The historical fiction rant: The GG edition

November 17, 2009 by · 18 Comments 

The fact is our literature has been too easily labelled and corralled into genres – not only children’s books but science fiction, fantasy, mystery, historical fiction and so on. Which is why the recent breakthroughs of Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean and Mary Novik’s Conceit, both historical fictions, are thrilling beyond measure.

Joan Clark, The Globe and Mail

I read these words with no small degree of bafflement, especially on the day that Kate Pullinger was announced the winner of the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction. Pullinger, author of contemporary novels such as The Last Time I Saw Jane and A Little Stranger, took the prize for her latest novel, The Mistress of Nothing, her first foray into historical fiction (if, that is, you don’t count her novelization of Jane Campion’s The Piano, co-written with the filmmaker). Prior to The Mistress of Nothing – which, depending upon what you read, took Pullinger anywhere from 10 to 15 years to complete – the author had a deep distrust of the genre. When she was in town last month for the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors, she told the National Post:

It’s a kind of genre I feel ambivalent about … The thing that I don’t like about historical fiction is when the writer has done a lot of research, and then they feel like they’re damned if they’re not going to put it all in there. Every bleeding detail. As a reader I find that tedious. I know a lot of readers really like that about historical fiction – they want to know what type of button is on the suit jacket.

And yet here she is: a writer of contemporary fiction who wins a major Canadian award the first time she dips her toe into historical waters.

Nor is she alone in this. A quick survey of the past nine winners of the Governor General’s award shows six books (Clara Callan, 2001; A Song for Nettie Johnson, 2002; Elle, 2003; The Law of Dreams, 2006; Divisadero, 2007; The Mistress of Nothing, 2009) that are set in the distant past or that have significant historical content. Two others (A Complicated Kindness, 2004, and The Origin of Species, 2008) are set in what could reasonably be called the recent past. That leaves all of one – David Gilmour’s 2005 winner, A Perfect Night to Go to China – that has a contemporary story or setting.

And yet Joan Clark finds it “thrilling beyond measure” that two recent historical novels have received popular recognition. Has no one pointed out to her that historical fiction is the default setting for Canadian writers? Just think of some of the books that have garnered large amounts of attention over the last ten years: The Big Why, The Communist’s Daughter, Effigy, The Trade, The Navigator of New York, The Stone Carvers, Three Day Road, Gratitude, The Book of Negroes, The Sealed Letter, The Outlander, The Last Crossing, The Boys in the Trees, Blackstrap Hawco, and so on. Granted, there is a very wide spectrum of writing there, and even someone not predisposed to the genre can likely find something engaging among those titles. (Yr. humble correspondent, for instance, greatly admires The Boys in the Trees and Blackstrap Hawco, and quite likes The Outlander, while not being partial to The Communist’s Daughter and finding The Navigator of New York almost unreadably dull.)

But the idea that historical fiction has been ghettoized in this country is so far from my own experience as a reader and a critic as to be virtually incomprehensible. Especially since there does seem to be a very real prejudice against some of the other genres that Clark mentions, such as mystery and – in particular – science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you prefer). This could be one explanation as to why all of this year’s major prize juries passed over Margaret Atwood’s new novel The Year of the Flood, the author’s own disavowal of the speculative fiction label notwithstanding.

And the virtual hammerlock that historical fiction seems to have on our country’s literary imagination is problematic to me, not so much because there’s anything wrong with historical fiction per se, but because of what the genre’s stranglehold on our literature implies about our present situation. The fact that so few stories are written about the way we live now suggests that there is nothing of value worth writing about in today’s society: no drama, no earth-shaking conflicts, no cultural upheavals or societal paradigm shifts that might provide worthy material for fiction.

Which is, if you’ll pardon me, absolute rubbish. In the same nine years that the books listed above were published we’ve lived through 9/11, two terms of the Bush administration, SARS, the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, a technological sea change that has rivaled anything since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the London subway bombings, the arrest of the Toronto 18, the election of Barack Obama, the trials of Conrad Black, Bernie Madoff, and Kenneth Lay, the rendition and torture of Maher Arar, the death of Robert Dziekanski after being Tasered at Vancouver’s airport, etc., etc. Surely something over the last nine years could have been sufficient to capture the imagination of our literary community.

Of course, dealing with the world as it is, in all its muddiness and ambiguity, is difficult and fraught with peril, since it leaves one open to criticism from vested interests on the right or left of the political spectrum, on one side or another of a given moral divide. It’s much safer to retreat into a kind of Romantic vision of a past that likely never existed, one that can be drawn with clear moral boundaries and that doesn’t involve personal risk, because it is so (apparently) far removed from our current situation. The trade-off, however, is contained in Stephen Henighan’s rather urgent warning: “No one will know how we lived.” As Henighan points out in his essay “‘They Can’t Be About Things Here’: The Reshaping of the Canadian Novel,” “The crucial obstacle to the extension of a significant novelistic tradition in Canada today lies in our inability to pull our own society into focus.”

Or perhaps we’re just not all that interested in “pull[ing] our own society into focus.” Perhaps Kim McArthur, Pullinger’s Canadian publisher, had it right when she told Quill & Quire: “We’ve found, as book publishers, that there is real interest in other places, times, and people. It’s a good escape in these times.”


18 Responses to “The historical fiction rant: The GG edition”
  1. Andrew S says:

    Mordecai Richler said something about a writer’s obligation to be an honest witness to his time & place. I’m not a huge fan of Richler but I agree with that sentiment. There’s also something Richard Ford said, or possibly Thomas McGuane, about feeling the need to be engaged with the present.

    Of course, many Canadian writers are doing just that. Atwood is, albeit indirectly. Others, like Rawi Hage, do it directly. But they aren’t the ones winning the awards.

    And awards = sales, and publishers, like Russian generals, love to reinforce success by pouring more materiel into the meat grinder, so I think this dominance of historical fiction is unhealthy simply because it sustains itself and drives towards a more homogenous Canlit.

    One reason to be pleased with Linden MacIntyre’s Giller win is that his novel, by coincidence, is topical.

  2. Kerry Clare says:

    As a reader, I don’t like historical fiction, but lately I’ve been much reflecting on the reasons why this is so. And I think this kind of automatic bias against historical fiction (your bias and mine) is exactly what Joan Clark is talking about. First, I am thinking that historical fiction might actually be able to tell us an enormous amount about the way we live now. Why shouldn’t it? I don’t think many writers embark upon a book with the intention of it being so far removed from our current situation. And second, what is historical fiction anyway? Where does history start? Any division would be arbitrary, and isn’t everything historical fiction once pen gets put to paper? The titles you cite hear are extraordinarily varied in every single way, and many have nothing in common between them except that they take place in the past, but the pasts themselves are different, and how they’re presented is even more so. Anyway, what I mean is that I’m beginning to consider that there might not actually be such a thing as “historical fiction” proper after all.

  3. Finn Harvor says:

    ” It’s much safer to retreat into a kind of Romantic vision of a past that likely never existed, one that can be drawn with clear moral boundaries and that doesn’t involve personal risk, because it is so (apparently) far removed from our current situation.”

    I like this post. However, I take exception to the above, with its clear (very clear) conflation of historical fiction with sentimental, middle-brow hack.

    Historical fiction is a genre that is not strictly genre: when done properly, it is the present as it once was. It seems to me sentimental work that sometimes hoovers up prizes* and then does boffo book table office is more a sub-set of historical fiction than its definition (as you acknowledge when you admit a wide range of artistic achievements when citing the titles you list).

    It’s also worth noting that “history” vs. “the contemporary” cannot be neatly divided between, say, all previous to the late 20th Century and all after it. Like it or not, we’re still living much of the 20th Century; we’re living Pierpont Morgan and his bank’s participation in stabilizing the crash of 1907 and, in so doing, shifting a balance of power between the private sector and government that see-sawed throughout the century; we’re living the Great Depression, and its battle between New Dealers by Another Name and their neocon adversaries; we’re living World War Two and the Korean War and the ways in which they not only brought about the *form* of the Cold War, but also established a military-industrial-intelligence complex whose machinations have created a state apparatus that, at times, threatens civil liberties. And so forth.

    History can be bland as all hell. It can be exciting, too. The writer’s challenge is to locate the latter and make art about it.

    [*Not a gibe at Pullinger’s book, which I know very little about, but some other annoyance-making titles.]

  4. A great piece, Steven. Well executed.

    Some thoughts…

    I wonder whether as Canadians we’re just too nice or apathetic or hung over.

    Maybe we’re so tethered to this notion of being inclusive and mosaic-like in our modern aspect that we’re afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings. Afraid to really express in raw, direct language how we see our lives today in the cities, in the farmlands, in the far north, wherever.

    Better perhaps to glimpse ourselves reflected in a lawman’s spitoon as he mulls the whereabouts of a cattle thief.

    We can’t allow ourselves a original and/or dissenting modern voice. A voice that might make decision makers uncomfortable, that might alienate a precious demographic or that might be considered incomprehensible at first blush.

    We’re just too nice or maybe we’re afraid of bucking the systems that we’ve created that award us our annual portion of officially mandated culture to consume during the Holiday Season. Maybe we’re afraid that if we don’t divert our eyes and stare with the expected wistful longing and bemusement into yonder times that merely reflect the present and don’t actually engage it that we’ll lose some necessary thing that we find collectively warm and reassuring.

    Maybe it suits us that the GG doesn’t represent modern Canada. Maybe we like the diversion. Maybe we like our modern stories to be spoken into the wind only to come back as echoes for future generations. Maybe that’s how we transmit.

  5. LH says:

    Very interesting Steven, and I agree with others above, well executed. There is always a sense of genuine curiosity mixed in with your passion, and I appreciate that.

  6. Robert J. Wiersema says:

    I find it troubling that I read Clark’s bit on the Globe’s site and my FIRST thought was “Jeez, Beattie’s gonna have an embolism.”

  7. Kerry Clare says:

    Oh, and I also think that how we lived now will be properly portrayed in the historical fiction of tomorrow. Sometimes reality needs to be reflected upon properly in order to become the stuff of fiction, or at least the stuff of fiction that won’t read as profoundedly dated in a few years’ time.

  8. Andrew S says:

    With few exceptions, the here and now will become dated in a few years time; so will historical fiction that engages the past through the window of our times. It’s inevitable, and it’s not something that should worry us. Time moves on. You can’t write a Great Book by trying to, unless your name happens to be James Joyce.

    But … I’m trying to think of Great Books that were written as historical fiction in their time. And I find myself saying, hmmmmmmm.

  9. Two points:
    The first: some historical fiction is stylistically innovative and light years away from bland escapism into the past.
    Mary Novik’s Conceit is an example, while Glover’s Elle is hardly conventional.

    The second is that when writing fiction, even when one starts out writing about contemporary times, the long gestation process (and by this I mean not only the writing but finding a publisher etc.) may mean that when the novel comes out, its “now” has become the “recent past.” An example close to home: in 1997 I started writing The Violets of Usambara, which takes place mostly in that year. It wasn’t published until 2008, however, when some of the events–ethnic conflict in Burundi and Rwanda–had begun to recede into the past. But getting the story written sometimes requires a lot of reflection that can’t be rushed.

  10. August says:

    Steven, I agree more or less completely. I do wish that, if we must keep this obsession with historical fiction, we could at least raise a Patrick O’Brian from within our ranks.

    Andrew: Sticking strictly to fiction, and avoiding obvious things like Elizabethan drama, we find that the following ‘great books’ were historical fiction when they were written – Adam Bede (well, sort of), Silas Marner, A Tale of Two Cities, The Waverly Novels, Barnaby Rudge, The Three Musketeers (and sequels), Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, War and Peace, just about everything by RL Stevenson, and possibly Moby Dick, though I can’t be entirely certain.

  11. Finn Harvor says:

    ” the long gestation process (and by this I mean not only the writing but finding a publisher etc.)”

    But this is precisely it. The selection process has seized up.

    It’s a crisis, basically. Good work is not being published, and in a culture whose more influential institutions all too often have a default setting of preferring a dullness-tinged, gaseous humourlessness that is, as A. Michaels once described it, focussed on Canada’s grand themes of geography and — oh, damn! I keep forgetting the second! — it’s hardly surprising there is so much despair among writers.

    Fuck that with vigour, you recently said, Steven. Well — where’s the fucking movement for change in Anglo Canada? Where’s the fucking anger that will translate itself into creating an alternative literature? Asking the literary establishment to change its stripes is, it should be clear by now, a lost cause. This is an establishment that has allowed itself to become so rotten, so numb, that in a general sense it can’t even distinguish good from bad anymore. It’s just looking for pseudo-highbrow product.

    p.s. Glad you’ve got rid of your terror-inducing spam filter, btw, Steven. Now — how about dispensing with comments moderation? It slows the discussion down and gives it a many-divergent-conversations-at-once feel.

  12. Andrew S says:

    That’s the sort of list I was coming up with. Perhaps this is just my bias speaking, but historical fiction seems (in my brief mental survey) to have faded in significance, presumable as literary fashion has changed. I’m sure there are more recent examples that I’m just forgetting, but if you think of great books in this century (actually, the last century; I’m 10 yrs out of date here), they tended to have contemporary settings.

    That’s not a claim that historical fiction can’t be significant; it’s just a counter to the idea that by engaging with your times you stand to produce work that doesn’t survive its best before date.

    To Mary’s point: when does fiction become historical? Is it historical when it’s set in living memory? I don’t think this corresponds with the normal usage of “historical fiction.”

  13. I don’t think the ascendency of historical fiction implies anything about the value of the here and now as subject matter. But it does say a lot more: About the ‘professionalization’ of creative writing, the displacement of experience by research, which is at the heart of academic training etc. About how conservative readers have become, and by extension publishers (who always look for safe/cost-effective bets.) The ‘perils’ of getting the present wrong, suggests a kind of cowardice on the part of our novelists. I would go a step further. There is a difference between re-telling a story already told, one that has been amply sifted through the filter of time and perspective, and creating one on the fly. It’s the difference between following a script (allowing room for a certain amount of interpretation) and all out, no holds barred improv.

  14. There are all kinds of ways to engage with the present and one of them is to look at the past. I would argue there’s a profound bias in the culture at large against the whole idea of ‘history’ being in any way relevant to the now. It’s so, well, twentieth century. Corporations have no interest in history even (especially) their own. But the present is a many-layered thing and most of those layers are history. No better subject for stories, it seems to me. And it’s not checking out of the ‘now’ but engaging with it. Corporations and the consumerist culture want to pretend there is no past so everyone can get on with trending and spending. But there is; the past is there, can’t escape it. It’s fun to try and puzzle it in a shape and that, of course, is political: the picking and choosing to make history. I agree with the commentator who criticized the kind of historical fiction (yikes maybe she happened to read my novel and was thinking of it, but i hope not) over-researched and just googled to death where the writer wants to lay every arcane detail down for breathless admiration. That is tiresome. But that kind f writing always is and there’s a lot of cotemporary fiction written like that. I always hate movies hen they do period and someone sticks an amber, fuzzy, filter (the nostalgia filter maybe) over the lens so we see the honeyed light of the past. I have a feeling the light of the past in its varieties wasn’t any different than the light of the present.

  15. August says:

    Oh, there’s tonnes more recent examples (most of Pynchon, for example, as well as Cormac McCarthy, AS Byatt–though not her best works, imho–Umberto Eco, Jose Saramago, Julian Barnes… I could go on), I made a conscious decision to avoid more recent works, especially those by living authors, as the idea of what is or is not a ‘great’ book would be more hotly contested.

  16. Andrew S says:

    Maybe just my bias showing then, August. I was thinking of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and so on — they seem to have passed their best before date without curdling. I think it’s still a bit too early to decide if the writers you cite have produced “great” books, because that judgment is up to, um, history.

  17. By ‘improv’ I mean being in the moment, not working off of a script, thinking (writing) on your feet, spontaneous, guessing, and most of all being utterly and completely honest. I think the historical novelists have material to lean on, and too often that support becomes a crutch. I thin that’s what Peter is referring to when he mentions ‘gooling-to-death’. But here a challenge, can you think of an historical novel that changed the way we read, re-defined our language, say, the way Joyce’s Ullyses did, or Kafka’s Trial, or Nabokov’s Lolita, or On the Road did? All novels seeking a new language to describe their time and place. And now that I’ve mentioned them, is it something particular about being Canadian that enamours us to historical fiction? US and European writers seem to be more interested in capturing the ‘moment’, the zeitgeist. And can it be because as a country, we are politically, economically and culturally passengers on the global bus and not even near the front?

  18. Nic Boshart says:

    Cadence Weapon for Giller Judge! Problem solved.