By Eve Edwards
Sitting on the train from Edinburgh coming back from the International Book festival I had time to read the
Observer from cover to cover. As we flicked by the historic towns of Berwick, Durham, York, I came across an article by the MP Tristram Hunt. He noted the fall in percentage of State School children taking History at GCSE (now only 30%) and wondered if this would end up in a generation who did not know where they had come from.
His suggestion chimes with a book I have been reading over the summer - Future Minds by Richard Watson (very highly recommended). Full of fascinating observations about the digital age, he quotes in support of his argument the telling phrase that we are raising children who are 'mentally agile but culturally ignorant' (Bauerkin). For a writer of historical fiction this poses both a threat and an opportunity.
The threat is obvious. My kind of writing will fall out of fashion and the contracts dry up! It has been something of a Cinderella genre for a while. When one of my books (under another pen name) won a couple of major prizes in 2006, I remember there being much discussion in the literary magazines if it was time for fantasy to move over and let in another genre. Well, reader, I'm afraid fantasy has stayed put. Wizards and vampires continue to trump in sales all historical children's fiction. History is respectable but has not yet shaken the marketing departments to the core with their franchise possibilities.
On the other hand, the lack of historically minded young people browsing the shelves is not mirrored in the adult fiction market where most recent winners of the literary prizes, and many of the most successful books in terms of sales, have been historical: Wolf Hall, The Lacuna, The Tiger's Wife, to name but a few recent winners. Why the difference?
Perhaps history is too difficult, requiring too much context and thought? I would reply that if so, let us make sure we all read that which is difficult, and challenge youngsters to do so too, because otherwise real life is going to be a massive shock to the system. We don't want to let our minds become nothing but fantasy filled fluff. (I should note I write fantasy too - and love it! But too much of a good thing...)
Another possibility for the decline is that maybe as a teenager, many of us do not think there is much to learn from the past. The future is now and is our generation. They (meaning anyone over 25) have made all the mistakes; we are different. We are the Children of the revolution (*breaks into song....*) Ah-hem. Sorry about that. Back to my thesis. Then you get past 25 and realise that you are making the mistakes, or caught up helpless in a system that is going wrong, and suddenly the wisdom of other generations begins to look worth exploring, even if just to know you are not alone in your flawed nature. Fiction about the past takes us to meet our ancestors and see life from their view point, particularly those parts of history that have been hidden until a writer lifts the lid for us on the unfamiliar or unexplored.
(Hands on history teaching in our family!)
Of course, not all of us are or were like that imagined teenage rebel disengaged from the past. In fact, I expect everyone reading this blog to have been in the 30% who would opt for History simply because they want to find out what happened. And a third is still a relatively healthy number, Mr Hunt. The reason for decline in numbers is probably more to do with the wider question of the state of 14-16 education but that's another blog.
This brings me to the opportunity. From what I have seen of my daughter's syllabus, the GCSE is actually much more interesting than the one I did as an O level. One major paper is devoted to the history of medicine, for example, a fascinating cross-cutting theme that gets away from rich/noble white man's history that was the staple of most teaching when I was at school. I think this shows a creativity in teaching that matches the kind of books we historical novelists aspire to write. And if the classroom influence on historical knowledge is flagging, we are needed now more than ever. It may be that historical novels will be the only source a young person will read about a particular era so it is up to us to help carry on the historical knowledge to the next generation. Without a preparation through reading about the past, how can we hope to understand the future?
Albert Szent Gyorgyi said about his field, Biochemistry, 'Discovery is an accident meeting a prepared mind.' I think that is true of all discoveries, in life as well as literature. Keep on reading and writing about history, my friends, because it is the best preparation a mind can have.
Interested in writing for young adults? Then join Eve (wearing her Julia Golding hat) and poet Valerie Bloom at the Arvon writing course this September (26th to 1st October), Totleigh Barton, Devon.
Eve Edwards' Lacey Chronicles are out now in the UK and the US. Visit her website here.