It’s very popular these days to declare historical fiction irrelevant, a wallowing in nostalgia, rife with over-moralizing and easy answers. Perhaps this is occasionally true, even often true, but this position strikes me as intellectually lazy, and dismissive of the obvious fact that everything that’s ever happened is now history. To suggest that writing about the past is somehow dismissive of the present is the literary equivalent of teenagers rolling their eyes when grandparents try to tell them what things were like when they were children.
The teenager believes that everything he needs to know about the world is happening right in front of him, that what he sees at that moment is all there is or ever will be. The grandparent is trying to tell him something about the world as it once was and therefore is now – the past is a story that exists in its connection to the present.
Now, being one of the people who argues that historical fiction is very often "rife with over-moralizing and easy answers," I have to admit I'm a little surprised to discover that this is the "popular" opinion these days. And not only that, this position is "often true."
(I am also surprised to discover that it is also "often true" that historical fiction is "irrelevant." I would not go that far myself, but hey, facts are facts.)
But then, having been told that my opinion is both often true and the popular one, I am informed it is also intellectually lazy, the equivalent of the arrogant, impatient, baseless certainty of a teenager.
I'm confused: if it's often true, how is it intellectually lazy? Am I lacking in the mental energy and stamina required to believe something that is very often not true? And really: when did this impatience with the middlebrow sentimentalities that so often form the basis of historical fictions become the popular position? As far as I can tell, the people expressing this impatience tend to be a small minority of cranky reviewers, writers, and readers - and often all three in one. (Hello.)
Now, I will readily concede that there is probably a lot of opposition to historical fiction that comes in the form of simply not caring about any time other than one's own. There are enough readers out there who won't bother with books that don't describe the comings and goings of their own narrow, self-absorbed cohort. But that's not my own feelings toward historical fiction, and nor is it the position of a number of writers who have argued that literature should be more concerned with engaging with the present, less so with revising or unearthing the past. Not solely concerned, just more so than it is at the moment.*
The paradox is that a lot of readers and critics (like myself) who argue for more contemporary-minded fiction spend a lot of their time reading books written decades, if not centuries, ago. And that is because what these readers and critics are looking for are not books that grapple with their own times in some way (though that's nice to have once in a blue moon), but books in which an author grapples with his or her own times. Which is why some novels written a hundred years ago feel so much more alive and fresh and contemporary than last year's historical doorstop.
There is no substitute for the feeling of reading someone who is writing their own society into literary existence, who is writing into a void, as it were, and having to do most difficult thing, which is establish a point of view in relation to a world that is still in the process of coming into being.
* The reign of the historical fiction in Canada has weakened slightly in the past decade, and there seems to have been a bit of a peasant's revolt in the form of a lot of very sharply contemporary (or at least non-historically minded) novels appearing and getting some attention, but that reign is far from over.