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?

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Truth’s Superb Surprise

I try not to write about writing itself on my blog because such topics tend to only be of interest to other writers. Also, I don’t always (okay, I seldom) feel like I have something original or worthwhile to say about the writing process. But to break my own rule and be a little cryptic…

For a long time before I started writing fiction down, I was writing it in my head. I didn’t realize it, but I was carrying around a bag and I was putting all sorts of things into it. Jokes that I (and those around me) told. Words that I liked the sound of. Bits of description. Images. Smells. Fragments of motivation and psychology. And questions–so many questions. Why did he do that? Why did I say that? Could this have happened another way? What is she thinking? Etc.

When I started writing, I began taking things out of the bag. I recently re-read Special Interests and it amazed to me how much truth I told while lying. The bones of the scene, the things that were happening in terms of the plot or characterization, would be wholly fabricated. But every single detail of the scene would be true. The book is a patchwork quilt of my experience in and observation of the world.

For a long time in my writing life, I would take things out of the bag and tap them into my stories slant (sorry, Emily Dickinson, that’s one of those words). I mean to say that I used a trick not too differently from how it happened or where I had once seen that sweater or how that thing had tasted. I just sort of twisted a bit.

However, I’ve been writing something that is (for me) very different and crazy. But here’s the thing: I’m using just as much stuff out the bag as before. Maybe more. I’ve discovered whole other rooms, whole other continents, in the bag. So what I’m trying to say is that I am larger than I thought I was. And for the moment at least, that makes me less scared of my writing than I’ve been in a long time.

We, as writers, are told to develop a brand. To make a promise to our readers and to deliver on it in terms of voice and tone and story and setting. What I’m writing now doesn’t feel all that off-brand. It feels like me…but slant. And on the bias, there are entirely new ways of being.

What makes good criticism?

Sorry it’s been so long! I was trying to write a lot of words, which was I doing until about two weeks ago. Then we went on vacation and we moved into a new house. We’re still very much in unpacking mode and at the end of every day I fall into bed exhausted. I haven’t been reading or writing–and this somehow makes me more tired.

Also, while I’ve been happy with the words I’m writing, I’ve been experiencing professional disappointment that has me thinking about my voice and the market. I don’t have conclusions about this yet, but I’ll let you know.

Anyhow, the real point of this point: what is good criticism? Natalie of Pretty Terrible posted this question on Twitter. For reasons related to my academic training and my area of study, it is something I have very strong opinions about. I was going to respond there, but it would be too long. I’ll keep the abbreviated bullet point format of Twitter, though:

  • Good criticism is an intellectual, and not primarily emotional, response to a text. I’m not saying there’s no emotion in criticism—indeed, really good criticism often comes from explaining one’s emotions—but isn’t primarily about “the text made me feel X.” Criticism is what comes after that stage.
  • Good criticism is not primarily evaluative. It’s NOT about saying whether the text is good or bad. When I teach this idea, I often show students a Siskel and Ebert film review (say this one). Then I show them Matthias Stork’s amazing series on Chaos Cinema (here’s part one). What’s the difference? Siskel and Ebert are trying to tell you whether you should go to a movie—is it worth the price of admission? Stork is trying to tell you what this new style of film is. He has an opinion about whether it’s a good or bad development, but he’s mostly trying to define it and tell us how it works. Stork is critical; Siskel and Ebert evaluative.
  • Good criticism has a clear idea about what it’s doing. So any individual entrant is joining a larger conversation. This conversation (or method) can be formal. For example, there’s a set of writing that lays out Marxist critical discourse, or formalism, or New Historicism. But the critical approach can be more squidgy. Either way, people over time develop critical schools of thought and any given critical gesture is in the style of (or in response to) one or more of these.
  • For example, in romance (and I’m sure this is true in other fan communities), popular feminist discourse is important. We talk about whether heroes are alpha or beta (or caretaking alpha or alphaholes), which is another way of talking about how the texts construct masculinity. Also important: genre studies. What tropes does the text use? And does it just replicate the trope, does it make it fresh, or does it subvert it?
  • Good criticism, then, tells me how the text works (and to do this, it must substantively engage with the text) and then puts this into a genre context and a large critical conversation.
  • Here are a couple of critical responses that I think are good: Olivia Waite on Jenn Bennett’s Bitter Spirits and Natalie Jo Storey in the Los Angeles Review of Books on sheikh romance. These make good comparisons because they both use gender studies to talk about how the texts “do” gender and post or neo-colonialism to talk about how the texts “do” race. They do make some evaluative judgements, but mostly they’re talking how the texts work. They’re explicit about the critical moves their making (good criteria) and they engage substantively with specific works. Waite focuses on one text while Storey takes in an entire genre–but she’s still citing lots of specific examples.

I’ve used academic language for this definition, but I have serious concerns about how this goes down in the academy. I don’t think academics are always good at explaining their critical criteria and group-think leads them to only ask certain questions and only of certain texts. Part of what I love about romance is that there are really cool critical conversations happening that I never heard in the academy.

Finally, to be clear, I don’t think criticism is the only valid approach to texts. GIF/squee reviews do important work, I read things all the time that I never move past the “digestion” stage with, etc. Criticism isn’t higher or more valid or anything. It is its own flavor and pursuit and sometimes it’s what you want and sometimes it’s not.

So, what do I have wrong?

Both Alike in Dignity

Over the weekend my friend and critique partner Gen Turner started a Twitter imbroglio when she confessed that she doesn’t really connect with the novels of Jane Austen. I was traveling so I didn’t get to follow all the nuances of the ensuing discussion, but several of us posited that there seems to be a schism in romancelandia (and probably the broader culture) between folks who love the novels of Jane Austen and those who prefer those by the Bronte sisters. Elisabeth Lane compared it to the Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate.

If so, it makes sense. While Austen died in 1817 when the Bronte sisters were infants, Charlotte Bronte famously disliked Austen’s novels, saying Pride and Prejudice was “An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face” or, in other words, realistic but boring. In another letter Charlotte Bronte wrote, “The Passions are perfectly unknown to [Austen].”

There’s a lot I could say here about how Austen is more properly grouped with the 18th century novelists than the 19th century ones. Austen has a more Enlightenment view of human nature and love, not to mention that she wrote novels with strong romantic elements not genre romances per se. In contrast the Brontes–who are hardly a united front as my favorite Kate Beaton cartoon spoofs–were more influenced by Romanticism and Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” They also wrote for a vastly different audience.

But that’s not my area of expertise and so I’ll refrain.

Instead I want to suggest that Austen/Bronte debate is unnecessarily adversarial. Genre romance descends from both, as Pamela Regis explicates nicely in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, but I’m going to argue that genre romance uses Austen and Bronte for different things. To my mind, Austen provides a set of plots for romance and Charlotte Bronte provides an aesthetic for romance prose.

Continue reading “Both Alike in Dignity”

Women, Depression, and the Obscene

(Prologue: this is the latest entry in my series of late night thoughts about romance fueled by random association and too much graduate school. Please keep in mind that while I may be pretentious and use words like companionate and displaced melancholy, my characters are much healthier and cooler than I am and would never do that.)

In Black Sun the psychoanalytical critic Julia Kristeva analyzes the place where depression and creativity meet: for the depressive, “there is meaning only in despair” (Kristeva 6). She defines depression/melancholy as “a common experience of object loss and of a modification of significant bonds” (Kristeva 10, emphasis in original). Her argument is extremely Freudian: the depressive hates the other because it (the other) is separated from the self; however, they can be symbolically reunited in sex and/or death. But (because this is Freudian) the depressive doesn’t openly mourn or even hate the other. Instead the grief is displaced onto a Thing: “an imagined sun, bright and black at the same time” (Kristeva 13). But since the depressive is displacing his/her grief, the “depressive affect can be interpreted as a defense again” personality destruction (Kristeva 19, emphasis in original). I’m over-simplifying here dramatically, but you get the gist of it.

Continue reading “Women, Depression, and the Obscene”

Come a Little Closer

(Warning: I was up with a sick child all night. When I’m not sleeping, I’m thinking. And I have to write this idea out. It isn’t fully-formed, but tell me where I’m wrong so I can finish working this out.)

In The Melodramatic Imagination, literary scholar Peter Brooks defines melodrama not as something aesthetic–not in other words as a genre defined by mustache-twirling villains, perfect heroes, and damsels in distress–but as a narrative structure and a moral imperative. He writes of a scene in Balzac’s novel The Magic Skin,

The narrative voice is not content to describe or record gestures, to see it simply as a figure in the interplay of persons one with another. Rather, the narrator applies pressure to the gesture, pressure through interrogation, through the evocation of more and more fantastic possibilities, to make it yield meaning to make it give up to consciousness its full potential as “parable.” (1)

Brooks is saying that Balzac pushes closer to his subjects in order “to catch this essential drama, to go beyond the surface of the real to the truer, hidden reality” underneath (2). Brooks argues that in melodrama “nothing is left unsaid” (4), which helps to reveal the “operative spiritual values” (5) that are present but hidden in other works. He applies this schema to Henry James, in whose work he sees this “melodramatic imagination” operating when “things and gestures are necessarily metaphoric because they must refer to something else” (Brooks 10).

As far as I can tell, no one has applied Peter Brooks to genre romance–but we should because romance seems to work in much the same way. Romance is closely cropped onto a few key pieces that carry metaphorical significance and its narrative resolutions (e.g., the creation of a stable couple) are moral ones.

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Purple Haze

…or more precisely, why I don’t think all romance is properly categorized as containing purple prose–and why I don’t think that would be bad even if it were true.

What precisely is purple prose? According to A Handbook to Literature by William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman (8th Edition), a “purple patch” is

Now and then authors in a strongly emotional passage will give free play to most of the stylistic tricks in their bag. They will write prose intensely colorful and more than usually rhythmic. When there is an unusual piling up of these devices in such a way as to suggest standing out a self-conscious literary effort, the section is spoken of as a purple patch … Although sometimes used in a nonevaluative, descriptive sense, the term is more often employed derogatorily. (421)

I eliminated a few sentences explaining the reference to Horace, but this is a workable definition. Purple prose is excessively descriptive for its context and that, therefore, draws attention to itself.

Genre romance regularly stands accused of trafficking in purple prose. The Missouri Review ran a column in 2013 comparing Nora Robert’s descriptions of sex (“absurd”) to Nabokov’s in Lolita (“poetic”). Such accusations are so common that AAR use to run a purple prose parody contest. And certainly love scenes lend themselves to description. The Literary Review awards an annual bad sex in fiction award–one that invariably goes to a literary novel.

Continue reading “Purple Haze”