Defining the Genre

Richard Lee

There are problems with defining historical novels, as with defining any genre. When does ‘contemporary’ end, and ‘historical’ begin? What about novels that are part historical, part contemporary? And how much distortion of history will we allow before a book becomes more fantasy than historical?

There will never be a satisfactory answer to these questions, but these are the arbitrary decisions we’ve made.

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

We also consider the following styles of novel to be historical fiction for our purposes: alternate histories (e.g. Robert Harris’ Fatherland), pseudo-histories (eg. Umberto Eco’s Island of the Day Before), time-slip novels (e.g. Barbara Erskine’s Lady of Hay), historical fantasies (eg. Bernard Cornwell’s King Arthur trilogy) and multiple-time novels (e.g. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours).

Other definitions:

There are a number of essays which aim to define or discuss historical fiction. These are the ones we have collected so far. Information or text for any others would be most welcome.

Jerome de Groot: Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction: The New Time-Travellers
Sarah Johnson: Masters of the Past: Twenty Classic Historical Novels and their Legacy (from Bookmarks Magazine, Jan/Feb 2006 issue)
Allan Massie: The Master of Historical Fiction
Oregon State University Seminar: What is Historical Fiction?