Historical fiction: a controversy for the ages. Is it history or fiction? Is it literary treasure, or is it trash?
In the mid-nineteenth century Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote novels set in past eras to shed light on themes of guilt and sin that permeated his own. So—his were treasure; no debate.
At the other end of the spectrum, there was the historical romance, the territory primarily of female authors. These novels were selling a half-million or so copies a year, literary milk chocolate to Hawthorne’s eighty-percent dark. He complained to his editor: "America is now wholly given over to a d[amned] mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public is occupied with their trash.” Interesting to note that Hawthorne’s masterwork, The Scarlet Letter, has a subtitle: A Romance.
Jump ahead to the end of the 20th century. Consider the discouraging beginnings of another scribbling woman, Hilary Mantel. (The tide would eventually turn, when she made Man Booker prize history by becoming the first woman and the first British writer to win the literary award twice—for Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies, her two Thomas Cromwell sagas.) In a New Yorker profile, she recalls the fate of her first novel, A Place of Greater Safety: “I wrote a letter to an agent saying would you look at my book, it’s about the French Revolution, it’s not a historical romance, and the letter came back saying, we do not take historical romances. They literally could not read my letter, because of the expectations surrounding the words ‘French Revolution’—that it was bound to be about ladies with high hair.”
The scorn poured upon the head of historical romance slopped over to the whole genre. Critics fussed about the very name, “historical fiction,” a contradiction in terms. Terry Roberts*, in his Craft Session essay for this issue, shares his approach to the problematic dichotomy: “…In writing historical fiction, fact and fancy should have a symbiotic relationship. You can know too much about your past setting as well as too little. In particular, you can know too much too soon so that the history inhibits your imagination rather than primes it. For that reason, my practice has almost always been to alternate writing with research all the way through the process, so that history and story have a mutually beneficial rhythm.” (Fact and Fancy: What Is Historical Fiction and Why Do We Write It?)
A further testament to the worthy interplay of imagination and fact was delivered by The New York Times on Sunday, August 7. In that edition, the newspaper included a special section with this note at the top:
“Though we are excited by innovations like virtual reality and digital storytelling, we also recognize the lasting power of the broadsheet. The custom design of today’s section aims to artfully explore the uses to which that format can be put. It is a special ink-on-paper product, one not available in digital form. It is finite and tactile; to read it you must have gotten your hands on the Sunday paper.”
The work printed on the broadsheet was neither NYC-urbane nor Postmodern hip. It was an excerpt of The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. Historical fiction. Familiar history, with a twist. To tell his story afresh, the author turned to his childhood imagining of the Underground Railroad as a real train, on tracks, enabling the characters and the story to move back and forth through time—a magical journey essential to our understanding of our country’s present as well as its past.
Congratulations to Terry Roberts for winning the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award and the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction for 2016 for his novel That Bright Land!