What is Historical Fiction? I suppose you might conclude that it is fiction which recreates events and personages taken from (or extrapolated from) history. So Historical Fiction specifically deals with recreating the past. But it’s Fiction so the author is free to modify the facts, rearrange the events, create more literary characters, etc. However, If we leave out those forms of speculative fiction that deal with future possibilities, is it unreasonable to see almost all fiction as being historical?
I’ve heard some silly definitions of historical, usually suggesting that it take some number of years before an event is a part of history. But isn’t whatever happened yesterday also a part of history? History can apply to any event … if it’s not happening now, it allows commentators and historians to refresh our memories about events. But there is the trap: as soon as humans get involved in the retelling of history, it becomes fiction. If the retelling is a text book then there is more effort put in the accuracy of the accounting (except in Texas) but it’s still an imaginative construct, or simply put, it’s fiction.
The difference between an historian and a writer of Historical Fiction is the degree of identifiable manipulation of the facts, the events, the characters. This is not to say that the fiction writer is more manipulative than the non-fiction writer, just that it’s more obvious to the reader. When non-fiction writers are selective about what they write, lead the reader to conclusions, and generally try to make the history more than just a list of names and dates, they are writing fiction, even if it isn’t as obvious as the writer of Historical Fiction.
If a novel comes out today dealing with the difficulties of raising a family in a tight economy beset by the destruction of the middle-class by people of such wealth and power that the narrative is almost epic, does this qualify as Historical Fiction? How would you compare it to, say, the works of Willa Cather or Hamlin Garland? Is a novel that recreates the life in Europe after the Great War such as Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz not to be considered historical fiction because it was written too soon after the events it portrays? Perhaps it is Historical Fiction since many years have passed and now we can read Döblin’s novel as an imaginative recreation of the life and times in post-war Germany. Does a novel become Historical Fiction because the people and events portrayed in the narrative, real or imagined, have moved from a contemporary to an historical context simply by hanging around long enough for the reader to accept its historicity? If we look at the works of Ole Edvart Rølvaag as providing an historical picture of life on the plains of America during the 19th century, shouldn’t we also accept that one day the events contained in The Valley of the Dolls will provide the reader with an historical depiction of the dissipation of the last century?
What about War and Peace? Did Tolstoy write a fiction (an historical novel) or was it a factual accounting that was gussied up with some fictional elements to make it more readable (how many historians today are making big money selling history books they have appliquéd with fictional elements). There’s a lot of romance in War and Peace but would you want to call it an Historical Romance and find it in the Romance genre aisle at Books-a-Million?
It seems reasonable to consider every book to be Historical Fiction. Some fictional works might take a while before they are accepted as historical, but the world can wait. Of course, in the realm of Science Fiction, the wait will probably be a lot longer. There is a little scene from a Star Trek movie that is a profound comment on literature and historical relevance:
Spock: Admiral, may I ask you a question?
James T. Kirk: Spock, don’t call me Admiral. You used to call me Jim. Don’t you remember “Jim”? What’s your question?
Spock: Your use of language has altered since our arrival. It is currently laced with, shall I say, more colorful metaphors– “Double dumb-ass on you” and so forth.
Kirk: You mean the profanity?
Kirk: That’s simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays any attention to you unless you swear every other word. You’ll find it in all the literature of the period.
Spock: For example?
Kirk: [thinks] Oh, the complete works of Jacqueline Susann, the novels of Harold Robbins….
Spock: Ah… The giants.