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Nov 11, 2004 11:33 am

Honey, I blew up the genre

I've just about wrapped up my survey of post-1990 (or thereabouts) studies of historical fiction--all thirty-two pages of it. If there's a consensus to be found somewhere in this cacophony of voices--I believe I used the phrase"herding cats" somewhere in my introduction--it's this: while there are still historical novels that follow the" classical" model pioneered by Scott, they are now jostling for shelf space with all the newcomers. Historiographic metafiction, or self-reflexive narratives about the historical process itself (term courtesy of Linda Hutcheon, who has displaced Georg Lukacs as the preeminent theorist of the historical novel--at least, when it comes to twentieth-century fiction); contemporary historical fiction; parallel plot novels; historical consciousness fiction; alternative histories; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. A number of critics treat science fiction as a mode of historical fiction. In other words, it's no longer essential for a historical novel to be set in the past; now, any novel that addresses history in some fashion counts as a"historical novel." While this redefinition surely reflects contemporary critical priorities, it also reflects real alterations in the literary landscape. Sir Walter Scott's fictional editors and antiquaries, for example, have moved out of their earlier homes in prefaces, notes, and glossaries, and become fictional characters in their own right. Hence the explosion of novels about historians, biographers, and literary critics at work--Byatt's Possession and The Biographer's Tale, Mukherjee's The Holder of the World, Jhabvala's Heat and Dust, Unsworth's Losing Nelson, and so on. Whatever the cause, it's now far more difficult to cheerfully announce to fellow academics that you specialize in"the historical novel." What"the," pray tell?

Some other observations:

The biggest growth industries: African-American and Latin American historical fiction.

The most noticeable absence: nothing on gay and lesbian historical fiction. (Norman Jones of OSU, who wrote his dissertation on the subject, volunteered some helpful information on the field, or lack thereof.)

New" canonical" historical novelists, from a variety of subfields: Peter Ackroyd, Margaret Atwood, George Bowering, Octavia Butler, A. S. Byatt, E. L. Doctorow, Carlos Fuentes, George Garrett, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, Charles Johnson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Elsa Morante, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, Graham Swift, D. M. Thomas, Barry Unsworth, Sherley Anne Williams.

Oh yes, they did write historical novels, didn't they?: George Eliot, William Faulkner, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

That sounded strange the first time I read it: Simon Edwards, speaking of Cooper, claims that

It [Cooper's use of violence] may also be investigated as part of a more general"pornography of representation" that continues both to shock and excite us, one corollary of which is the icy disdain with which some feminism, rooted as it is in a Puritan recoil from images of the human body, regards all narrative and pictorial art. [note deleted] Certainly the devaluation of the historical novel seems related at least to the successes of feminist criticism in revising the achievements of male and female novelists in the early nineteenth century.*

Edwards' footnote points us to (oh, dear) Andrea Dworkin, Suzanne Kappelar, and Catherine MacKinnon. I'm having a hard time squaring Edwards' position with feminism's positive fascination with the historical novel form. On nineteenth-century historical fiction, for example, there's Christina Crosby, Ina Ferris (who wrote one of the most influential books on Scott in recent years), Robert P. Irvine, Rohan Maitzen, Susan Morgan, and Shirley Samuels. (Oh, and I have something to say about this stuff as well...) That's just a partial list of books; if you start calculating articles and chapters--not to mention books on twentieth-century historical fiction--then the list would spiral off into infinity. Aren't these critics more relevant to the discussion than Dworkin and Co.?

How far has this conversation gone?: At times, it felt as though some critics were simply repeating nineteenth-century debates (e.g., is the historical novel a mode of historical writing, or not?). I also noted some tacit agreement that when it came to realist historical fiction--that is, in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott--the original"rules" seem to work the best.

*Simon Edwards,"The Geography of Violence: Historical Fiction and the National Question," Novel 34.2 (2001). 9 November 2004. Academic Search Premier.

[X-posted, with some changes, from The Little Professor.]

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Jonathan Dresner - 11/11/2004

I'm a bit disappointed to see that the critical writers you're reading don't seem to distinguish between historical fiction and speculative fiction. I know, to an extent any fiction is speculative and ahistorical, but it seems to me that any category which includes alternative history, future history and fiction set in the known (if somewhat imaginatively filled out) past is going to have problems when it comes to heuristic and analytical use.

And, to reveal my own self-interest, I've always wanted to teach a seminar, or have time to write a paper, which addressed modes and theories of historical causality in science fiction, particularly the multi-volume historical series which set the standard for so much other writing: Asimov's robot and foundation novels; Herbert's Dune series; Tolkien's Silmarillion/Ring (I know, it's fantasy, but it's really an alternative history); Heinlein's Future History stories; there are a few others, but those are the big ones.

My interest in these books is rooted in my sense of speculative fiction as a sort of virtual historical laboratory, where thought-experiments about human development can be carried out and evaluated for their persuasiveness. I don't see traditional historical fiction serving that role at all.