Wednesday 16 July 2008

Why Historical Fiction Needs a New Name - by Marie-Louise Jensen

Ask a class of secondary children how many of them read fantasy and you are likely to get a good show of hands. Ditto thrillers, spy stories, and tales set in the here and now. But if you ask if anyone reads historical fiction, you’ll get very few hands, if any. Why?
Well, possibly because the kids don’t understand the concept of ‘historical fiction’ without a few examples. Certainly if you mention Michelle Paver, you’ll get more hands. (“Oh, is that historical fiction?”) But more likely, I think, because they think historical books will be boring or difficult. My theory is that in a child’s mind there is a direct and logical link: historical = history = school subject. The logical assumption (perhaps not on a conscious level) is that if you don’t enjoy history as it’s taught in schools, or if you find it hard, you won’t enjoy historical books. Or even if you don’t mind history, why would you do a school subject in your free time?
And yet what is historical fiction really? It’s a story, like any other, just set in the past. Yes, of course there are all sorts of definitions. I’ve written essays on the subject on more than one occasion. But they aren’t really important. What’s important is getting young readers enthusiastic about reading stories of all kinds – to get them to see it as an advantage that authors have all of the past ages of the world to roam through as settings for those stories. So let’s throw away the word ‘historical’ and call them adventures, thrillers, romances, mysteries, or whatever else seems appropriate.
Romantic adventure, anyone?


Katherine Langrish said...

Really, really good point. And all my books so far are set in the past, but with supernatural elements as well, so I & my publishers can call them fantasies - even though they are not fantastic at all in terms of what people of the 11th and 12th centuries believed to be possible.

How about calling it 'Time travel' fiction instead?!

Nick Green said...

"Smith" by Leon Garfield remains one of my absolute favourites. I don't think I even noticed at the time that it was set about a hundred years in the past. But most of what I know about Victorian London came from there, at least until I read Dickens.

Anne Cassidy said...

Pastime Novels
Vintage novels

Amanda Bock said...

I'm interested in our definition(s) of historical fiction. I remember going to a conference on it once, quite a few years ago. What I retained was the difference between historical fiction, which features actual historical people and events, such as Johnny Tremain or The Green Glass Sea, and period fiction, which is set in the past, such as Mildred Taylor's books or Long Way From Chicago, but without specific historical references. It is an interesting distinction, and I'd say that, according to that definition, most of what we now consider historical fiction is really period fiction.

And then what do we do with Little Women and Secret Garden? They sure seem like period fiction now, but when they were written, they were contemporary. Do we need a third term? And if so, what would it be? It's really a shame that the word "classic" has become so overused. Anne, I think I might start using "vintage novels"-- what a great phrase!

Katherine, I think "time travel fiction" implies that the characters travel through time, not just the reader.

Nick, I also adore Leon Garfield in general and "Smith" in particular.

Katherine Langrish said...

Amanda, you are right of course - and I wasn't being entirely serious. Just that good historical fiction (period fiction; vintage...) can give me, the reader, the illusion of time-travelling.
Not sure about 'vintage', though - suggests an old book to me, rather than a book set in old times.
I love 'Smith' too. And Mr Corbert's Ghost?

mary hooper said...

A new name is a great idea. I had an email from a girl the other day saying that she liked my modern books, but didn't want to try the hsitoricals "because I like books about kidnappings and crime and murder". I replied saying there you go, then, they are all in The Remarkable Life and Times of Eliza Rose. I think "Time Travel" fiction, as Katherine suggested, is good.

Anonymous said...

I nearly always recommend the historical books I "review" as something schools ought to use, because the author has just made a period in history sound so interesting, and made it come alive, in a way that teachers never quite manage. And these days schools only seem to do WWII.