Monday, 28 September 2009

Another Country and a Dead Wench: Gillian Philip

Well, that crept up on me. Just the other day I was saying to other ABBA bloggers that I ‘always’ post late the previous night so that it’s ready and cooked by morning. So this morning I wake up and think ‘doesn’t Nicola Morgan usually blog just before me...’ and I go through and look at the calendar, and I swear*.

However, although I’m ill-prepared, my bad timing did at least let me hear Hilary Mantel talking on Radio 4 this morning about Wolf Hall, the Man Booker favourite. So she’s saying (and I paraphrase, so I apologise an advance if I get this wrong) that she doesn’t write historical fiction, but contemporary fiction set in the past, and with a contemporary sensibility.

This made me wonder about a few things.

Is Hilary Mantel apologising for writing historical fiction, and if so, why? This year’s shortlist is
famously full of historical fiction (or contemporary fiction written in the past, yada yada), and there have been quite a few snotty comments about that very fact. What gives? I wasn’t even aware of an anti-historical-fiction thing till recently, and I’m confused. From what I could gather from this morning’s interview, it’s partly about the potential to play fast and loose with historical facts. I think I’ve also heard objections about the insertion of fictional figures into historical events.

We can do exactly the same in contemporary fiction, though, so I’m not clear where the difference lies. (I’m not being sarcastic. I would genuinely like to know where critics of historical fiction are coming from, because I’m interested.) For every Hollywood movie that explores the United States’ famous discovery of the Enigma machine, there’s a book that gets it right. Surely the only thing to do is roll one’s eyes and move on, rather than disparage an entire genre?

I was also curious about Hilary Mantel’s remark that she was writing contemporary fiction in a historical setting. Now, in ‘real life’ (see those inverted commas?) I’m very wary of imposing modern mores on our ancestors. The past is another country where they do things differently, and all that.

But does it have to be that way in fiction? It drives me nuts when I find characters in historical novels who talk like the Guardian’s comment pages. But then I’ll discover someone like Uhtred Ragnarsson, in Bernard Cornwell’s Alfred series, who has some fairly modern attitudes to women despite being a violent creature of his times. And that doesn’t annoy me, it intrigues me and makes me like him.

I’ve chickened out of this dilemma in my fantasy historical ‘Firebrand’ (Strident 2010, plug plug). I haven’t chickened out deliberately; it’s just the convenient way the story worked out. My hero can look back on his life from centuries ahead, and I know (mostly) when he’s being an unreliable narrator because of the change in his perspective – which is not the same as historical inaccuracy. But how would he have been if I’d let him live a normal human lifespan, and see his adventures solely from the perspective of his own times? Frankly I don’t know. I didn’t write that character.

I’m not making any assertions here. I really am curious, and I’d love to know how writers of children’s ‘straight’ historical fiction do it. And I apologise, again, in advance, if I’ve misrepresented what Hilary Mantel said this morning.

Anyway, back to that photo at the top. I need to go shopping. The kids were so caught up in Strictly Come Dancing on Friday night, we forgot to watch the last episode of The Tudors. So I owe my husband a DVD set. Because that’s one series that’s notoriously flexible with the facts.
But you know what? We love it.
*(something a children’s author never oughter.)


Farah Mendlesohn said...

I heard the Mantel interview also, and was really impressed at what a good job she did in putting me off the book. If I didn't already have it, I wouldn't be in a hurry to buy it. I think you put your finger on why.

catdownunder said...

I suspect 'straight' historical fiction only comes with incredible amounts of research beforehand. I once read somewhere that it took Cynthia Harnett about two years to research each book she wrote. It may well also have taken her that long to think her way into the characters she wrote as well.

John Dougherty said...

"The kids were so caught up in Strictly Come Dancing on Friday night, we forgot to watch the last episode of The Tudors. So I owe my husband a DVD set."

Or you could watch it on iPlayer, Gillian, anytime before this Friday evening:

Leslie Wilson said...

I think maybe what Hilary meant was that actually it is impossible to write real historical fiction, ie we always write from a contemporary sensibility, even if - as she does, and I do, we do enormous amounts of research and immerse ourselves in the period. There is an issue of focus, for one thing, which is about what we, in our times, want to write and read about, which wouldn't have been interesting to people writing at the time. That's why there are so many interesting and excellent novels about the servant and working classes in the past, because they were largely unheard at the time. Or maybe she meant that she didn't write 'historical romance' much of which is written with blithe disregard for the known historical facts! And 'the past is another country' so in the end, when we write about it, we are always foreigners, poking in. Why do it, then? I think it's because the past, and how we see the past, is important to how we see the present, it's part of our identity, and to show it in a new light - like seeing Thomas C differently - is part of the ever-ongoing enterprise of rewriting history, one which can be carried out honestly as well as for political manipulation.

Nick Green said...

Ha ha. It's impossible to write a contemporary book that reflects contemporary reality in all its infinite variety, so how much harder would it be to do the same with the forgotten past? What on earth, then, could a 'real' historical novel possibly be?

You'd need two time machines: one to travel back to that period of the past, and another to harvest all the trees that have ever grown, to make all the paper you'd need for the book.

Fed-up of genre pigeonholing, me. Historical fiction is no different from any other kind of fiction. Stories are stories!

Stroppy Author said...

>Why do it, then?

For me, writing about the past is to show the common threads in humanity that have not changed. It's all about discovering and revealing the familiar (our common human core) in the unfamiliar (the different context). A modern child struggles with cyber bullies because he's fat - an Ancient Egyptian child has rocks thrown at him because he limps. It's all the same.

Gillian Philip said...

Farah - yes. I've been really looking forward to reading Wolf Hall, and I find it rather off-putting that HM seems to be almost apologising for writing it.

Cat - maybe that's why some historical novels get things wrong - I don't know any publishers who'd wait two years for a book :-)

John - thanks - you may have saved my marriage ;-)

Leslie, I can see that, and what you say makes some sense. But it's not a case of 'Why do it?' It's a case of 'Why be embarrassed about doing it?' So we can't avoid a contemporary sensibility (to an extent) - fine. But that applies to all historical novels, so why the snobbery about this shortlist, and why is HM trying to distance herself from 'historical fiction'? Historical romance *is* historical fiction, and like other fiction there's good and there's diabolical (and that also applies to some 'literary' novels). Why would HM worry so much about the association?

I tend to agree with Nick. I'm tired, too, of the snobbery that surrounds genre fiction. If HM wants to write a historical novel, and if no historical novel can avoid a contemporary slant, why should she feel the need to excuse herself by calling it 'a contemporary novel set in the past'?

Gillian Philip said...

Exactly, Stroppy. Whatever our differences with our ancestors, we're all human and some things about humanity don't change. It's another way of addressing the present, but not a less valid way.

Gillian Philip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gillian Philip said...

Whoops - repeated myself there

Michael Malone said...

Good points raised here, Gillian. as usual. reminded me of an article i read recently (can't remember where) that questioned the Man Booker's acceptance of historical fiction while other genres continued to be ignored. Maybe HM was playing THAT game.

Leslie Wilson said...

H'mm. Maybe I'll listen to the interview on my computer. I am surprised that Hilary should be apologising for writing historical fiction, for all the years I've known her she's always been quite OK calling it that. And I agree, we shouldn't apologise. All fiction is historical, after all, because we write about the past, even if you write a stream of consciousness novel in real time, it'll be history by the time someone reads it. I agree about the common threads, too. There'd be no point in reading about the past if there was nothing there that we recognise.

Loads of the big 19th century authors set their novels 'about thirty years ago'. Are these, therefore, historical? Is War and Peace trash? Because I do think there's a slight tendency to 'rubbish' historical fiction and suggest it has less artistic validity than writing about what we call 'the present day.'

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Michael M: the first article about genre fiction and the Book this time round was from Kim Stanley Robinson in last week's New Scientist. Then someone from the Guardian responded (not sure who).

I say "this time" because a few years back Ian Rankin made the same point re crime fiction.

None of us in sf think it a coincidence that Atwood, who insists here books aren't sf, is the only sf writer to get listed for the Booker. LeGuin's review of her latest was very funny on this issue.

Nicola Morgan said...

I didn't hear the interview and wasn't aware of any "thing" about hist fic, but I do have a little bit of my own perspective to add, as someone who has written hist fic for teenagers. When I set out to write Fleshmarket (my first hist one) I wanted to write a "modern hist novel". (I didn't, as it happened, but I want to tell you what I meant in my original thoughts). Of course, I didn't mean they were going to talk in 21st cent lang, or that they were going to be pretending to see the world through a digital camera lens. What I meant was that the main motivation for my MC was going to be something you'd only really find in a modern movel: psychology of mental illness / obsession. This was going to be a human portrayal of a fear of pain. Now, "fear of pain" would not have been an 18/19th century construct, not something they'd have recognised, which is what i meant by saying I was going to write a modern historical novel. Thing is (probably fortunately) I got so caught up in the genuine historicity (?) that I forgot all about that and just got down and dirty in the filth and pain and grimness of 1820s Edinburgh. Funnily enough, today I was in grimy Fleshmarket Close being filmed talking about Fleshmarket, so this is a bit weird now being on a 21st century blog talking about it.

Think about The crimson Petal and the White - in that, a character has a brain tumour and the reader is painfully aware of that. BUT none of the characters is aware - the husband, eg, thinks she's going mad / acting "female" (literally "hysterical"). That's another eg of a "contemporary" historical novel. A novel which has themes and attitudes relevant to us but not, or less so, to the characters of the time. Does that make sense?

Leslie Wilson said...

I think you put it very well, Nicola, which is related to what I was trying to say about us having a different focus from the people at the time. I guess we're like Chekhov, reading War and Peace, and raging that Prince Andrei has to die of a wound that he would probably have been able to cure. And it raises all kinds of questions about the reading of the past in the present, what we know and what we don't know. This is a fascinating thread.

Leslie Wilson said...

When I said looking at the past in the present, I should have said, from the perspective of the present day. I wonder who might write historical fiction about us now, realising about global warming. Will there be anyone left?

fionadunbar said...

Blimey, bit late to this. Really only wanted to "snap", Gillian, in that Mantel's remarks elicited the same response from me as they did from you...also to draw the parallel between this and Margaret Atwood's recent distancing herself from Science Fiction.

Of course it's perfectly valid to say, "I am a creature of a different era, therefore my perspective colours my subject": that's just honest. What I don't understand is whether Mantel is therefore saying that she differs in this respect from other authors, also living today, also setting their stories in the past – and if she is saying that, what exactly is it that sets her work apart?

Likewise with Atwood: she claims not to be writing science fiction 'because it isn't fiction, it's possible now'. But "possible" isn't the same as "actually happening now", so this remark is dishonest – and as with Mantel, I'm sure that Atwood's caveat could be applied to plenty of other novels whose authors are happy to call them science fiction.

Me, I'm glad 'literary' novelists are not limiting themselves to small, contemporary, middle-class worlds, as arguably they have tended to in the past. I just wish they'd be a bit less elitist in their claims about what they are doing.

Gillian Philip said...

Just re-reading the comments, I was thinking that I didn't start out by trying to have a go at Hilary Mantel! It was really a case of wondering why some hold to this mindset that historical fiction (or any genre fiction) is somehow 'inferior', and why any author would want to distance themselves in any way from the term. Yes, it did remind me a bit of the Margaret Atwood 'I don't write sci-fi' thing. As Fiona says, any historical writer has the same issues and the same paradoxes to face, so there should be no hesitation in using the term. Nobody should have to 'explain themselves' on the Today programme!

I was delighted with the historical fiction slant of this year's shortlist, and I suspect it's more readable than most (and yes, I am going to buy Wolf Hall). When Ruth Rendell makes it to the list I'll be even more thrilled

Lee said...

I haven't heard the interview, but this essay by Mantel certainly doesn't sound as though she's trying to apologise for writing historical fiction:

I can't speak for Mantel, but I myself would be happy to distance myself from any sort of genre type-casting. I don't think of it so much as elitist as a refusal to accept the constraints imposed by such categorical thinking.

Gillian Philip said...

I don't believe I mentioned the word 'elitism'. I approve of elitism, when it's an elitism of intelligence and daring.

The distancing I'm talking about is a form of snobbery. It's also incredibly insulting to the many people who do write excellent historical fiction.

No-one is 'constrained' by a genre unless they want to be. It's far more 'constraining' for a writer to have some irrational fear of *being* a genre writer.