Sunday, 6 May 2012

Historical fiction - "a genre not jammed with greatness"?

Such is the nature of our electronic age that an article which carries tomorrow’s publication date may not only be freely available today, but one may then find, also, that it was already hotly contested yesterday and the day before. This is certainly the case with James Wood’s article (, “Invitation to a Beheading,” a review of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and its forthcoming sequel, Bring Up The Bones. This has already drawn responses from, among others, Stuart Kelly ( and Richard Lee of the Historical Novels Society ( What is at issue in these debates is not Wood’s assessment of Mantel’s writing (which he considers to be very fine indeed, and in which judgement Kelly, Lee and I enthusiastically concur), but his view of historical fiction more generally, which he describes as “…a somewhat gimcrack genre, not exactly jammed with greatness.”

It would be a mistake for writers (and readers) of historical fiction to be overly defensive in relation to this banderilla. It is part of the function of publications such as The New Yorker (and, closer to home, The Guardian Review, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement etc.) to be provocative. I, for one, would not be so inclined to read them if they were less so, and it is surely no bad thing to start a debate.

From a UK point of view, we must also recognise it for what it is, which is a perspective from the other side of the pond. It is interesting that the Modern Library list of 100 best novels of the 20th Century ( includes, in the panel’s list (they publish separate lists from an expert panel and from readers), only two works of historical fiction (I, Claudius, and A Passage to India), whilst the readers’ list, which also includes the works of L. Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand, includes three (Gone with the Wind, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and I, Claudius).

If we look, however, at the awards of the Man Booker Prize from 1980 to the present, we find six works of historical fiction out of a total thirty-three (18%) whilst, for the Whitbread/Costa Novel Award from 2000 to the present, we have three works of historical fiction out of a total of eleven (27%). This suggests, in the British context, a “genre” (if we wish to call it that) liberally salted, if not necessarily “jammed,” with greatness.

Wood refers to Mantel’s “cunning universalism” and to her “novelistic intelligence” and, on both counts, I would agree, but he does her a disservice, I think, when he suggests that she has simply “written a very good modern novel” and then changed the fictional names to historical ones. There is more to writing historical fiction than this, and it starts with assiduous research.

“If you want to know what novelistic intelligence is,” Wood suggests, “you might compare a page or two of Hilary Mantel’s work with worthy historical fiction by…Peter Ackroyd or Susan Sontag.”

Well, yes, you might, but this begins to look to me like a “straw man” type of argument. Whilst both have published historical novels, Ackroyd is better known as a biographer, Sontag as an essayist. Try comparing Mantel’s historical fiction with that of Golding, or Graves, or Yourcenar, or even that of Tolstoy, and I think that you will find that same “novelistic intelligence,” rare, but not unique, in historical, as in other forms of fiction. True greatness is rare, but isn’t that the point?

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