Toward a Definition of Historical Fiction

If you follow me on social media, or read this blog, or have been within half a mile of me recently, I probably mentioned to you that I have a book coming out in October that I wrote with Genevieve Turner: Star Dust. It’s primarily set in 1962 during a fictional version of the space race. But is it a historical romance?

In the category definitions for the annual RITA Awards, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) limits the designation of historical romance to those set before 1950. Wikipedia offers the following paragraph in a discussion of definitions in historical fiction:

Definitions vary as to what constitutes an historical novel. On the one hand The Historical Novel Society defines the genre as works “written at least fifty years after the events described”,[2] whilst on the other hand critic Sarah Johnson delineates such novels as “set before the middle of the last [20th] century […] in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.”[3] Then again Lynda Adamson, in her preface to the bibliographic reference work World Historical Fiction, states that while a “generally accepted definition” for the historical novel is a novel “about a time period at least 25 years before it was written”, she also suggests that some people read novels written in the past, like those of Jane Austen (1775–1817), as if they were historical novels.[4]

While writers’ organizations and scholars disagree, then, the rule seems to be that historical fiction is removed significantly from the present (perhaps 25 to 50 years at minimum) and from the writer’s personal experience. So “historical” requires temporal and experiential distance. But how much distance is necessary? And what does that distance get you?

I’ve been wondering about this while watching and rewatching Mad Men (1960 – 1970), The Americans (early to mid-1980s), Narcos (late 1970s through, presumably, the early 1990s), and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (1920s with some earlier flashbacks). RWA and The Historical Novel Society would call only Miss Fisher’s historical; the rest would be contemporary.

Except the approach in all of these shows doesn’t feel contemporary to me. The temporal remove is so important that these stories could not be told without material alteration if they were set in another place or time. So I would argue that a historical novel is one in which the settings calls attention to itself through emphasis on the differences between our contemporary world and the world of the narrative’s fashion, social mores, technology, legal or economic structure, etc. In a historical novel, the temporal remove itself is one of the subjects.

Now I’ll grant that some distance is necessary for this to be true. Have you ever had the experience of looking at a picture and realizing how “of the moment” you look in it, even when (at the time the photo was taken) you couldn’t see how the cut of those pants or the pattern on that shirt or the style of those glasses reflected trends? Give it a few years and poof, you can see style in a way that was invisible.

I’m suggesting that a writer could successfully meet my standard in a novel set in the 1990s or even the early 2000s and even when s/he is writing out of lived experience. To wit, I’m excited about this collection and Rainbow Rowell’s popular YA romance Eleanor & Park was broadly considered historical despite (or perhaps because of) its 1980s setting.

In the last analysis, historical writing seems to be defined by its thick setting and orientation toward that setting more than by its use of dates and research.

Now I’m not arguing that RWA should adopt this definition. It would clearly be unworkable for something like the RITA. But when I label Star Dust historical, that’s what I mean.

What do you think? How would you define historical fiction?

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Toward a Definition of Historical Fiction

  1. Historical as a label will always be subjective. It seems to me that we need a category between contemporary and historical. Recent historical? Almost contemporary?

    • That’s a good point. Someone at my local RWA chapter called it vintage historical (I think?). I’d never heard the term before, but maybe something like that. There’s definitely a belief among gatekeepers that 20th century historical doesn’t sell well, but I wonder if category labels and definitions are keeping people from writing it, then of course it doesn’t sell, etc.

  2. I think your definition makes a lot of sense.

    I do wish we had a good term for books that were contemporary when published but have “become” historical. I often feel a tad silly tagging an old Harlequin as a “contemporary” romance when it’s filled with horror over pre-marital sex. ;-)

    • We do need a term for that! I cringe at a reader calling Austen historical, but I realize that for a 21st century reader, her books are. My definition is very creator-centered; we need a reader-centered version/term. Anyone want to get on that?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s