Why “Historical Fiction?”

Perhaps it has been the English snow – which is an expression you don’t see used very often…

…and having been “snowed in” yesterday that got me thinking about this. I know I have been harsh about another genre recently. And when I re-read my previous post, yes, I was scathing in that one, too.

I am not taking back anything I wrote. I believe there are serious issues worth considering about those genres – particularly when it comes to “pushing” them relentlessly at teenagers. But I also feel the positive is now called for.

In my previous post, I also criticized an author for demanding her books be categorized as “historical fiction.” I explained why they are not. However, in replying lightheartedly to a commenter, I also asked myself: “It is always easy to criticize and poke fun. But why do I consider what I write worth reading?”

As a history lecturer years ago, I’d had students regularly tell me that they disliked history because it seemed merely memorizing an endless series of disconnected dates and events that had to be regurgitated on an exam, and they didn’t understand why they needed to know about most of it. I once also had a student declare in class that he thought history is just a recitation of lots of stuff our ancestors did really wrong and then people the next generation tried to fix it, and then they screwed up also… and on and on up to now. Whenever that sort of conversation arose, often I pointed to this 1927 comment by G.M. Trevelyan, a Cambridge University historian:

The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more and is ours today. Yet they were once as real as we, and we shall tomorrow be shadows like them.

That always grabbed students’ attention. I have never come upon a better statement on the appeal of history. Ultimately there is nothing more “romantic” than history: it is about life and death and eternity.

I first heard that quote myself in an undergraduate history class (too many years ago now). My then future (and now deceased) boss brought it up in a lecture on the Byzantine Empire. Yes, in a classroom situation, there may be a test – as there is usually in some form in all classroom situations – but, remember, we aren’t in school forever. We make humdrum decisions every day – right now – that affect forever and become the future’s history.

What “historical fiction” allows us to do is to approach history in a more accessible manner than is often possible in a classroom. Using historically realistic and accurate storytelling, it seeks to “re-animate” our past primarily through inventing those who never lived but certainly could have, as well as bringing “back to life” those who once actually did live and are now memories. “Born” and “reborn” in such fashions they all may help us see their times and existences through their personal viewpoints, and doing so may better illuminate how we, at least in part, find ourselves where we are today.

It does not have to be “distant history” that is fictionalized in that way either. History, another instructor once told me, is everything that happened prior to “today.” So it is not only about “Byzantium,” but all that falls within even our living recollections.

Indeed the calendar turns yearly as we know. But the past and our present may sometimes seem much like one and the same. Often a couple of decades ago can still feel remarkably “current,” as in Passports:

[Excerpt from Passports: Atlantic Lives, 1994-1995. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

A university history degree should NOT be necessary to read “historical fiction.” The story should be “self-contained.” It is meant to be appreciated by all readers as presented on those pages.

An “ordinary” reader will probably at least have heard of American independence in “1776” and associate the French Revolution with “guillotines.” But that is more than enough. There is no need to know often specialist details about the American War For Independence Revolution or the French Revolution, for example, to read Conventions: The Garden At Paris:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Those “people” in those novels never knew what would happen “tomorrow” any more than we do today. On those pages, we join them in their quest to get through each day, which was always, to them, their present day – be it in 1994 or in 1794. However, by the last page a reader will (I hope) have become immersed in that world through the eyes of those who had lived in it, and will have by accident learned some history they may not have previously known.

[Lafayette Memorial, Soulac-sur-Mer (near Bordeaux), France. Photo by me, 2016.]

Most importantly, in “historical fiction,” there is no “supernatural.” The life-stakes are as realistic as they are daily for all of us who live now. That adherence to the fundamental boundaries of our humanity creates an inherent “reality” for those “people” now alive again on those pages.

Which I think are tales worth reading.

Have a good weekend, wherever you are in the world.😊