Can a Historical Novel Also Be Serious Literature?
February 21, 2016 8:37 AM   Subscribe

Children of the Century: For writers of historical fiction, fact fades and feeling persists. by Alexander Chee [New Republic]
“Historical fiction was not—and is not—meant to supplant literature from the period it describes. As a veteran of the Crimea, Tolstoy wrote War and Peace to match his own internal sense of the truth of the Napoleonic wars, to dramatize what he felt literature from that period had failed to describe. The force of his vision, even in translation, may have shifted the benchmark for realism away from authenticity and toward the feeling of it for the reader—a way for the living to argue with history and posterity. Powdered wigs or not, War and Peace is with us still.”
posted by Fizz (12 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
A good essay, and I urge all fans of Mantel (or good novels in general) to read A Place of Greater Safety; it's wonderful.
posted by languagehat at 9:01 AM on February 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

My favourite bit from the essay:
A 2012 New Yorker profile of Mantel described the chilly initial reception she received from a literary agent for 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.

If Mantel had been allowed to publish A Place of Greater Safety at the time she wrote it, she would have debuted with a 700-page novel about the French Revolution—the sort of writer Flaubert imagined Tolstoy to be—and if she had tried to debut in 1992, she might have been allowed to be just that.
posted by Fizz at 9:05 AM on February 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

In college, in an American history course we were assigned to read and review a book of historical fiction. I chose "The Sot-weed Factor" by John Barth. The TA who graded my paper was shocked and pleased with the choice given the Barthian meta fictional style. So maybe historical fiction as literature requires some other purpose than just telling a story? By the way, the book is hilarious. And a great read.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:08 AM on February 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Gore Vidal is the only modern author I can think of with pretensions on a similar scale to Tolstoy. so, I guess it makes sense in this essay that Chee both doesn't "get" Vidal and minimizes Tolstoy's ambition. War and Peace started as a prequel to his planned novel of the Decembrist uprising if 1825, which is to say that Tolstoy was trying to pin down the historical moment of failure for czarist Russian society in the broad failure of the 19th century attempts at reform from within.
posted by at 10:10 AM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I first read this essay, I thought that most of what it says could have been written in the nineteenth century. Which, given the topic, is perhaps ironic. Most critics and practitioners of the genre warned against excessively accruing details in an effort to create historical effects (although that certainly didn't stop W. H. Ainsworth), and called for more attention to the "feeling" or "character" of a period, much like Chee does. (Although, given anxieties about novel-writing and -reading in general, there was more emphasis on what Rufus Choate called "positive information.") Walter Scott, before he started publishing his own fiction, finished up Joseph Strutt's Queen-Hoo Hall: A Romance (1808), which is the sort of hyper-antiquarian (and now unreadable, as I can attest from personal experience) text that Scott would then promptly go on to avoid writing.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:38 AM on February 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

It's interesting that the article doesn't mention either Madison Smartt Bell's Haiti trilogy or O'Brian's Aubry/Maturin novels, which certainly have historical detail and "literary seriousness."
posted by rock swoon has no past at 12:38 PM on February 21, 2016

which certainly have historical detail and "literary seriousness."

Barry Unsworth is also an author that falls into these categories.
posted by Fizz at 12:42 PM on February 21, 2016

Wouldn't Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle trilogy be categorized as historical fiction/literature?
posted by juiceCake at 2:01 PM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

As a frequent genre reader I feel pretty annoyed when mainstream outlets anoint their favourite genre novels with the literary fiction tag to signal to their readers that it's okay to read this book in public because it isn't garbage writing for the intellectually challenged.

Recent examples that come to mind are Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and the Ancillary Justice books.
posted by zymil at 2:39 AM on February 22, 2016

I think those are not very great examples, to be honest. Both are published by fantasy imprints, both are nominated and won pre-eminent gene awards, and one lot has spaceships on the cover. Pretty crappy job if pretending to be literature. No, a quick perusal of booker prize shortlists reveals this kind of stuff. The Passage, The bride stripped bare, life of pi, Never Let e me go, and more charitably writers like David Mitchell.
posted by smoke at 3:53 AM on February 22, 2016

It's interesting that the article doesn't mention either Madison Smartt Bell's Haiti trilogy or O'Brian's Aubry/Maturin novels, which certainly have historical detail and "literary seriousness."

Or Dorothy Dunnett...
posted by suelac at 9:03 AM on February 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think Neal Stephenson's novels are accurately described as being Historical Romances. I think Science Fiction is a genre that's proven to be able to blend that with literary seriousness, however.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 10:59 AM on February 22, 2016

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