Like a wolf with no teeth, historical fiction has lost its signature bite. The genre that reminds the reader, with great urgency, of the mistakes and triumphs of the past is now neglected in Anglosphere publishing. To save historical fiction from extinction, it needs new blood, new life, new thought. We can look at excellent works in the genre, such as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke) and A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mantel) as possible points of inspiration.
Despite my problems, historical fiction remains a favourite genre for many readers. This is because the public is still interested in history. Bestsellers such as Wolf Hall (Mantel) and The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco) have created a remarkable legacy. There are subcategories: historical fantasy, historical romance, military historical fiction and biographic historical fiction – giving any reader plenty of reading choice.
Even historical periods can act as dividing points in the genre: one writes a regency-era novel differently than a WWII epic. However, the fascination we have with the past extends beyond books. Subcultures such as ‘steampunk’ and ‘Dark Academia’ illustrate our interest in all things historical. Many towns and cities host renaissance & medieval fairs, giving the opportunity to ‘re-enact’ the past. The popularity of various video games and films speak to our desire to understand the past. This is also evident in tourism. Cities such as Paris, Vienna and Rome attract millions of tourists, drawn to museums, cathedrals, galleries and other important sites of history.
All of this paints a certain picture: history is popular. However, when you look close, much of historical fiction is the same. A WWII book must have ‘resistance’ themes and a regency-era book is aligned with romance. Look at recent blockbusters such as The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. This is predictable: one thing history never is. Even books not in the historical genre, but are clearly inspired by history, are not immune to this. Much of ‘medieval fantasy’ focuses on a simple image of medieval English life, complete with inns and court intrigue. My problem isn’t historical inaccuracy or minimisation (although these can be annoying). Rather, my issue is that hardly any of these books add anything new to our understanding of the past.
I strongly believe the best writings on history, whether fictional or not, add something new to our understanding of the past. From Herodotus’ The Histories to Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North, we should not expect the past to remain unspectacular and dull. In this article, I will argue for more innovation in historical fiction.
Previously, I’ve voiced my disappointment with All The Light We Cannot See. Despite it winning prestigious awards and earning the classification of ‘literary fiction’, I fail to see any contribution to our understanding of history. WWII is rich in historiography, sources, moments and locations. Yet many authors go after the same tired narrative of resistance, sacrifice and family (usually set in Western Europe). Whilst these are important parts of WWII, they are not the only part. This turns history into a ‘trusted formula’ which writers can turn to for storytelling gold.
So far in the 21st century, one of the best interpretations of history came out of the fantasy genre. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a terrific read: a curious blend of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and fairy magic. For those unfamiliar with Susanna Clarke’s terrific novel, she creates a lore and history for English magic with the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars in England. From York Minster to the dusky streets of London, Clarke transforms our understanding of magic, England and history. Another terrific novel is Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Firmly in the ‘magical realism’ style, Rushdie highlights the turmoil and tragedy in India. Adding to this is David Mitchell, whose blockbuster epic Cloud Atlas presents a nuanced understanding of the human soul and the lives we live.
However, authors do not have to turn to magic or speculation. Hilary Mantel, Umberto Eco and Jonathan Littel deserve attention for revisiting well-known periods of history (Medieval Italy, Tudors England, Nazi Germany) with fresh eyes. Although Wolf Hall does little for me, Mantel’s character building of Cromwell is remarkable.
Likewise, Umberto Eco presents the Middle Ages (The Name of The Rose) as a place of meaning, with rich historical context and symbolism. I’ve praised The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littel many times on Snowy Fictions, and it’s for a good reason. Although difficult to read, there is no book like it. All three of these authors ‘transcend’ the limitations of their time periods, and offer spectacular literature.
My point is: don’t listen to those who say ‘nothing is original’ or ‘this time period has been done to death.’ Such logic misses out on the nuances and richness of history, and how it’s impossible to cover absolutely everything.
Laurent Binet may loathe The Kindly Ones, but HHHH (by Binet) is also a good example of adding something new to history. Binet’s technique of meta-analysis and multiple historical sources adds a unique flair to what could’ve been a plain thriller about Heydrich’s assassination.
Writers may be afraid to ‘reinterpret’ history, or to add their own touch. After all, historical events actually happened and affected real people. We can’t brush all the ethical concerns associated with historical media aside because it’s easy. For example, in a historical fiction novel, a heroic individual in history may seem villainous. But if writers are willing to stand by their creative choices, this is less of an issue.
We need historical fiction writers who think outside of the ‘socially acceptable’ prism. Now is the time for creativity, in genre, in language, in characterisation. As of now, historical fiction remains a static genre needing a revolution.
What are your thoughts on the current state of historical fiction? Please share!