Monday 22 October 2018

Historical Fiction and Historical Fantasy: A Question of Genres by Catherine Hokin

This is a slightly different blog this month, a picking-all-your-brains exercise if you will. I've been asked to be the historical fiction voice in a discussion about the differences/overlaps and, who knows, clashing points between historical fiction and historical fantasy and I'd love your help. Actually I'm desperate.

 Tom Gauld, The New Yorker 2016
Trying to get an historical novelist to pinpoint  the bit of this widespread genre we all write in can feel a bit like a trip to the pick and mix counter. As authors we want to sell our books so the temptation is to try and slot our work into as many sectors as possible - it's historical yes, but it's also got a crime and a bit of a romance and it's got these great sweeping themes of loss and guilt and... Booksellers and publishers also want to sell books (not necessarily the same ones as us but that's a different post). They, however, take the opposite approach, and want neat pigeonholes which signpost readers in a clear direction. To keep them happy, your historical crime-busting romance needs to pick one category and stay there.

The point is that the genre historical fiction covers, and doesn't cover (bear with me) a lot of ground. Obviously the story has to be set in the past but even that is open to interpretation - the period has to be fifty years ago or more according to the Historical Writers' Association but only thirty for the Historical Novel Society. However, even if a novel fits that criteria, it may not be counted as historical. Joanna Cannon's The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is set in the 1970s and therefore, by the HNS definition, is an historical novel. It wasn't marketed that way but to anyone under 35 it's evocation of the period would surely feel that way. So perhaps it's a question of perspective, or life lived. Author Emma Darwin has talked about a period passing out of adult living memory for it to be counted as historical. She also suggests we consider historical novels as being a marker of historical change, not in the sense of  there being different "haircuts and menus" but "hearts and minds." There is also the question of what "counts" in our examining of the past. For some commentators, historical novels must deal with real events and real people, with all the problems of privilege this brings. For others it is the previously unheard voices that need to be brought to light. 

 The Daily Snooze
Add up all that and then throw the word literary into the mix and the whole thing gets even more complicated - Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall was definitely historical but also, according to those who decide such things, definitely literary. A category Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl, which was a huge commercial hit, would never find itself slotted into. And should we even care?

So, if defining historical fiction is complicated, what about historical fantasy? The accepted definition (yes, Wikipedia but I also asked some people who know) is the addition to an historically-based (and Earth-based) story of an element which comes from outside reality - vampires, werewolves, dragons and magic, that kind of thing. All very straightforward: something like Jane Eyre and Zombies is an obvious fit, as is Game of Thrones (let's not even talk about the people who don't believe that statement). But what about Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell? Or stories that cross into Arthurian myths or Celtic legends and relate them to actual events? Where do the boundaries start to blur? What about time-slip novels? Or novels set in a period when things we can now explain through science were considered as witchcraft or magic? If a medieval character firmly believes an illness or misfortune was caused by a demon and the novel follows this line of thought through, is that historical fantasy or historical realism? What about if your preacher sees angels? Or your healer sees ghosts? And where oh where do we put Lincoln in the Bardo? Real events, real people, contemporary texts quoted - and a whole cast of ghosts. Is that where we throw in the towel and just call it literary?

Readers, my head is exploding which I think puts me firmly into the fantasy genre. While I go off and harness a dragon, please send me your thoughts.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Okay, here are a few thoughts from me. If you want to call it historical fantasy, it has to have fantasy elements. Not only should the characters believe in demons, etc, they should actually have good reason for thinking so, and the author should make it clear that the demons or ghosts or whatever are real. Game Of Thrones is sort of historical fantasy because it’s inspired by history, ie the Wars Of The Roses, and because it does have that gritty feel of the real Middle Ages, but to be honest, I’d prefer something actually set in that era, on our own world. Jo(n M Ford’s Dragon Waiting, for sample, is far more what I consider historical fantasy. It’s set in a world where Christianity never made it as more than a small sect and there are also wizards and vampires, etc., somit’s not just alternative universe.

As for how long ago it need to be for it to be historical fiction, I have no problem with a novel set in the 1970s. Just because people remember it doesn’t mean it isn’t history. As you say, for kids, it IS history. I have written short historical fiction set in the 1960s and read newspapers of the time and I felt that it was a different world! Attitudes, historical events such as the moon landing and the Vietnam warand the Beatles visiting Melbourne. Letters to the editor...So different!

Well, that’s my two cents worth. Others might feel differently.

Susan Price said...

That's a really knotty problem you have there, Catherine!
I'd say, rule of thumb, a novel is historical if you have to research to get the time-line facts right. If I wrote a novel set in the 1970s, even though I lived through them, I would have to research -- when did that event happen, exactly? Did people have colour tv then? (I can't trust my memory.) Were those big-as-a brick phones around or did they not come in until the 80s? - If I have to check, then it's historical.

By contrast I've just finished a book full of murders, attempted murders and all sorts of merry shennanigans but it's set in the present day, so although there were some things I had to research, none of it was along the lines of 'When did that happen? Has that been invented yet?' It was more, 'Would this be possible?'

I think historical fantasy comes in two flavours. There's the kind set in 'a quasi-medieval world' with added elves, dragons or what have you, and not too much concentration on how things got done in the past. You want a fire lit? - Send for a fire-mage! This is the sort of book satirised in Diana Wynne Jones' very funny 'A Tough Guide to Fantasy Land.' They are often fun to read -- the kind of book you want to read but don't want to be seen reading -- but not 'literary.' I'd say these are fantasies that happen to be set in the past because then you can dress your characters up in exciting leather and metal and have them fight with swords on the back of dragons rather than 'historical fantasy.'

Then there are things like Clarke's wonderful 'Jonathan Strange' which is fantasy because it involves ghosts and other worlds and witchcraft -- but where its history follows our history, it's accurate and pays attention to the clothes worn, the social habits of a particular age, the food eaten and the way it was cooked and so on. The beautiful writing and insight into the characters make it literary. Personally, I'd say the same about Game of Thrones, which has dragons, magic and zombies but is much more about politics and the motives behind the struggle for power than it is about these fantasy creatures. (Indeed, some dedicated fantasy readers complain that 'they don't ride the dragons enough.)

But then, what about Mantel's 'Wolf Hall' which I love? It's a historical novel, no doubt. The research is immense: it leaves you in no doubt that the Past is another country. But in what way is it 'true' and not 'fantasy'? These people may have met on the given date: they may have met to discuss the given subject -- but they didn't speak those words and they didn't think those thoughts. Their motives are a matter of speculation. 'Wolf Hall' is as much a fantasy, in its way, as 'Jonathan Strange'. It's just that the invention isn't as apparent.

abigail brieson said...

Such an interesting challenge. I hadn't thought of it before, but without due consideration I'd say fantasy is an additional layer that can be added on top of (virtually) all other genres: Fantasy Romance; Fantasy Science Fiction; Fantasy Adventure. If there are elements that did not exist or were not believed to exist when the work is set or in the reasonable beliefs of the characters, that could be fantasy. Dragons in in the 1930's is fantasy; dragons in the 900's, possibly more factual because at the time many believed in dragons. For decades prior to the Great War (and a period following), thousands believed in spiritualism and powers 'beyond the realm'; well-respected scientists and clergy belonged to spiritist groups, often researching these unknown practices as another field of science yet to be discovered, or as possibly a way to connect with God. So perhaps Strange and Norrell are more fact than fantasy for their period. I'd approach it from POV of the characters and setting rather than the author, readers, or genre expectations.

Susan Price said...

Abigail, that's an excellent point about the difference between dragons in 1930 and dragons in 900.
Also interesting that 'fantasy' should be defined by the characters' POV rather than anything else.

Bryaxis said...

This is an hard question. To me good historical fantasy creates as realistic a context as possible and then add the fantastical elements in a way that integrates the fantastical into the "reality" of the historical past but with concrete manifestations that go beyhond the simple apparition.

Similarly I do tend to consider a fiction to be more fantasy than historical fantasy when the historical aspect is either disguised (as in Paul Kearney's Machts trilogy, where his Xenophon and Alexander the Great are disguised, and the Persians are literraly non humans) or is too shallow.

In Glyn Iliffe's trojan series, the Gods (mainly Athena actually) do appear and act to help some characters, and are described doing so : to me it is historical fantasy. On the other hand I'm not sure I'd set Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Firebrand in the same category because what she describes as Gods' actions could be figments of the characters' imagination.

Likewise I'll firmly set Iron Dawn, the 1998 novel by Matthew Woording Stover, and its follow up Jericho Moon, in the historical fantasy realm because it sets its almost Conan like heroin firmly in our historical world but makes the apparition of Zombies a normal, if reviled, magical practice that causes no suprise (but a lot of horror).

The same is true for Pierre Pevel's Cardinal's Blades trilogy (translated from French to English from 2009), where magics and dragons count into the political calculations of Richelieu and are used as diplomatic tools by the Spanish.

More on the limit the WW2 fiction with dragon that is "Rosée de Feu" (by Xavier Mauméjean) : it does integrate the fantasy element in the history of the world, even if in a lazy way (namely : the presence of dragons has not fundamentaly changed the world before WW2 and the newly bred war dragons of the Japanese airforce have the exact same caracteristics as the wikipedia fiches for their real life namesake planes). But I'm wondering if the fantasy aspect is not too lazily set to actually earn the genre of historical fantasy...

Where I'd have even more hesitation is when dealing with novels such as Anne Rice's Blood and Gold, in which she narrates centuries of the life of the vampire Marius : we go through a number of vividly depicted historical periods, for which she has obviously done a lot of research, but is it historical fantasy ? Or does it remain urban fantasy ? And if it does, does it do so because the narrator is living in "our" cities in "our" time, or because the novel is part of a series ?

In any case I'll agree with Abigail on the fact that more and more often fantasy is simply a mode, a "presentation layer" that is added of top of something else, this hybridation of genres and fantastical overlap is especially strong in the French production of the last 2 decades (Mauméjean, Del Soccoro, Debats, Miller & Ward, ...)

Stephanie said...

Catherine, you have just hit on something that has made my head swim for the last three years, and for very personal reasons because I am the author of a series of books that defies genre. I love history and read historical fiction. Have done so for decades. When I set out to write my own novel for the first time, publishing in 2015, genre wasn't really on my mind. I simply wrote the book that was on my heart. It turns out that that book defied most known genres. Purely fiction, it echoes elements of historical fiction because of its setting. I did some research to make elements of the setting and culture feel familiar to readers of historical fiction. The setting is medieval in feel. But there is no history in the books even if history influenced my story and characters. For historical fiction readers, it's not historical fiction. As I said, everything is purely fictional. So is it fantasy?

On the other hand, everything is reality-based. There are no fantastical elements, no creatures, no magic, no supernatural beings, etc. So for readers of fantasy, it's not fantasy enough.

Someone said to me once, "why don't you just put in some magic and make it fantasy so there is no question?" The answer is simple: I didn't want to. It didn't add to my story, and I'm not going to do something simply as a slave to genre.

I've always labeled the book "historical fantasy" for lack of knowing what else to call it. I suppose I could market it as general fiction, but that attracts everyone and no one.

Does it really matter what genre my books are? Not really except when it comes to marketing, as you've stated. Amazon requires it. Anyone who publishes requires it. And it makes things easier for readers to describe what they like.

So for now I'll continue to use a mislabel only because there isn't one for what I write. And I'll have to leave my books floating in the ether when it comes to competitions and association membership because I'm not really one thing or the other.

Stephanie said...

I meant to add this as well, a quote from a friend of mine after she read my first book and seems the best explanation I've come across: “The Scribe’s Daughter is not an easy book to categorize. It takes place in another world, but the reader will encounter no dragons or vampires. Its major female character is in her teens, but her story will appeal to readers of all ages. Kassia’s life could easily be rooted in the Middle Ages, but it isn’t. It is simply a very well written book about a character that readers will care about, amused by her dry humor, admiring her courage, and wincing at her recklessness.”

Alison Morton said...

I suppose I should throw alternative history into the pot. But that's not fantasy; it's another of the sub-genres Catherine mentioned. There are no dragons or magical powers, nor time travel, but the historical timeline diverging in the past and permanently going in a different direction.

Perhaps everything part from literary, factual historical fiction based on real people should be classified as "imaginative historical fiction"?

Bryaxis said...

@Alison Morton : funny you should mention AH as I'm just writing an article on the topic for the British Fantasy Journal.

If I may be so bold as to mention my own articles, I do think these 3 conferences contributions might be of interest :