Friday, April 12, 2013

What is historical fiction?

"It is a funny thing that our idea of an historical novel is always something at or before the Jacobite times, simply because that was Scott's idea of one. We forget that a longer interval separates us from Napoleon than separated Scott from Prince Charlie." - Arthur Conan Doyle in a letter to fellow writer James Payn, April 11, 1895

How exactly should one define the term historical novel? At the time he wrote that letter, Doyle was in the midst of writing a series of stories set during the Napoleonic Wars. Apparently some of his contemporaries thought of Napoleon as too recent to be considered historical. Doyle begged to differ. Napoleon died in 1821, or more than 70 years previously.

Even today there seems to be some confusion about what makes a historical novel. Thomas Mallon has just published a novel called Watergate set, of course, in the 1970s. It is not being described as a historical novel in the same way that a book set in Doyle's time, Victorian England, would be. But should it not be? And what about a novel set in the 1980s or '90s? How about one set in 2012?

I would argue that even a novel written in 2013 and set in 2013 can, in a sense, be term a historical novel. Every story reflects the language, the morals, the attitudes, the customs and the technology of the time in which it was written.

I just finished rereading Donald E. Westlake's comic novel The Fugitive Pigeon, published in 1965. When I first read the book decades ago, it seemed very cool and contemporary. Now, although still as entertaining as ever, it reads like a historical novel. I was struck by one scene where Charlie Poole, a young man on the run from Mafia hitmen, observes as these men, sent to kill him, call their boss from a phone in their car. Charlie has read a lot of science fiction, and this sight strikes him as something out of one of those futuristic stories. That, no doubt, is how it struck many of us who read this novel back in the 1960s. Today, at a time when most people carry phones in their pockets or in their pocketbooks, it seems quaint, still amusing but in a different way than Westlake intended.

When Doyle wrote his Sherlock Holmes stories, they were set in the England he lived in. Today we read them as historical fiction. I recently read the David Baldacci thriller The Forgotten. It is very modern, very contemporary. If the novel is still read a century from now, it will seem as antiquated as those Holmes stories do today.

Every novel is a historical novel -- or will be eventually.

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