A Critical Clarifier

  • By J.B. Rivard
  • March 18, 2016

Do we need another historical-fiction category?


It’s estimated that nearly a million new English-language titles are issued each year, including about 100,000 works of fiction. We don’t have a breakdown on how many are historical novels, but finding the ones we’d like to read is harder than ever. And the proliferation of categories within historical fiction is not as helpful as we might wish.

In her landmark 2005 book, Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre, Sarah L. Johnson proposed 13 major categories, from Multi-Period Epics — such as those by James Michener — to Historical Thrillers like Alan Furst’s The Foreign Correspondent. In Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre (2009), Johnson retained the “subgenres” and then subdivided them by theme, time period, and geographical location for a total of 188 subcategories (my count). But that was before the explosion of digital books.

Amazon has now expanded its classification of historical fiction e-books into 25 categories. Besides the usual breakdown into Classic, Biographical, Regency, Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense, Amazon added 17 geographic categories and proposes Fantasy, Religious, Short Stories, and Women’s Fiction to round out the 25.

In addition, the online giant enables readers to “refine” these into subcategories according to nine time periods ranging from Ancient to 21st-century. This yields a total of 225 categories from which readers of historical fiction may try to choose. While this expansion of categories may aid some in finding suitable books, it fails to help those seeking a reading experience that surpasses simple entertainment.

“Representation of the past is incredibly important to the way that we think about the world,” writes the University of Manchester’s Jerome de Groot in his recent article for Historical Novels Review. “Fiction elaborates on the details of history, gives it a more profound meaning, allows us to empathize and understand in a way that other historical writing struggles to achieve.”

Of course, the value of a deeper experience depends upon the degree to which a novel’s history matches historic reality. Empathy for, and understanding of, history is not aided by distorted reporting. In a 2006 article, “Masters of the Past,” Johnson says, “Authors should portray the time period as accurately as possible.”

It’s important to note the caveat “as possible.” In her recent article on accuracy in historical novels, C.P. Lesley, novelist and historian, explains: “As soon as an author creates a character and invests that character with thoughts and emotions and dialogue, the resulting product ceases to be verifiable…Plausible maybe, well informed possibly, but not accurate.” In other words, assigning fictional actions to real persons from the past is, by definition, an exercise in inaccuracy.

A wide swath of historical novels features notables or celebrities. In her 2012 survey, Bethany Latham discusses novels featuring “a historical personage famous (or infamous) enough to warrant instant recognition.” This segment of historical fiction seems to concentrate on a relatively small group of big names. Especially favored are royalty (will we never tire of Henry VIII?), presidents (in the U.S.), famous generals, artists, writers, and actors. Although these are sometimes termed biographical novels, that is an oxymoronic phrase denoting the contradiction of truth merged into imagining.

Some authors avoid the inherent awkwardness of inserting words in the mouths of the famous by making the luminary a subsidiary character. Latham cites Michelle Moran’s novels, which feature the marketing hooks of Cleopatra, Octavian, Nefertiti, and Marie Antoinette while their protagonists are actually relatively unknown players. Other novelists use conceits such as “secret diaries” or “confessions” to vary the formula by imagining what is unrecorded.

Yet the accuracy issue continues to surface. In a 2015 article in the Financial Times, historian Simon Schama suggests that most historians hold historical novels in disdain, although he adds that “the mindset of historians and historical novelists is not all that divergent,” because both strive for “an imaginative re-enactment.” Nevertheless, novels featuring notables of the past must use imaginary actions and speech to carry their story and, in so doing, create a friction that bedevils those who want their history unalloyed.

Many historical novels forsake headlining a celebrity, thereby avoiding this difficulty. Not only is Gone with the Wind one of the best-selling novels of all time, it chronicles the travails of Scarlett O’Hara, a person far removed from the pinnacles of fame or fortune, a character who Latham calls “a made-up nobody.”

In the novel 1906, James Dalessandro dissects San Francisco politics and culture, corruption and romance, during and after the devastating earthquake and fire, as experienced by a policeman, a runaway, and other fictions representing ordinary lives. Contrariwise, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence transports readers, via the fictitious Newland Archer’s life, into fashionable New York in the 1870s, absent participation by Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, or other notables of that decade.

In some instances, novels of this kind actually update history — for example, Dalessandro’s research for 1906 caused city leaders to revise the official death toll for the San Francisco earthquake from 478 to “at least 3,400.” “Everything you knew about the 1906 earthquake,” said Dalessandro to the Boston Globe in 2005, “was a lie or an inaccuracy.”

These fictions about otherwise un-noteworthy people — in which straight history forms an important foil as well as context and background — form a large and popular part of the historical-novel genre. While entertaining, they can also enlarge readers’ understanding of history, encouraging, as de Groot says, “a sense of connection” with the past.  

There is some evidence that historical-fiction readers prefer this type of novel. Of the more than 1,200 readers surveyed in novelist M.K. Tod’s 2015 “Historical Fiction Reader Survey,” readers preferred “fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events” over “the lives of famous historical characters.”

This suggests the potential benefit of a new category, one that distinguishes fictions staged amidst authentically re-created history from stories featuring the imagined actions and dialogue of famous historical characters. Perhaps this category might be called “Historical Context Fiction.” If writers, critics, reviewers, and other cognoscenti routinely were to recognize this segment of the genre, it might greatly aid us in finding books we’d like to read.

J.B. Rivard is an author and illustrator.

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