My Gripe With the Concept of “Historical Fiction” as a Genre

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?

Arthurian Legends

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 

I, Claudius

The Good Earth

My Antonia

The Confessions of Nat Turner

The Source

Gore Vidal’s Lincoln

The House of Spirits

The Alienist

Ragtime

The Name of the Rose

The Year of Wonders

Beloved

Cold Mountain

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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