Mailbag: Historical Fiction: Good or Bad?

After a small hiatus, the mailbag series is back, and I’m eager to respond to your thoughtful comments. This week, let’s travel back in time in more ways than one, to a post I wrote called “Historical Fiction: Good or Bad?” that generated a lot of interesting discussion. I meant it to be a little bold as a claim, and I’m glad I got passionate arguments on both sides. I argued that a lot of the genre is flawed because of its flat characters and forced insertions into actual historical events. Historical fiction fans were quick to respond. Tammi Kibler said:

I think in any genre fiction some of the work transcends the genre and other work merely satisfies the masses. Not for me to question what other folks enjoy reading, I am just glad they read.
I loved Michener’s Hawaii – my mother-in-law sent it to me when I arrived on Oahu and I feel I understood the local history and people better for having read it.

Thanks, Tammi. That’s true — in any genre, even in, say, the vampire genre, there are quality works of fiction that transcend the limitations of their frame by using real characters and interesting stories. I’ve also heard good things about Hawaii and I look forward to reading it! It’s one of my dad’s favorites.

Elemarth said:

I see historical fiction as realistic fiction set in the past. Yes, there are too many stories about the civil war and emancipation, and yes, it can be gimmicky, but stories set in the present often reuse the same plotlines. There’s good historical fiction and there’s bad, just like anything else.

Agreed, Elemarth. Historical fiction has its pluses and minuses just like any other genre. But I still find more minuses than pluses, and more minuses than in other genres. Realistic fiction is just less limiting, and I find it difficult to find historical fiction that uses an unusual or creative plotline while also having good characters. My question is, does being set next to huge historical events inherently make it more difficult to make a historical novel a good novel? That’s just me, though!

chris markel has a good point about the value of historical fiction:

i think historical fiction has many possibilities. one of them being, one who has the historical background can express a theory they have about an event that is not accepted by the mainstream. historical demigods demand citations and documented proof for those who have a different slant on the accepted take on events, etc. and as those who really know, history is written by the victors. fiction allows us some license and allows us to look at events in a p.o.v. that text does not.

Absolutely, I agree that historical fiction does us a service in literature: it gives us a look at the loser’s side of history, or the lives of individuals that normally get lost in the great sweep of historical events. We rarely hear, for example, about the lives of Chinese prisoners building the Great Wall, or the women’s side of many historical conflicts. It’s great that we have these novels to give us a glimpse into what their lives may have been like. But do they move us because of the facts, or the story? I think these novels often let their literary merit suffer.

After the jump: more arguments about historical fiction!

Collin Snyder said:

I agree that a lot of young adult historical fiction novels are less than satisfactory, but so are most young adult novels in general. Historical fiction, in my opinion, is one of the most respectable genres due to its endless capacity for making a story relatable.

Thanks, Collin! That’s a good thing to keep in mind: much historical fiction is for young adults, and on the whole, there’s a lot of crappy young adult fiction out there, whether it’s historical or not. I’m glad you reminded me of all the silly paperbacks pushed on me as a teenager when I could have been reading classics. But it does serve that important purpose of making teenagers and young adults interested in fiction or in history. Stories make everything more relatable.

dameia said:

Historical fiction has its own dilemmas. For example, as mentioned above, you have to make those actual, documented historical events blend with your own storyline–or, more accurately, mould your storyline to the history…there are flops in historical fiction, just as there are in any genre as well as “literary” fiction. These are the authors who simply didn’t do their homework, and I personally feel that it is hardly fair to lump all examples of a genre (save a few) in with the crap.

Thanks, dameia! It’s true, I may have been a little harsh by deciding to condemn an entire genre because of a few rotten apples (though I still think there are more rotten apples in the historical fiction barrel than in others). It’s true, historical fiction writers have to juggle more rules and limitations. Sometimes those limitations can actually help keep the story focused and on target. Other times it leaves the story feeling stiff and unrealistic.

And on my side of the argument, Lauren said:

My view on historical fiction is probably biased by irritating books I had to read for school. My experience of historical fiction has been mostly negative, although there have been some good books.
Maybe I’ve been reading the wrong ones.

Thanks, Lauren! That’s exactly how I feel. I’ve been tainted by too many silly and uninspired books out there. But just to keep in mind how resplendent this genre really can be, let’s finish with one commenter’s succinct post. Leo “Ya Boy” Tolstoy said:

Two words, B: War, Peace.

‘Nuff said, Leo. ‘Nuff said.

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