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.