The Historical Novel: An Unscientific Prognostication

I have this thing I do. When I notice my my mind bending a certain way, when I feel myself tending toward one thing and not the other, I stop and wonder if my proclivity is a purely personal one, or if it might reflect some participation in a larger trend. I've been wondering this lately as I turn more and more toward the historical novel for reading interest and pleasure.

"Historical novel" is a broad category, so let me give my recent bent some specificity when I say that stopping by my local bookstore recently I passed over contemporary nonfiction (which I enjoy), and contemporary fiction (which I write), and picked up instead Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant (about an 18th-century British marine who is among the first colonists in Australia). As I passed by other books to pick up this one, I sensed something in my choice: something that wanted not just novelty, but a particular kind of experience that modern media, with all its access, all its video and audio and links and wikiness and mashes, couldn't give me: the best possible access to a world older than my own. And it struck me that if my urge might be more than personal, and instead part of a larger impulse, that the historical novel should continue to do very well in the years ahead.

For those of us who write novels about the contemporary world, it is sometimes hard to compete with, well, the contemporary world, which is already doing a rather remarkable job of documenting itself through various media. But the world of the past, of Sydney Harbor when it was nothing but mangrove and a few huts, is--for this writer at least--much better summoned by older techniques. Interactive pastiche would only serve to remind me that I am NOT in the 18th century; old-fashioned storytelling gives me a better chance of appearing to participate in a world that no longer exists (and, of course, this isn't because storytelling is less constructed than a remix on YouTube, but because by now it is such an old construct it is nearly invisible. Eventually this will happen to new media, too. But not yet--or at least not yet for this reader).

And then there is my strong desire to "participate in a world that no longer exists." I find the strength of this urge, at this moment, interesting. I suppose it could signal nothing more than a chicken-hearted retreat, on my part, from the modern world, but it feels more like this: that the modern world, so busily and so relentlessly and so easily representing itself, frankly begins to pall a bit, and I turn with admiration to those writers who take the painstaking trouble to conjure up an older world in an old form, while still telling me important things I would like to know, right now, about being human, alive, thinking and feeling. I find this . . . refreshing. I find this curiously . . . original. It's not something just anyone with an iPad can do.

And so I make my unscientific prognostication, based on no research whatsoever but on the simple awareness that I am in no way unique, and that it's likely that if I am buying something, other people are buying it too: the traditional, historical novel as a genre will in the foreseeable future continue to rock.

What do you think?


I love historical novels and truly appreciate an author who succeeds in immersing the reader in another place and time. And since I also enjoy reading anything to do with the colonization of Australia, I'll have to check out The Lieutenant. Sounds exactly like my cuppa.
I went, I looked, I caved. Ordered myself a copy today, you temptress, you!
Mylène said…
Tee hee. We are all going to make each other's lives more expensive, what with the book and film listings.
Historical Fiction is one of my favorite genres. I would completely support the statement that we wish to be part of a world that no longer exists... to be part of a simpler time. Perhaps just another incarnation of the grass is greener on the other (and much older) side.
Fiction Witch said…
I'm a historical novelist and I find it hard to write about the contemporary world. I don't feel I have a perspective on it. One appeal of writing about the past is that you future proof your work - it won't date as much as say, chick lit. with all those pesky brand names.
But to be more serious... When you said "those writers who take the painstaking trouble to conjure up an older world in an old form, while still telling me important things I would like to know, right now, about being human, alive, thinking and feeling," I thought that was an excellent summary of what historical novelists attempt to do, and why historical novels, as you say, will continue to be important and popular.

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