Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Historical fiction's hammerlock on Canlit

I've made mention of this time and again and as recently as my review of Charles Demers's new novel below. In the wake of Kate Pullinger winning this year's GG for her novel set in Victorian times Steven Beattie makes some interesting points, to wit:

And the virtual hammerlock that historical fiction seems to have on our country’s literary imagination is problematic to me, not so much because there’s anything wrong with historical fiction per se, but because of what the genre’s stranglehold on our literature implies about our present situation. The fact that so few stories are written about the way we live now suggests that there is nothing of value worth writing about in today’s society: no drama, no earth-shaking conflicts, no cultural upheavals or societal paradigm shifts that might provide worthy material for fiction.

I don't think the ascendency of historical fiction implies anything about the value of the here and now as subject matter. But it does say a lot more: About the 'professionalization' of creative writing, the displacement of experience by research, which is at the heart of academic training etc. About how conservative readers have become, and by extension publishers (who always look for safe/cost-effective bets.) Beattie hints at the 'perils' of getting the present wrong, which suggests a kind of cowardice on the part of our novelists too. He's on to something. But I would go a step further. There is a difference between re-telling a story already told, one that has been amply sifted through the filter of time and perspective, and creating one on the fly. It's the difference between following a script (allowing room for a certain amount of interpretation) and all out, no holds barred improv.


Steven W. Beattie said...

I couldn't agree more, and I wish more of our writers were brave enough to attempt the improv.

As to the conservative nature of publishing, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The backward-looking books are the ones that get the big marketing budgets (because they're known to do well), therefore the review space and award attention. And the wheel goes round.

Finn Harvor said...

"I wish more of our writers were brave enough to attempt the improv."


This is where you and I don't see eye to eye, Steven. There are writers who *are* brave enough to attempt improv (and, believe it or not, this can be done with "historical fiction", too). But their work is either ignored or not getting published at all.

The refrain I hear time and time again as I interview various people who work in publishing or arts journalism is "we need a filter". Sure. But we don't need a filter that's broken, that's dysfunctional, and leaves good writing by the wayside. But that's what we currently have in English Canada.

That -- and not writers failing to hold up their end -- is the problem.

B. Glen Rotchin said...

By 'improv' I mean being in the moment, not working off of a script, thinking (writing) on your feet, spontaneous, guessing, and most of all being utterly and completely honest. I think the historical novelists have material to lean on, and too often that support becomes a crutch. Can you think of an historical novel that changed the way we read, took language to a whole new level, say, the way Joyce's Ullyses did, or Nabokov's Lolita, or Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow?

Finn, oddly enough, what I've heard from mainstream publishers (literary agents really) is that they're looking for writing with 'edge'. By 'edge' I suppose that they may mean Neil Smith's Bang Crunch, or Rawi Hage (although Anansi could hardly be considered a mainstream publisher), or Heather O'Neill, or Miriam Toews. But I'm not buying it.

Finn Harvor said...

"But I'm not buying it."

You're right not to. Even in the cases of agents who are brave and perceptive (they exist), there is a lot of fear out there right now. People with selection-making power are pulling back -- and will keep pulling back. The filter isn't working.

wonderdog said...
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AJSomerset said...

Insightful point re: research vice experience.

And this is, indeed, probably related to the professionalization of creative writing, since that movement has created a situation in which many writers' day jobs are writing-related. And all our novels can't very well be set in creative writing departments, can they? That would be tedious, like, say, if all the novels had historical settings, for example. Oh, wait....

The thing is, lots of writers are publishing work that engages with the here and now. But they aren't finding an audience.