Defining the Genre: What are the rules for historical fiction? by Sarah Johnson

Part of the Defining the Genre guide

Sarah Johnson
Eastern Illinois University

[This speech formed part of a panel discussion on historical fiction at the Associated Writing Programs annual conference in March 2002. Please note that this document (like historical novels themselves!) reflects the time it was written and is somewhat outdated with respect to the genre’s perception by the media and publishers, and the historical settings which are popular. –slj]

Now is a particularly exciting time to be involved in the field of historical fiction. Over the past few years, author and reader interest in the past has grown. More and more authors, even authors who have found success in other genres, are choosing to write historical novels. The success of recent films such as Gladiator, Elizabeth, Shakespeare in Love – all set at various times in the past — demonstrate this interest as well.

When you first read about this talk in your program, you must have had an idea in mind as to what “historical fiction” was. After all, it should be fairly easy. The obvious definition that comes to mind is that historical fiction is simply “fiction set in the past.”

But the reality is, however, that almost everyone – and this includes readers, authors, publishers, agents, and the press — seems to have his or her own idea of what historical fiction is, and also what historical fiction should be. When you become involved with the field, you begin to learn that above all, historical fiction is a genre of controversy and contradiction.

Let me speak first about a good definition for historical fiction. While the usual generic definition – “fiction set in the past” — is true for the most part, this seemingly simple definition brings up a number of questions.

For instance, how far back does a novel have to be set to make it “historical”? A hundred years? Fifty years? Five years? To a reader born in the 1960s, novels set during the Second World War may be considered “suitably historical,” but readers who vividly remember the 1940s may not agree. Should the definition be relative, so that a novel can be considered historical by one reader, but not by someone else? Or, given that ALL novels are set in SOME time period, should we use the broadest definition possible, saying something like, “All novels are historical, but some are more historical than others”?

Even if we can agree on a definition that historical fiction includes any works that are set, for example, more than 50 years in the past, whose past are we talking about – the reader’s past or the author’s past? Take, for example, The Great Gatsby, written in 1925, and set during the same time period. To us, today, the novel is obviously set in our historical past. But does it fit what we think of as “historical fiction”?

I will mention that my journal, the Historical Novels Review, has a working definition, which we use for consistency purposes in deciding which books to review. To us, a “historical novel” is a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience. Most autobiographical novels would not fit these criteria. Not all people agree on this definition, however, and even we occasionally break the rules. Some readers go so far as to say that a novel should only be called “historical” if the plot reflects its historical period so well that the story could not have occurred at any other time in history.

There are other seeming contradictions within the field, as well.

For instance, as I’ve mentioned previously, the popularity of historical fiction seems to be on the rise. A number of authors best known for their work in other fiction genres are turning to the historical past for inspiration. Included in this group are Michael Crichton (best known for his contemporary thrillers), John Grisham (famous for his courtroom thrillers), and Amy Tan (widely published in contemporary women’s fiction). Historical novels have also won some of the major literary awards of the past several years. Among the prizewinners are the following.

In the United States, we have Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, set in 1930s New York.

In Britain, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (1930s Canada) and Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang (19th century Australia), were the winners of the 2000 and 2001 Booker Prize, respectively.

In Canada, Richard B. Wright’s Clara Callan (set in Ontario during the Great Depression) won the 2001 Governor General’s Literary Award.

Also, a growing number of historical novels have become publishing phenomena over the past few years, and these works have given the field an ever-increasing audience. These works include Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (set in 17th century Delft), Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (set in early 20th century Japan), Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent (set in Biblical times), and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (the well-known, award winning novel of the Civil War).

It is also interesting to note that some bestselling authors’ first novels were historicals, and that other authors make a return to the genre after they have found initial success elsewhere. Mary Higgins’ Clark’s first novel, Mount Vernon Love Story, written in 1969 under the title Aspire to the Heavens, was a historical novel about the romance between George and Martha Washington. It will be reissued by Simon & Schuster this June.

In some sense, then, historical fiction is getting the respect and attention it deserves. This is the good news.

On the other hand, there is, unfortunately, a snobbery of sorts that surrounds the genre, one that has persisted over many years. Some authors who write almost exclusively in the historical fiction genre don’t want to be called “historical novelists.” And members of the media, even when they praise individual historical novels in their reviews, somehow manage to turn this praise into criticism of the genre as a whole.

Listen to these examples from the recent press, both from members of the print media and from authors themselves.

In 1950, author Howard Fast, a historical novelist himself, wrote: “This is an era of many historical novels, few of them good, and very few indeed which have more than a nodding acquaintance with fact.” This statement speaks for itself.

A reviewer of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring adventure novels wrote in the 1980s, “O’Brian is, first and foremost, a novelist. His are not cardboard chatterers, like those in most historical novels.”

And finally…

“Most historical novels feel thin once you are away from the historical figures that have drawn you to the novel in the first place,” wrote one critic, in a review which praised Stephen Harrigan’s The Gates of the Alamo (published in 1999). Obviously, to this reviewer, Harrigan’s novel was far above the norm.

There are many other examples, but you get the idea. You can see that over the years, while historical fiction has become more popular, other things – like the genre’s overall respectability – haven’t changed very much. At least if you believe what you read in the papers.

There seems to be a perception on the part of some members of the media (myself excluded, of course) that historical fiction is a genre that is very rarely done well. Historical novels have the reputation of being either costume dramas, in which modern-day characters are dressed up and paraded around in period garb with a few “thees” and “thous” thrown in for good measure, or barely fictionalized textbooks, in which the author’s need to cram all of his prodigious research into a single novel overwhelms the plot.

These sorts of statements are so prevalent that one can’t help but wonder – if all of historical fiction is so terrible, and so few authors know how to write it well, why are so many people jumping on the bandwagon?

The novels that seem to escape the scorn of these reviewers are works of literary fiction that are set in the past. However, many works of literary fiction, no matter the time period in which they are set, are typically not considered “historical fiction” by the press, by their publishers, and even by the authors that write them – even though they seem to follow all of the rules.

In the examples I listed earlier, only Girl with a Pearl Earring and Memoirs of a Geisha are frequently called historical novels, but they are called “contemporary literature” just as frequently. The Red Tent, in which a commonly known Biblical story is seen through the eyes of the character Dinah, is more frequently called “contemporary women’s fiction,” despite its Biblical setting. Cold Mountain, with its lyrical descriptions of nature and emotionally resonant language that beautifully evokes the pointless loss caused by the Civil War, is more frequently termed “literary fiction.”

Whichever is the case, it’s not just the press that’s guilty of this kind of snobbery, unfortunately. Publishers and authors are equally guilty. In fact, I’d say that books are called historical fiction by the publishing world only when no other words could possibly be used to describe them. It’s almost as if calling them historical novels denigrates them somehow. Or, on the other hand, is it the case that so many novels these days are set in the past, and calling them all “historical” simply isn’t necessary?

And in such a contradictory environment, how does one go about getting a historical novel published?

“Genre historical fiction,” by which I mean historical fiction that simply goes out to tell a good story, has always been popular with readers, if library circulation figures are anything to go by. Also, historical novels that cross genres, such as historical mysteries and romances, continue to be popular.

However, in my opinion, aside from these subgenres within historical fiction, it is literary historical fiction that interests mainstream publishers the most. The goal of literary historical fiction is not to show readers exactly what life was like in a historical time period, although it may have that effect. Rather, authors who write literary historicals center their tales not on the historical setting but on the plot, which may help us better understand the differences (or parallels) between then and now, and on characters who manage to transcend time and speak to us from their own perspective in a way that we, today, can understand. One definition of literary historical fiction is “fiction set in the past but which emphasizes themes that pertain back to the present.”

In December, I did a comprehensive survey of editors at American publishing houses that regularly publish historical fiction. I also came across surprises when asking these editors about what time periods for historical fiction they are most interested in publishing. While there seems to be a preponderance of novels set during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II, most of the editors I spoke with don’t consider the setting nearly as important to publishers as the plot, character development, and overall theme. I’m not sure whether I completely believe that all settings are created equal, because ancient and medieval settings are still few and far between, but I admit that I have seen a number of novels with fairly unusual settings published recently.

In addition, while historical novel readers (including myself) believe that authors should make their best attempt to ensure their work is historically accurate, this is not the only thing that publishers are looking for. The setting should be convincing, yes, and anachronisms are still things to be avoided. Frequent historical novel readers tend to be quite unforgiving of obvious mistakes, because they can cast doubt on the author’s overall research. Some authors of literary fiction, however, simply use the past as a vehicle of making their plot more believable. They’re not particularly concerned about the setting, and if you were to ask them if they were writing a historical novel, they would no doubt respond that they were not.

Whether or not these books set in the past are formally called “historical novels,” the fact remains that more and more authors are choosing to set their works in the past. Perhaps they’re using events from their own family history for inspiration – as Charles Frazier did with Cold Mountain, and Amy Tan did with The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Perhaps they see historical settings for what they are – a wider canvas upon which they can work.

You may notice that I haven’t completely answered the question of what makes a novel “historical.” I hope this is something that we as authors and readers can continue to speak about. There may never be an exact definition, but I don’t think it prevents us from appreciating the genre any less. And as for more on the elements of a successful historical novel, I’ll leave it to the author members of this panel to continue this discussion. Thank you.

(c) 2002 by Sarah Johnson. Contact the author at sarah.johnson@historicalnovelsociety.org.

Sarah Johnson, currently Professor/Reference Librarian at Eastern Illinois University and book review editor for the Historical Novels Review, is the author of Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (2005) and Historical Fiction II (2009). Questions and comments on the above piece are welcome. However, please note that the author does not publish historical novels, cannot evaluate/read manuscripts, and cannot provide referrals to either editors or agents.