Before I introduce this month’s Historical Musings topic, this is probably a good time to mention that the winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was announced yesterday. The winner is The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling, a novel set in 14th century China, which I haven’t read but am looking forward to as I love reading about Chinese history. As you may know, I am slowly working my way through all the titles shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize since it began in 2010. You can follow my progress here. Kay of What Me Read is doing the same and I hope other readers will consider joining us! I have found the winners and shortlisted books that I’ve read so far to be of a consistently high quality, which leads nicely into this month’s discussion topic…
Can a novel be both historical and literary?
My answer, unsurprisingly, is yes, of course it can…but for a lot of people, the answer doesn’t seem to be as simple as that. Here are some examples of the sort of comments I often see and hear when people talk about historical fiction:
* I don’t read historical fiction but I enjoyed this book and consider it to be literary fiction anyway.
* To describe this as a historical novel is doing a disservice to the author’s writing skills.
* This is very well written and explores some interesting themes, but it’s historical fiction so it’s hardly literature, is it?
* I’m not interested in historical fiction, but this is more of a literary novel set in the past so I was happy to read it.
* This was surprisingly good; it went beyond any expectations I had for historical fiction.
I respect other people’s points of view, of course, but I do think it’s disappointing that so many people have such a low opinion of a genre I love. I read a wide range of historical fiction and while I think the lighter ones can often be perfectly enjoyable and entertaining, I can think of many authors who have successfully managed to write novels that are historical and could also be considered to have literary merit: Hilary Mantel, Umberto Eco, Dorothy Dunnett, Patrick O’Brian, A.S. Byatt, Amitav Ghosh and countless others. Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Victor Hugo have all written historical fiction too; are their novels not literature?
This makes me wonder why historical fiction is sometimes viewed in a negative way. Is it because people have had bad experiences in the past? I know there are some badly written, poorly researched historical novels out there, but you could say the same about any genre (and there are also plenty of books classed as literary fiction that haven’t impressed me at all). Or is it that people sometimes associate the term ‘historical fiction’ with a certain type of book that doesn’t appeal to them – family sagas, maybe, or books with a lot of battle scenes, or romances with women in pretty dresses on the cover – and aren’t aware of how large the genre is and how many different sub-genres it encompasses?
It does seem that there are some readers who will avoid a book because it’s described as ‘historical fiction’ but who will happily read that same book if the term ‘literary fiction’ is used instead. As someone who never gives a lot of thought to genre labels and has always read whatever I want to read regardless of how other people might perceive it, I find this a bit difficult to understand. The Historical Novel Society website has an excellent article on this subject written by Sarah Johnson in 2002. I think the reputation of historical fiction has improved since then and so has its popularity, but she still makes some interesting points.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you have low expectations of certain genres or certain types of book? Is there a difference between a well-written ‘historical fiction novel’ and a ‘literary novel set in the past’?
I would also like to know if anyone has read John Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things – and if so, what did you think of it?