Thursday 8 September 2016

Historical Fiction: The Next Big Thing?

I recently attended the conference of the Historical Novel Society in Oxford. In one of the plenary sessions, a panel of literary agents and publishers were invited to give their views on "the next big thing" in historical fiction. One agent is keen to receive proposals for "epics or sagas of the Second World War," believing that we are now "far enough away in time for a sweeping saga to be possible." Another expressed interest in fiction set in ancient Greece. There was some consensus around the idea that more fiction reflecting the cultural, ethnic and sexual diversity of past societies would be welcome.

The book stalls at the conference told their own story, although perhaps about the "next big thing" of yesterday, rather than today. What struck me most was the predominance of biopic novels, focusing on prominent individuals and narrated, either in the first person, or in "close third person," from the point of view of those individuals. This trend is not entirely new, of course: one thinks of Robert Graves's Claudius novels, or of Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, and Margaret George's (2011) Memoirs of Cleopatra is in similar vein, as, quite consciously, was my own (2013) novel An Accidental King (about the 1st Century AD British king, Cogidubnus).

Bust of Cleopatra, Antikensammlung Berlin. Photo: Sailko (licensed under CCA).

What surprised me more was the number of biopic novels featuring protagonists whose lives ended quite recently. This inevitably raises questions about the definition of "historical fiction" - the Historical Novel Society  defines it as fiction " ... that has been written at least fifty years after the events described, or ... by someone who was not alive at the time (who therefore approaches them only by research)." By these criteria, some of the Twentieth Century biopic novels showcased at the conference are only partly historical, although, interestingly, given the comment quoted at the beginning of this post, many of them deal with protagonists whose lives were profoundly touched by the Second World War. The fact that almost all of these protagonists have non-fiction biographies (and, in some cases, autobiographies) seems not to have deterred either the authors or their publishers.

The American novelist, C.W. (Christopher) Gortner, who entertained us with an after-dinner speech at the conference chose Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) as the protagonist of his latest (2016) novel, having previously fictionalised the life of Coco Chanel (1883-1971):

"The first time I fell in love, I was twelve years old. It happened at the Auguste-Viktoria-Schule in the suburban district of Schoneberg, southwest of Berlin. Here, in a squat building defended by wrought-iron gates, whose extravagant plaster facade concealed a warren of icy classrooms, I studied grammar, arithmetic, and history, followed by house-making skills and an hour of bracing calisthenics before ending the long day with a perfunctory French class ... I stood alone before the teacher's pensive gaze. The late afternoon sunlight filtering through the dusty classroom window burnished her unkempt chignon with copper. Her skin was rosy, with a slight down on her cheeks. My knees weakened ... " (C.W. Gortner, Marlene).

Marlene Dietrich entertaining American troops in 1944, US Army Center of Military History (image is in the Public Domain).

Another speaker at the conference, the British writer, Jo Baker (whose earlier novel, Longbourn, I have featured on this site), chose Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) as the protagonist for her latest novel, A Country Road, A Tree:

"The tree stirred and the sound of the needles was sshh, sshh, sshh. The boy swung a knee over the branch, heaved himself up, and shifted round so that his legs dangled. The scent of the larch cleared his head, so that everything seemed sharp and clear as glass. He could still hear the faint sound of piano practice, but he could see out across the fields from here; he could see for miles and miles, and the sky was wide open as a cat's yawn ... " (Jo Baker, A Country Road, A Tree).

Samuel Beckett, by Reginald Gray (image is in the Public Domain).

Other examples of this emergent sub-genre include Julian Barnes's The Noise of Time (about the composer, Dmitry Shostakovich [1906-1975]), and Jill Dawson's The Crime Writer (about Patricia Highsmith [1921-1985]). As the first generation of Millennials edge their way along the library bookshelves towards their initial encounters with adult fiction, the century into which I was born is emerging more fully into the domain of the craft that I have learned in the century in which we now live.

Dmitriy Shostakovich in 1950. Photo: Roger & Renate Rossing (image is in the Public Domain).

It is easy to be wise with hindsight, but I wish now that we had spent some time at the conference considering the ethical issues that arise when we fictionalise the lives of real people, who may have close relatives, friends, and lovers, still living. The American author, Margaret George, was kind enough to invite me to share her taxi as we left the conference. "We have to hope that our characters will forgive us," she said the previous day, "because we are doing the best that we can." That must surely apply, not only to our protagonists, but to all real people, living or dead, to whom we ascribe words and actions in our novels.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


  1. Thanks, Mark, for your insightful article. Although I was but a "babe" in WWII-Europe, I still find it difficult to read that particular HistFic (mostly now from the victor's POV). So, I stick to Ancient Egypt (having been lucky enough to garner a HNS Shortlisting in 2014).
    But grand kudos to the Society's support for us Indies.

  2. I don't know the markets, I only know what interests me. I think we all have our favorite periods and places, though I like the idea of learning about the diversity in those places.

  3. I'm currently writing a novel about an anthropologist who wrote several books and essays. However, I've decided to change his name for the very reason that I couldn't bear the weight of fictionalising (is that a word!) his real life!

  4. How interesting to consider 'the next big thing' and thoughts about fictionalized biographies. I wonder if those enjoying these biopic novels desire more history with their stories and less fiction?

  5. "...more fiction reflecting the cultural, ethnic and sexual diversity of past societies would be welcome"

    Amen to that!

  6. I remember studying the Vietnam War at uni and my dad having a fit as that 'wasn't history' - now my son is studying the impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall,it's all perception!

  7. I have just finished delivering a course on the history of Europe and the Mediterraneaan world, beginning in the Bronze Age, and ending in the year 2000. I did make a one-class foray into the present century, taking in 9/11, the Iraq War, Net Zero, and Putin's Russia.