What is historical fiction?

Thursday November 13, 2008 @ 10:50 PM (UTC)

I have this problem: I like confusing genre boundaries, but I like putting books in boxes. Online, they call them shelves. It’s easier with tags, but shelves have to justify their existence: it’s silly to create a shelf for just one item. So, I was celebrating the inauguration of my somewhat snottily-named “literary-is-a-genre” shelf just now by adding previously “genreless” pieces of fiction to it, and I immediately ran into trouble. I Sailed with Magellan by Stuart Dybek begins in 1950’s Chicago, and continues into the 1960’s or so. It’s definitely literary fiction, but isn’t it historical as well? Why didn’t I have it shelved that way? I wouldn’t shelve The Blind Assassin that way, though it goes way farther back, because it proceeds to the era of its writing. Dybek’s shnovel does not. Does that make it historical fiction?

Is it a requirement that historical fiction be set in a sufficiently remote era? The 1950’s are next-door to World War II, which boasts any amount of historical fiction. Are novels set in the 1960’s historical fiction? The 1980’s? Does the era have to inform the story (how can it not?) or is the requirement that the author inform the reader about the era? Is The Things They Carried historical fiction, because it was about the Vietnam War but published in 1990? Is it not historical fiction because it depicts a period and place the author did live through? Does the magnitude of events depicted (their historicity) affect whether something is historical fiction? Does the age of the narrator? (I’ve been considering the idea that my internal genre-o-meter reads I Sailed with Magellan as non-historical because the 1950s protagonist is a child, thus implying an older narrator in a later time-period. If he were a child protagonist in the 1850’s, thus rendering his imagined adult self ‘historical’ as well, would it twitch the genre-o-meter in a different way?)

I have thoroughly confused myself, and should go to sleep. How about you? Got clarity?


In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. ;)

I think of historical fiction as being written by someone who was completely removed from the era about which they are writing. If someone writes fiction about an era which they are familiar, because they lived in it, I consider that to be just fiction. The truth is, it is your bookshelf, and you can be Book Queen and organize it any which way you want. This is Amerika.

The research component is something I’ve thought of as well. Whereas most fiction requires research at some point (even if it’s into myths, or how precisely the character will die when blown out an airlock), a lot of the best historical fiction seems to be admirably, thoroughly researched. The research and the use of it seem to be part of the art of the genre, so perhaps you’ve got your finger on something there.

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