiction, what I look for is, truth about established world events. The author should not alter important facts about famous people without research and evidence. However, the author can fill in details, where there are none to give flesh and blood to the story. For instance, we do not know what Tsu Hzi’s food habits were like. So, it is ok if the author says, she likes eating Chinese cabbage / sweet meats or even kimchee. But it is not ok if the author says, she liked pasta. There is a possibility she indeed liked pasta – but that claim requires evidence for, it is not believable. I would not take kindly to an author that gets popular folktales/proverbs wrong. Anachronisms are the worst things in any book – especially, historical fiction. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not a stickler for perfection. Say, you are reading a book set in ancient (200 BC) Greece. If someone uses words like – “debriefing”, “out of the box”, “bounce ideas of each other” and such, would that not disturb you?

What I am not looking for is an accurate and dry account of the event(s). If that was what I was looking for, I would go read history. What I’m looking for is an account of the historical event from within the event – thru the eyes of the protagonist or people who might not have played an important role, but have lived in such times and have been impacted by the larger events. Inaccurate every day activities and people descriptions are entirely unacceptable since that is the story of the people, the spirit of the book – the reason for reading historical fiction. What I’m looking for is the truth of the spirit.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2009 2:41 pm

    Wonderful essay on historical fiction. Thank you.

  2. November 17, 2009 3:04 pm

    Thank you very much @Prue batten. I’m waiting to hear – what according to you is Historical fiction?

  3. November 17, 2009 3:12 pm

    I put my definition on Book Blogs . . . its anything before my lifetime. I have a love of anything before the eighteenth century in Europe/UK and Asia. I am a huge fan of Dorothy Dunnett who I am classifying as a literary hist.fict author which is odd as I am not a great fan of lit.fict. But her depth of research and quality of writing must surely classify her as a lit.hist.fict writer.

    I am an indie-published fantasy writer but crave to write a hist.fict novel.

  4. November 17, 2009 3:18 pm

    Sorry – I did not look up the book blogs forum. Now, I did 🙂

    I am a big fan of Pearl Buck. I’ve never read Dorothy Dunnett. Do you have a recommendation?

  5. November 17, 2009 4:03 pm

    The Lymond Chronicles . . . a six book series about a fictional Scots nobleman called Francis Lymond. Marvellous backdrop of young Mary and the Border skirmishes and of Lymond’s journeys as a mercenary through the courts of Europe and Scandinavia and with the powerful Knights of Malta.

    The House of Niccolo . . . a seven book series about Nicholas van der Poele, a brilliant Renaissance man who manhandles his own life and the life of so many others throughout Europe, Africa, Russia and the Middle East.

    The research and background for both is awe-inspiring. There are 2 volumes of the Dorothy Dunnett Companion which effectively gives a brief on each of the characters, fictional and real and many other facts from both stories. I find it interesting because I majored in European History at university in another lifetime. Dry academic fact comes to life.

    Dorothy Dunnett is sadly deceased but has a massive worldwide fanbase . . .

  6. November 17, 2009 4:11 pm

    Wow! Thank you so much. Buying this – to begin with 🙂

  7. November 25, 2009 10:30 pm

    Hey hun. I think I figured out the FOLLOWER problem on wordpress blogs. I’ve posted it in the mentor forum – a little how to. I think this might help people follow you a lot easier.

    • December 7, 2009 10:58 am

      Hey! Thank you so much! I’ll check that out

  8. December 1, 2009 7:41 am

    Hi There-

    I really enjoyed this post and I’m glad I found your blog! I originally came here searching for reviews of May You Be the Mother of A Hundred Sons, and then wandered around for a bit. Historical fiction is my favorite genre; I really love it. I don’t know how I feel about defining it in two separate ways- genre and literary. I think the word “literary” to describe a subset of books is pretty vague and subjective and seems to make people feel more elitist. Though there is a difference between Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Phillippa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl, I’d agree.

    Glad to have found you!


    • December 7, 2009 11:00 am

      Thanks for the kind words Aarti.

      People could be using the word “literary” to feel elitist – but I disagee on this. Literature does not have to do with being elitist and literary is a harmless derivation of it to me.

  9. Lua permalink
    April 18, 2010 10:16 pm

    This was an amazing article. I love reading ‘Historical Fiction’- but I can’t imagine ever trying to write a novel in this genre, I suppose it takes a special talent.
    I just discovered your blog and I’m so happy I did! 🙂 I’ll be sure to come and visit soon.

  10. April 19, 2010 11:18 am

    @Lua, Thank you so much for the kind words! I can imagine it really must be hard to write Historical Fiction 🙂

  11. December 18, 2010 8:47 pm

    Hey Deepthi,
    Are you our DRSingh? You have a lovely blog I must admit. I never knew of this talent of yours. Keep it up dear…

  12. Gordon MacKinney permalink
    December 16, 2011 11:31 pm

    I very much enjoyed reading this blog entry. I learned a lot. I have a question for the author or anyone who might have an opinion. I’ve written a novel that takes place between 1985 and 1989 describing the collapse of the American automobile industry by exploring events in one particular Wisconsin town.

    Given that this is 20-25 years ago, is it considered historical fiction? I’m struggling because I will soon be querying agents and the genre classification might be important in choosing the correct agents to approach. Does anyone have an opinion? I’d be most grateful.

  13. October 2, 2012 11:19 pm

    Gordon, Thank you. Some people might accept your work as historical fiction. Some people may think it is a little close to contemporary.

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