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2006; Divisadero, 2007; The Mistress of Nothing, 2009) that are set in the distant past or that have significant historical content.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.”

Playing the game

October 4, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

It is hard enough, though not for the Booker judges, to like the historical novel nowadays, but harder still when that novel’s conception of characterisation seems itself antiquarian, as if Woolf and Proust and Chekhov, not to mention Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald, had never existed. Byatt’s formidable research commands respect, but it is hard fully to respect a novel in which Rodin, Oscar Wilde, Emma Goldman and Marie Stopes have walk-on parts, or that delivers itself of lines like: “All sorts of institutions were coming to life. The Tate Gallery opened on Millbank in 1896,” or “The rich acquired motor cars and telephones, chauffeurs and switchboard operators. The poor were a menacing phantom, to be helped charitably, or exterminated expeditiously.” Such moments, abundant here, necessarily have the air of what Kierkegaard called “playing the game of marvelling at world history.”

– James Wood on A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (via TEV)