Historical Musings #3: Perceptions of the genre

Historical Musings 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?

22 thoughts on “Historical Musings #3: Perceptions of the genre

  1. ladiesofyore says:

    I think that, in many cases, it’s just a lack of familiarity with historical fiction that is behind some readers’ dismissal of the genre’s literary merit. At times, it can be difficult for me not to take that criticism personally, given that I love the genre as much as I do; but I always try remind myself that it’s only human to make judgments, even if they’re not always well-informed (for example, as you’ve already mentioned, some readers might think that historical fiction consists primarily of historical romance titles, etc.). Every genre has its literary examples, as well as its lighter, “beach-read” equivalents. As well, many readers might not be heavily invested in any one particular genre, and while some readers might be open-minded as a result of that, as you seem to be, other readers might avoid certain types of books due to their own misconceptions about a specific genre.

    In the end, I think it just comes down to the reader’s experiences with a particular genre, as well as their knowledge of it, and I always consider those two things when I read reviews of historical novels, and generally focus on reviews by readers who, like me, enjoy reading historical fiction, and have at least a basic familiarity with the genre – that is, as subjective as reading experiences are, it helps me, due to my preference for historical fiction, to keep those criteria in mind when looking for new novels to read.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for commenting. As you say, it can sometimes be hard not to take criticism of our favourite genre personally, as it implies that we enjoy reading books that other readers consider to be inferior. I agree, though, that the main reason for those readers forming those opinions is probably a lack of familiarity with historical fiction. Like you, I do tend to place more value on reviews written by people who read a lot of historical fiction rather than those who admit to rarely reading it.

  2. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    Sigh. Sometimes I long for the olden days when everything didn’t have to be pigeonholed into genres. What we now call “historical fiction” and “fantasy” are perhaps the oldest forms of narrative of all — think of the Iliad and the Odyssey! Try that on your literary snobs. I’m surprised, though, that you’ve found HF getting such bad press; there are so many magnificent and very literary examples. I think in recent years there’s been a proliferation of the poorly researched, bosom-heaving, pulpy variety. It may be that that has tarnished the whole genre’s reputation, but it really shouldn’t.

    • Helen says:

      I think some readers do associate historical fiction with the poorly researched, bosom-heaving, pulpy variety, unfortunately. It’s such a shame when there are so many wonderful examples of the genre that would give them an entirely different impression. I love what you’ve said about the Iliad and the Odyssey!

  3. Fleur in her World says:

    Well said, Helen! I’ve learned so much from historical fiction over the years, and it’s sparked my interest to find out more about any things I might know nothing of otherwise. As with all areas of writing there are books of varying quality, and anyone who dismisses a while area is a fool.

    • Helen says:

      I would probably have very little knowledge of history if it wasn’t for reading historical novels. I find it much easier to retain facts that I learn through fiction than I do from non-fiction!

  4. jessicabookworm says:

    Great post Helen! I fortunately haven’t been on the receiving end of any comments like those you have listed about historical fiction. I do find however people can have very strong reactions, positive and negative, to my love of fantasy. I would argue though there is great literature examples in all genres.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think people sometimes tend to form strong opinions of fantasy as well – and the same probably applies to science fiction and crime. It’s a shame because surely a good book is a good book regardless of its genre!

  5. Yvonne says:

    You raise an interesting question, Helen. One I’ve not considered before, but my answer is yes, of course it can! Just because a novel is set in the past shouldn’t preclude it from being considered a serious work of fiction. The quality of historical fiction writing varies and unfortunately books are often judged by their covers to the detriment of the whole genre. I also think that the way history was taught in schools may have done historical fiction a disservice. Though history was one of my favourite subjects, memorising names, dates, facts and figures from text books was not particularly enjoyable. I’ve often heard the comment “No, I don’t read historical fiction. I hated history in school!” How sad!

    • Helen says:

      History was one of my favourite subjects at school too, but I know a lot of people find it boring and you’re right – it is sad if they are choosing not to read historical fiction based on disliking history at school. Fiction can bring history to life in a way that textbooks can’t.

  6. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    It doesn’t surprise me to hear that some people talk disparagingly of historical fiction, although luckily I can say that I have never heard anyone make a negative comment about this genre. I love history to begin with, and historical fiction can so easily bring history to life. But in the end, people who dismiss an entire genre out of hand, any genre, are only doing themselves a disservice. They are bound to lose out on some great books.

    • Helen says:

      There are good and bad examples of historical fiction novels, as there are in every other genre (including literary fiction). I can’t understand why anyone would dismiss a whole genre, but it seems that some people do – and yes, they will be missing out on a lot of great books!

  7. whatmeread says:

    I was going to check on who won this weekend, but I forgot. Thanks for letting us know! I think the view of historical fiction might change with all the new, really excellent books that have been coming out. Although I don’t always just read historical fiction, I’ve noticed that I’ve been reading a lot more, almost by accident, because so many really good novels are historical the last few years. I think that the people who are disparaging it are thinking of it as only genre fiction, but there is great fiction in every genre, and to say that historical fiction can’t be literary fiction is the same as saying that only contemporary fiction can be literary fiction, which is nonsense.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, there have been some great new historical fiction books published in the last few years and I think the reputation of the genre is definitely improving – and hopefully will continue to improve.

  8. Charlie says:

    I think there is a difference between literary fiction set in the past and historical novels, but I think it’s mainly due to the way literary is seen. A sort of need-to-get-away-from-the-norm point of view. Because yes, really literary historical fiction is historical fiction. It’s historical fiction and isn’t necessarily more or less researched, it just has more language bells and whistles. When the non-literary is well written then there is little difference – it can seem very silly then that we have a line in the sand.

    A bad perception, I’d say, is down to accuracy. History’s a subject that is difficult to cut corners in, research wise.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, accuracy is very important. Reading a few poorly researched, inaccurate historical fiction novels could definitely give someone a bad impression of the whole genre.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Interesting. Just shows the knuckleheads I hang out with. They think HF is for “smart” people and it’s boring, TOO literary! I see HF merely as a time/setting within other genres. Some are chick-lit-ish, some YA or kids, others are literary.
    What exactly is “literary” fiction? Is there a place where all of these things are defined? I’m off to do a search!

  10. shoshibookblog says:

    This is such an interesting discussion. I wonder if part of the issue is the reason why people read (or why they say they read). My main motivation is escapism, and so escapism into the past is perfect for me, though that’s not to deny I also love the historical facts that I aways get from such novels. Perhaps there is a perception that literature with a capital L should be about teaching important life truths and so the genre of HF can then be dismissed for withdrawing from, rather than confronting, life’s problems…

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for commenting. That’s an interesting idea and yes, it could be one reason why some people avoid historical fiction. Escapism is one of my motives for reading too, and I love escaping into the past! I think there are a lot of historical novels that do tackle important and relevant themes, though.

  11. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    I haven’t read Ten Thousand Things yet (reading very restricted recently due to other commitments) but it’s on my tbr list. However I was privileged to be at the declaration of the prize and from the extract read it sounds a great book and John Spurling seems a really nice man – it would have been my choice judging from the extracts read.

    • Helen says:

      I still haven’t had a chance to read The Ten Thousand Things either, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m pleased to hear such a positive report of the extract and the author – I’ll have to move the book further up my tbr!

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