Friday, May 25, 2012

Historical Novels? The Debate!

Yesterday on my way to book club, I was listening to my favorite books podcast, Books on the Nightstand, and they were discussing Historical Novels. Normally I agree with Ann and Michael, but this time I was yelling at the radio. They both said they thought the definition of a "historical novel" included only books that spanned many decades, multiple generations, like Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I think that's completely wrong - those are called "sagas".  Sagas would include books by authors such as Edward Rutherford and James Michener. I think this definition is already pretty set, so I was baffled by their definition and their complete agreement on this matter.

At book club, we were discussing The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin which I consider a historical novel despite taking place over only 3 years, but it's set in the 1890s, so I brought up the topic.  And much to my shock, half the women in book club have a different definition of historical novels as well! The think a historical novel but involve historical figures, like The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, and Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. Much to my surprise, they didn't even consider The American Heiress or Pillars of the Earth to be historical fiction!

Personally, I have always thought that any novel set in the past is a historical novel, like The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. My only question was whether or not to classify books that were written a long time ago but were contemporaneous at the time as historical, like The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins or Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. I know I shouldn't really, after all there's a real immediacy to reading about World War I in Rilla of Ingleside when they have no idea there will be a World War II. But it's hard for me to separate books written a hundred years ago by their original pub date, particularly when you throw books like Gone With the Wind into the mix (set in the 1860s, written in the 1930s).
Also on the podcast they mentioned a book had to be set at least 60 years in the past to be "historical," and again I disagree. I think a book set in the 1970s or 1980s even can be historical, particularly if the era of the time is an important part of the story.

So, I think I need to fix my list of historical novels on Goodreads - I think I definitely need to separate out the books that weren't historical when they were written, and I like the idea of making books based on historical figures a category, but I still completely disagree with Ann and Michael's definition of a historical novel - those are sagas (and my book club agreed on this point)! I had no idea there were so many potential definitions of historical novels.  I didn't even realize there were multiple interpretations of that genre - and knowing about genres is a part of my job! What do you think of all this?


Kristen said...

well, I couldn't make book club to throw in my 2 cents but my definition of historical novels is similar to yours. I do agree with the caveat that they should take place 50 or so years in the past (or perhaps be outside the lifespan of the author--which would allow inclusion of your 1970's novels) that you are conflicted about but I don't agree that historical novels have to take place over multiple decades. Simply being set in a somewhat distant past, the mores and conventions of which are undeniably important, indispensible really, to the novel qualifies a book as historical in my definition. The American Heiress, to me, is certainly an historical novel and I would argue like a rat terrier with anyonew ho claimed otherwise. ;-)

Brona said...

Who knew there was such contention around historical fiction! Not I.

Like you I thought it was a book about the past - it didn't matter how many years it spanned, it just had to be in the past.
I wonder if 'classics' covers those books that were contemporary when written, but are now of the past (ie Dickens, Austen, Eliot, Hugo, Wilkie).
I'm now wondering what genre Hilary Mantel's lastest book will be described as.
It's definitely historical fiction set in Tudor England, but it is her interpretation of the real life characters that make the book so special - is it fictionalised biography? Interpretative fiction? Revisionist history?
Where will this debate end?????

Carin said...

First thing: How am I not friends with you on GoodReads already?!!

Second: I love your blog. You post such neat things.

Third: I don't feel like I read a lot of historical fiction, but by your definition, I guess I read more than I thought. I agree with you about the sagas. I think of sagas as historical fiction too, but also as a saga.

I don't know what I think is historical fiction. You will laugh at me, but I think those terrible book covers with some lady in period clothing as historical fiction. So I guess that's my bias. Atonement is one of my favorite books of all-time, and I'm not sure I would categorize it as historical fiction even though it is. I think of it more as literary fiction? Bah....I guess everyone has their own way of thinking about books. I guess I shouldn't put labels on books because I'm probably missing out on some good ones.

Fiona said...

I agree mostly with Caroline's definition...

Anything set in history is historical. I'd have thought that was fairly obvious actually so I'm surprised that has caused so much debate. The question of how far back something has to be to be considered historical however, is more complicated so I would agree more with Kristen that the book should be written before the author was born.

I think there are different types of historical fiction, just like there are also different types of crime novels too. In crime novels you have the more psychological thrillers (which might be stepping slightly out of the crime genre) you have historical mystery's, whodunnits, whydunnits, police procedurals etc. etc. etc.

I think you can separate historical fiction into 'period' and 'historic'. To me "period" would be where the primary characters were completely fictional and it is not 100% centralised around a significant moment in history. It might be in the background, it might have an effect on the storyline but it is not trying to recreate history or people who really did exist. But I think in both there is always room for interpretation of this history.

I don't think you can ever just narrow a genre definition down into just one thing. That isn't possible.

Abigail@The Story Factory Reading Zone said...

I agree that an historical fiction is simply one set in the past.

Stacy at The Novel Life said...

I never really thought about it because I thought anything set in the past was historical fiction....who would be the authority on this debate? Is it us bloggers? goodreads? review publications?
very interesting topic! and one that I wish there was a clear-cut answer

Christy said...

An interesting debate! I agree with others about the baseline of: historical fiction should be set in an earlier time than the time in which it was published. However, if someone writes a book published today that is set in the 1990's, it's unlikely that "historical fiction" would be the genre coming to mind for most readers. I have a hunch that the 1950's and earlier is what would be popularly considered historical fiction setting. It'd have to be put to a vote though.

I don't think the book necessarily has to be before the author's lifetime to be considered historical fiction for the reader. But more often than not, if the novelist was alive during the era of the book's events, the label "semi-autobiographical" will be more likely.

Rebecca Chapman said...

Intersting post. I used to think historical fiction was anything set in the past, but sinmce I have been reading more in my head historical fiction is a book set in the past according to when the author was writing it. So something by Wilkie Collins wouldn't be historical fiction because it was set in the time the author was writing it. I probably need to go through my labels at Page Turners and fix some if it up.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to hear such passion on this subject. I guess my definition is pretty liberal, including anything written about the past (just not classics that were contemporary when written). I don't tend to think of things written fewer than 50 years ago as historical fiction, but I wouldn't have a problem with anyone calling a 70s' book that, either. Whatever floats your boat. I HAVE heard the argument (in my writing program) that historical fiction means it must include a real historical figure, but I never agreed with that. I don't see why people get all het up over categories. Some books fall into several. Is it a good book? That's what matters.

Anonymous said...

I should've said ---I don't tend to think of things written about a period fewer than 50 years ago----whatever I'm sure you understood.