Is Historical Fiction Dead?

Short answer: no, but it’s showing signs of dementia.

Historical fiction has one of the longest roots of any literary form. You might say that Homer was a historial novelist (if he didn’t insist on being a poet) because the events he described in the Iliad had some basis in fact—even if the incidents of gods and goddesses swooping down to rescue their favorite heroes were probably exaggerated. But historical novels per se had to wait for the invention of the novel, which came about with the publication (mid-18th century) of a work now known as Robinson Crusoe. The account of a shipwrecked adventurer on a deserted island was first publicized in a newspaper and seemed so realistic that most readers assumed it was factual—with good reason, because long-form prose fictional narrative was unknown at the time. It was so new that subsequent works (Richardson’s Pamela, Fielding’s Tom Jones) were called novels.

Walter Scott carved out the genre of historical fiction, both in its realistic (Rob Roy) and romantic (Ivanhoe) manifestations. Historical novels came into their own in the 19th century, when prominent novelists like Dumas, Dickens, and Tolstoy tried their hand at writing them, and authors like G. A. Henty established themselves primarily as historical novelists. But if there was a heyday of historical fiction it was probably in the mid-20th century, when book jackets featuring imperious ladies in hoop skirts or men in armor crammed the library stacks and the corner book stores. And children’s library award lists. When I was growing up I developed a passion for it.  In the sixth grade, for example, my favorite book was Mara, Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, originally published in 1953. Great stuff: the story of an intelligent, courageous heroine assuming the life of a double spy in Queen Hatshepsut’s court. My first experience of word-of-mouth retailing, too: after I read it, my enthusiastic recommendations sent it through the entire class (my only success at trend-setting).

Of the twelve (mostly unpublished) novels I’ve written, seven are historical fiction, and one of the non-historicals involves time travel. Obviously my interest hasn’t waned, but there’s some doubt as to whether the public is clamoring for it as they used to. Publishers generally don’t think so: “Nobody reads historical fiction anymore” seems to be a common refrain, along with the corollary, “Kids don’t read historical fiction anymore.”

But I’m wondering about that. Kids don’t read so much anymore, period, and that’s a problem that has nothing to do with a particular genre. But when you get past “kids” and look at individual boys and girls, there’s probably not as much disinterest in historical fiction as supposed. One bit of anecdotal evidence: I looked up Mara, Daughter of the Nile in my local library’s online catalog to see if they had it. WOW—not only did they have it, but there were five holds on the library’s only copy! Over to Amazon: 183 reader reviews!  Could this be an indication that the market for straightforward, quality historical fiction for children is hardly dead?

Maybe, but it’s not one of the cool kids in class. Political correctness has laid rough hands on it, turning novels into exposees of the sins of the past: slavery, racism, religious bigotry, subjection of women, etc. The past three years, for instance, have seen at least three new YA novels about the Salem witch trials of 1692, a subject made-to-order for sermons about religious bigotry and the subjugation of women.

Or consider the True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by prolific children’s author Avi, which won a Newbery Honor medal in 1993. As an adventure story, Charlotte Doyle is a lot of fun, but it was honored and praised as historical fiction, which is just goofy. In this story, we’re asked to believe that a 13-year-old girl, sailing to America in the early 1800s, runs afoul of the captain, who sentences her to work as a common sailor for the duration of the voyage. Within a matter of weeks she not only becomes an able seaman, but she leads a mutiny, solves a mystery and becomes captain of the ship. In other words, Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a bonnet. Such a narrative bears little resemblance to reality and is also insulting to 19th-century sailors. (For more about cultural anachronisms in historical fiction of the last 30 years, see this excellent essay by Anne Scott Macleod).

M.T. Anderson’s (hold your breath for this title) The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. I: Pox Party is probably the most honored, least read YA historical novel of recent years. It purports to be the account of a young African American, born ca. 1760, who becomes the property of a club of natural scientists who do experiments on him. While he is in his teens, Octavian starts hearing rumors of an American “war for independence” based on liberal views of the equality of men. Such irony! Octavian Nothing is brilliantly written—maybe a little too much so—and has its virtues, but schoolchildren born after the mid-1980s have ingested the irony of a slave-holding nation founded on the equality of men almost with their mother’s milk, and can probably smell the moral within Chapter One. If they’re bored with it, I don’t blame them. Boredom is better than self-righteousness, which such themes encourage: We’re not like those nasty narrow-minded bigots of the past, are we?

If you’re feeling smug about the past, it’s hard to learn anything from it.

Postmodernish trends such as alternative history and historical fantasy are probably more widely read, especially the latter. Alternative history I would classify as serious historical fiction, because the reader needs to know (or will acquire) some knowledge of the past in order to recognize the alternative. Gary Blackwood has had some success with it, especially Second Sight, a “what if?” scenario involving the Lincoln assassination plot.

Historical fantasy of the Steampunk type is very popular, and some of it can be considered alternative history as well, such as Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan series. These are history with a twist, a little something extra to tweak a contemporary reader’s interest. And that’s fine. But does the genre really need tweaks?

Going back to Mara, Daughter of the Nile, I’m not surprised that it still attracts readers. An exciting story, strong and memorable characters, and an intriguing setting will always attract readers. The alternatives to reading that kids have today have changed; kids themselves haven’t changed. Still, the author of straightforward historical fiction like Mara would probably need persistence like a woodpecker and a hide like a crocodile to handle all the rejections. Because, you know, “Kids don’t read historical fiction these days.”

But there’s a bit of schizophrenia going on among children’s book professionals, because historical titles still dominate the Newbery award list, year after year. This year was especially interesting: of the five books awarded Newbery medals, four of them were historical–including the gold medal winner. Something about historical fiction says to teachers, “This is good for kids.” We know it’s more than that: quality historical fiction teaches better than a textbook and inspires much more than a recycled PC sermon. We haven’t outgrown our love for it, and you’ll certainly be hearing more about it from us.

Speaking of the Newbery award, go here, here, and here for reviews of this year’s crop.   And speaking of the Salem with trials, some new-ish YA novels are reviewed here.  For historical fiction with a twist of fantasy, see our reviews of On the Blue Comet and Perilous Gard.  For some good listening, check out Music of the Little House, and don’t miss ‘Creative’ Retellings of Paul Revere’s Ride.

         

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20 Responses to Is Historical Fiction Dead?

  1. Anne Wegener July 5, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    *Mara, Daughter of the Nile* was one of my favorites as a young girl, too!

    I also love historical fiction, and in fact read this post while taking a break from perusing the historical fiction books in our house, choosing books for my children to read that will complement our history studies in the coming year.

    And thanks for the terrific history posts! I have just ordered *Grab Hold of the Past* by Cheryl Harness and one of the books she recommended.

  2. Anne Wegener July 5, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    *Mara, Daughter of the Nile* was one of my favorites as a young girl, too!

    I also love historical fiction, and in fact read this post while taking a break from perusing the historical fiction books in our house, choosing books for my children to read that will complement our history studies in the coming year.

    And thanks for the terrific history posts! I have just ordered *Grab Hold of the Past* by Cheryl Harness and one of the books she recommended.

  3. emily July 2, 2011 at 7:43 pm #

    I hadn’t heard that, Jess. About the cleaning up of classics. Will have to put my ear to the ground on that….

  4. emily July 2, 2011 at 7:43 pm #

    I hadn’t heard that, Jess. About the cleaning up of classics. Will have to put my ear to the ground on that….

  5. Marlo July 2, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    “Rewally”? I should reread before I submit. :)

  6. Marlo July 2, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    “Rewally”? I should reread before I submit. :)

  7. Marlo July 2, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    Historical fiction — my favorite genre! It is also my oldest son’s favorite, so I’m rewally looking forward to hearing more from you. Thanks also for the links!

  8. Marlo July 2, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    Historical fiction — my favorite genre! It is also my oldest son’s favorite, so I’m rewally looking forward to hearing more from you. Thanks also for the links!

  9. Jess July 2, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    “Octavian Nothing is brilliantly written—maybe a little too much so—and has its virtues, but schoolchildren born after the mid-1980s have ingested the irony of a slave-holding nation founded on the equality of men almost with their mother’s milk, and can probably smell the moral within Chapter One. If they’re bored with it, I don’t blame them. Boredom is better than self-righteousness, which such themes encourage: We’re not like those nasty narrow-minded bigots of the past, are we?”

    You’ve managed to say exactly how I feel! I thought I was the only one who was a bit sick of this stuff… It’s actually why I’ve stopped reading a lot of historical fiction; it seems like it’s all the same these days.

    I read an article in a magazine recently that discussed the possibility of “cleaning up” classic literature–providing “clean” versions of books like Huckleberry Finn by removing the racist/politically incorrect aspects. (Actually, since I’m a fairly new reader, I don’t know if you’ve addressed this before.) This saddens me, because it seems that people have to do such things because they don’t have the time to talk their kids through a book, if you know what I mean. Also, it almost looks as if they’re trying to remove history?! I wish… well, I don’t really know what I wish. But I hope the “cleaning up” of classic lit. never happens. There are better ways of addressing an issue than simply pretending it isn’t there.

  10. Jess July 2, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    “Octavian Nothing is brilliantly written

  11. Renee Mathis July 1, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    Thanks for the link to the essay. Very thought provoking!
    I’m curious about something…. I can read a fairy tale with a princess and a castle and never expect it to be historically accurate. Perhaps Sarah Plain & Tall is a “Fairy Tale on the Prairie”?

  12. Renee Mathis July 1, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    Thanks for the link to the essay. Very thought provoking!
    I’m curious about something…. I can read a fairy tale with a princess and a castle and never expect it to be historically accurate. Perhaps Sarah Plain & Tall is a “Fairy Tale on the Prairie”?

  13. Janie July 1, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    Emily,
    I’m looking forward to that!

  14. Janie July 1, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    Emily,
    I’m looking forward to that!

  15. Janie July 1, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    Brandy,
    You’re right about the themes of those three Newbery books–plucky girls (or less often guys) make their own space in the world, etc. That’s a favored Newbery theme in general, but it’s interesting that the committee seems to prefer those themes in a historical setting. Also, Moon Over Manifest, the big kahuna this year, gets in a few licks at capitalism through the labor-strike subplot. Heart of a Samurai is similar in theme but much more positive about American culture.
    I read The Sherwood Ring as a teenager and have loved it ever since. Paid more than I should have for a copy through Amazon several years ago.

  16. Janie July 1, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    Brandy,
    You’re right about the themes of those three Newbery books–plucky girls (or less often guys) make their own space in the world, etc. That’s a favored Newbery theme in general, but it’s interesting that the committee seems to prefer those themes in a historical setting. Also, Moon Over Manifest, the big kahuna this year, gets in a few licks at capitalism through the labor-strike subplot. Heart of a Samurai is similar in theme but much more positive about American culture.
    I read The Sherwood Ring as a teenager and have loved it ever since. Paid more than I should have for a copy through Amazon several years ago.

  17. Brandy July 1, 2011 at 12:12 pm #

    I love this post so much. Thanks!

    “Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a bonnet”
    HEE!

    The cultural anachronisms and superior attitude of many historical fiction choices are why I have started to shy away from them.

    I do like historical fantasy and think it can also be very solid historical fiction. Rebecca Barnhouse’s The Coming of the Dragon is not only an amazing retelling of the third section of Beowulf, it is also a very well researched and accurate representation of life in the time period. Like Rosemary Sutcliff with a dragon. Katherine Langrish’s The Shadow Hunt has elves and brownies but is also a story of life in England during the Crusades. And, of course, The Perilous Gard is a wonderful example as is Pope’s other novel The Sherwood Ring.

    I don’t know if this year’s Newbery committee (whose selections I was less than impressed with) were enamored with the historical fiction or with the plot tropes. Three of those four books (I haven’t read Heart of a Samurai) are all about the same thing: plucky girl abandoned by parent finds new community and realizes that there are many ways to define family, hugs and warm fuzzy feelings required at end.

    Sorry for the long comment. You really got me thinking. :-)

  18. Brandy July 1, 2011 at 12:12 pm #

    I love this post so much. Thanks!

    “Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a bonnet”
    HEE!

    The cultural anachronisms and superior attitude of many historical fiction choices are why I have started to shy away from them.

    I do like historical fantasy and think it can also be very solid historical fiction. Rebecca Barnhouse’s The Coming of the Dragon is not only an amazing retelling of the third section of Beowulf, it is also a very well researched and accurate representation of life in the time period. Like Rosemary Sutcliff with a dragon. Katherine Langrish’s The Shadow Hunt has elves and brownies but is also a story of life in England during the Crusades. And, of course, The Perilous Gard is a wonderful example as is Pope’s other novel The Sherwood Ring.

    I don’t know if this year’s Newbery committee (whose selections I was less than impressed with) were enamored with the historical fiction or with the plot tropes. Three of those four books (I haven’t read Heart of a Samurai) are all about the same thing: plucky girl abandoned by parent finds new community and realizes that there are many ways to define family, hugs and warm fuzzy feelings required at end.

    Sorry for the long comment. You really got me thinking. :-)

  19. emily July 1, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    Savoring this post, Janie. Also, pillaging for ideas I can use in my review of The Time Warp Trio on Monday!

  20. emily July 1, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    Savoring this post, Janie. Also, pillaging for ideas I can use in my review of The Time Warp Trio on Monday!

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