My Gripe With the Concept of “Historical Fiction” as a Genre
Other genres are defined not by setting but by thematic
concerns and the main character’s motivation: Medieval Romance (chivalry,
heroism, good and evil), Detective Story (morality and corruption), Mystery
(rational minds dealing with irrational acts), Science Fiction (the effects
of unusual technologies and/or extraterrestrial cultures on individuals and
their societies), contemporary Romantic Fiction (desire and love), the
Western (see below).
The Western may appear to be an exception, a genre defined
by geography and period. It is not. Westerns deal with the idea of the
frontier, of civilization confronting non-civilization and of a law-based
moral order (“the sheriff,” the nuclear family) in conflict with man’s need
for freedom and space. As the frontier moved, the settings changed. Fenimore
Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels were set in the Appalachians,
hardly a locale we would typically associate with the Western today. What
defines the Western as a genre is neither period nor physical territory
but thematic territory and the hero’s identity and purpose.
The term Historical Fiction is too vague to be of value in
defining a genre. If it refers to stories set in the past, relative to the
time they were written, then it encompasses such a wide range of literary styles
and thematic concerns that it means nothing at all. Does it make any sense to
lump the following works into one genre?
The Three Musketeers
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
War and Peace
The Scarlet Letter
A Tale of Two Cities
Walter Scott’s “Waverly Novels”
Gone with the Wind
Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian and
L’oeuvre au noir
The Good Earth
The Confessions of Nat Turner
Gore Vidal’s Lincoln
The House of Spirits
The Name of the Rose
The Year of Wonders
Memoirs of a Geisha
Strictly applying the above definition (stories set in the
past, relative to the time they were written), Shakespeare wrote a great deal
of Historical Fiction, as did Nathaniel Hawthorne. Do these authors belong in
the same category as Jean Plaidy, Mary Renault, or Ken Follett? To my mind, these are very different kinds of authors, writing
different kinds of stories.
Classifying a work as Historical Fiction not only tells us
nothing about the work, it can be misleading. At this moment in publishing
history, roughly since the appearance of Girl With a Pearl Earring, stories featuring female protagonists, describing their romantic yearnings, are all the rage. For this reason, the term Historical Fiction today, at least as applied to novels written by women, often suggests intimate stories of desire and love rather than a larger tableau. Men, it seems, are expected to write books about war like those of Michael and Jeff Shaara. Categorizing a novel as
Historical Fiction risks setting up
expectations which may not match the novel’s intent.
Many works of “Historical Fiction” do fall into well
defined genres. That is to say (obviously) that Thrillers, Romances, Westerns,
and Mysteries can be set in the past or present, as can Psychological Drama.
The thematic, structural, and other qualities that characterize a given genre
remain the same regardless of the setting. The fact that a story is set in
the past does not define it into a different genre.
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