Log in

No account? Create an account
22 June 2015 @ 01:23 pm
another day, another rant about historical fiction  
I feel like the Guardian is just trolling me at this point. Does the paper actually employ anyone who likes historical fiction?

Why historical fiction needs daring and anachronism

I have nothing against anachronism per se - although what Mantel does in Wolf Hall, the thing that kept me from being able to read it, is to use modern attitudes as a reason for us to side with Cromwell and not the backward-looking More. (I ranted about this a while ago, so I won't do it again here.) I mean, one of my favorite movies is Shakespeare in Love, which is pretty much wall-to-wall anachronisms. And one of the novels the author of the piece mentions, Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre, was just coming out as I was in the UK last summer; I saw it for sale in several bookstores, and it looked like a fascinating experiment. (It was also a hardcover book, and I had no room in my suitcase.) But this whole piece is basically like, "people often try to faithfully recreate the past in historical novels, and that's boring" - as opposed to being a valid choice for a novel, even if it isn't the only possible choice. The article is not really making a neutral statement - "Here are some historical novels that involve anachronism, isn't that a cool choice?" Instead, it's claiming that historical fiction that doesn't include anachronism is lazy and formulaic. As the author ends the piece, "But, too often, unfortunately, the genre seems to be in stays as constricting and uncomfortable as those worn by its heroines."

…As a person who did a decent amount of reading about Renaissance clothing, back in the day, I think this attitude is itself evidence of why trying to faithfully recreate the past isn't just lazy and formulaic - because the idea that stays were "constricting and uncomfortable" is a modern assumption, not a fact. There is nothing natural about clothing - or rather, a corset would have seemed just as "natural" to the average, say, Elizabethan woman as the lack of one seems to the average modern woman. Today, we make all sorts of assumptions about the ridiculousness and uncomfortableness of the clothing of the past, but those assumptions would not have been shared by the people who actually wore those clothes. Philip Stubbes (writer of The Anatomy of Abuses) despised ruffs for many reasons - one of which was the accusation that all the starch necessary to stiffen the linen was a huge waste of food resources - but not just because they were inherently dumb. (Stubbes referred to starch as "the devil's liquor"; there's a huge moral and religious dimension to the denunciation of clothing in this period. It has very little to do with mere comfort.) And thinking yourself into the possibilities of that mindset (I'm under no misapprehensions that we can actually get the past 100% right) is really, really hard. Engaging in the process of trying to create a vivid and believable version of the past is a serious, deliberate, thoughtful undertaking. It doesn't deserve to be thrown aside and demeaned because it isn't "daring."
La Reine Noire: Austen - Venting Spleenlareinenoire on June 22nd, 2015 06:57 pm (UTC)
Ugh, I am in so much agreement. I've always loved historical fiction and wanted to write it, and everywhere people insist upon not taking it seriously as a genre unless it's somehow magically doing something "more" than just being historical fiction. I'm sure there's also a gender aspect to this since it's a genre predominantly associated with women (Walter Scott notwithstanding). I'm reminded of writing my master's thesis and constantly finding only criticism of Alexandre Dumas for his historical inaccuracies with little consideration of the fact that in spite of those inaccuracies, so many people across so many generations have found his work compelling and interesting. Bah, humbug.

I'm all for genre-bending, sure, but I also really enjoy digging into some straightforward historical fiction. But apparently the Guardian feels the need to rain on my parade. Boo to them.
tempestsarekind: very few dates in this historytempestsarekind on June 22nd, 2015 08:05 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the Guardian reviewers seem to have a real unexamined bias against straightforward historical fiction! I would say that it's odd, but I don't think they're alone in that, by any means.

I would love to be able to write historical fiction as well - if only I were better at, you know, history - but in the meantime it would be nice for critics to take the genre more seriously!
Spackle: dr horrible: status non quospacklegeek on June 22nd, 2015 10:14 pm (UTC)
Admittedly Viper's Wine sounds pretty interesting, but I agree with you. If, O Essayist, your suggestions to improve a genre are to add elements that edge that genre into rather different territory (so historical fiction becomes SF), then maybe you shouldn't be writing about that genre. Maybe you should be reading SF instead.


tempestsarekind: books and flowerstempestsarekind on June 22nd, 2015 11:01 pm (UTC)
I know, right? That's like me watching football and going, "They always play this game the same way, with all these restrictive rules! The sport really needs to mix things up with rackets and a net!"
Spackle: stack of books and also teaspacklegeek on June 23rd, 2015 12:59 am (UTC)

I feel like this person should read 1) Dorothy Dunnett, whose prose demonstrates that historical fiction is anything but boring omg, and 2) Mary Robinette Kowal, who writes historical fantasy that, save for the wee element of magical glamours, is essentially historical fiction. Both of whom, again, are not anachronistic and yet somehow still manage to be "daring" in their plotlines.

I mean, I'm sure there are many other writers who fit this bill as well, but Dunnett and Kowal are some of my favorites.

(Have you read Kowal? Her "Glamourist" books are so much fun, and impeccably well-researched -- you might enjoy them!)
tempestsarekind: not supposed to be a heroine [NA]tempestsarekind on June 23rd, 2015 02:12 am (UTC)
I haven't, no! I know I've seen them in the bookstore, but Regency fantasy can go either way with me… Perhaps I'll add them to the list of things to check out!
La Reine Noire: Austen - Venting Spleenlareinenoire on June 23rd, 2015 02:21 am (UTC)
Seconding Kowal, especially Shades of Milk and Honey, which is an absolute delight in every possible way. I'm a bit stuck on the third book in the series, which seems to be floundering a little, but her universe is amazing. And, of course, I am an inveterate Dunnett fangirl...
tempestsarekindtempestsarekind on June 23rd, 2015 02:24 am (UTC)
Thanks for the seconding! :)
Spackle: sg-1: Daniel's excited!spacklegeek on June 23rd, 2015 03:12 am (UTC)
(Preemptive apologies for taking over this thread)

Oh, wow -- for me, it seemed like each book improved upon the previous ones. I am so glad I picked up the second book, for example.

I quite liked Without a Summer, actually, because I appreciated Jane's growth from the beginning of the story to the end (no spoilers). And the fourth book is an absolute riot. I haven't read the fifth/final one yet.

DUNNETT. I have found a tiny fandom on Tumblr who seem amused by my shouty-capitals posts as I make my way through the Lymond Chronicles, it's wonderful.
La Reine Noire: Austen - Venting Spleenlareinenoire on June 23rd, 2015 03:24 am (UTC)
I really enjoyed the second book and maybe the third one just suffered from my attempting to read it in the middle of teaching hell. Now that it's summer, I might start it from the beginning and give it another shot. And I didn't know she'd written two more--clearly I need to catch up!

You know, I might have come across your capslocky Tumblr posts...I admit, I'm more of a Niccolò fangirl, myself, but I owe Lymond a reread.
tempestsarekindtempestsarekind on June 23rd, 2015 03:50 am (UTC)
(Hee. Talk away!)
Spackle: sg-1: Daniel's excited!spacklegeek on June 25th, 2015 01:38 am (UTC)
You can read more about them here!

tempestsarekindtempestsarekind on June 25th, 2015 01:55 am (UTC)
La Reine Noire: Austen - Venting Spleenlareinenoire on June 23rd, 2015 02:24 am (UTC)
I'm currently enjoying Michael Cox, who sadly only wrote two books, but both of them are impeccably researched Victorian Gothic melodramas (and I use the term "melodrama" in the most flattering way possible--it is genuinely difficult to put them down, and there are dark alleys and Darker Family Secrets and also murders). The Meaning of Night is the first and The Glass of Time is a sort-of-sequel.
tempestsarekind: ghost girltempestsarekind on June 23rd, 2015 02:26 am (UTC)
I think I remember hearing about the first of those books! They sound very dramatic indeed.
La Reine Noire: Victorian Fanlareinenoire on June 23rd, 2015 02:50 am (UTC)
I came across The Meaning of Night in a bookshop and fell madly in love with the blurb. I didn't buy it for months because I'd just started grad school and had no money, but eventually I found it at a charity shop and tore through it in about two days. Reread it earlier this year and similarly tore through it in about two days. It is insanely well-written and the author is clearly a geek about early printing, which I appreciated a lot more now than I did the first time I read it. I'm reading The Glass of Time now and am very much enjoying it. I haven't yet been completely consumed by it, but I'm teetering on the edge.
tempestsarekind: arthur clennam [little dorrit]tempestsarekind on June 23rd, 2015 03:52 am (UTC)
…it is entirely too telling that my interest was piqued a lot more by "early printing" than "Victorian melodrama." *facepalm*
La Reine Noire: Victorian Fanlareinenoire on June 23rd, 2015 03:58 am (UTC)
Heee, well, Victorian melodrama isn't a good thing most of the time. But this time it is wonderful. And, yes, there is total printing geekery going on.
tempestsarekind: little dorrittempestsarekind on June 23rd, 2015 04:15 am (UTC)
True, but all the more impressive that the author was able to pull it off well!