One of those lists we see from time to time online. Do you like historical fiction? Are your favorites on this list I stumbled upon the other day?:
I have not read nearly all of the books on this November 2022 list of “the 50 best historical novels.” Over half are less than 30 years old, which I feel is far too “new” for us really to judge yet if they will still be considered among “the best,” say, a century from now. The “longer term” jury – what truly decides “the best” – is, I would argue, still out for most of them.
One example, Wolf Hall. It was much acclaimed in 2009. But is it going to be “big” still in “2109?”:
For one, it is written in the present tense, which is not and has not been commonplace in English language literature for a good reason: it makes for clunky reading. Indeed I could barely get through that Amazon “free sample.” (It is also often difficult to know in it who is speaking, which I believe is a mortal writing sin. Unless it is a brief and deliberate effort by the author for some dramatic reason, a reader should NEVER be routinely trying to figure out who is speaking/thinking.) I do wonder how many purchasers bought the novel based on its awards… but never came anywhere near finishing it. (If the Amazon reviews are any indication, it would seem quite a few.)
Regardless, though, there is no doubt whatever that Wolf Hall is historical fiction.
As a historical fiction author, I get a bit testy at some authors/publishers trying to muscle into the genre when what is written is not really the genre. I also get a sense some authors feel their own actual genre is not serious and/or respectable enough – for instance, out of pure snobbery, they may not like the labels “fantasy” and/or “romance.” Some seem to think stretching to apply the word “historical” gives their novel more “gravitas.”
This one is perhaps the biggest example in the last generation of what seems a deliberate marketing effort to “mis-label” a book’s genre, which undoubtedly has helped it make its way onto a “best” list like this one:
21. Outlander, Diana Gabaldon (1991)
In 1945, Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, steps through an ancient standing stone in the British Isles. She is suddenly sent back in time as a Sassenach (an “outlander”) in Scotland during war and raiding border clans in the year… 1743.
Outlander is the first book in a ten-book series about time travel, adventure, love, and so much more.
Just because a novel may be a “period piece” that makes reference to this or that historical event does not mean it is “historical fiction.” (Nor is a “period parody” like
the awful Bridgerton.) Much worse, in Outlander’s case, the main woman character is – good grief – time transported from the 1940s back to the middle 1700s. One would think it is self-evident that the moment the supernatural is introduced into any tale that doing so pushes that story over the line into the NON-historical fantastical.
I believe historical fiction is a tale that firmly follows history’s known “contours,” the action is constrained to within only recognizably human boundaries, and the characters’ knowledge is restricted to what they know in their own lives and time and that which preceded them. Just like ourselves. No human – as of yet – can see the future.
Outlander is best-described possibly as “historical fantasy.” In fact, it seems rather more like the famous episode of Star Trek in which year 2283 (or something) Captain Kirk ends up “teleported” back to the 1930s USA. There Kirk falls in love with charity worker Edith Keeler (Joan Collins) – and because of that “teleportation” that episode is similarly NOT historical fiction regardless of the number of references to the Great Depression, FDR, and the inclusion of bits of newsreels of marching Nazis, etc.
Outlander aside, all of the books mentioned on that list that I have read, or are simply well familiar with, are reasonable to include. However, I cannot comment on many of them as I am unfamiliar with many of those published in the last decade or so. Also, several older and well-known novels that I would off the top of my head include are not included on it.
Lastly, it is worth pointing out also I think that while including Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (the first novel listed, published late in 1819), the list also omits the first substantive book in the historical fiction genre that helped make possible everything since: Scott’s 1814 Waverley. That is set, interestingly, in about the same time as Outlander and in roughly the same place (Scotland and England)… and no “teleportation time travel” is involved. LOL!
Have a good day, wherever you are… in our non-supernatural reading world. 🙂