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The blogger’s best friend, of course, is the guest blogger.  With the help of the guest blogger, the blogger is able to bring you, the reader, fantastic and new content without going to the trouble of thinking of it himself.  Convenient, no?

Our inaugural guest blogger is my swell pal Matthew Pearl.  Even though, Matthew requires no introduction, I will provide one by cutting and pasting from his web page:

Matthew Pearl is the author of the novels The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow and his newest work, The Last Dickens. His books have been New York Times bestsellers and international bestsellers translated into more than 30 languages. His nonfiction writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and Slate.com. He has been heard on shows including NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Weekend Edition Sunday,” and his books have been featured on Good Morning America and CBS Sunday Morning.  Prior to writing novels, Matthew Pearl worked as a freelance cosmonaut.

Please make him feel at home by reading and commenting on his post.  I, in the meantime, will make use of all this free time and catch up on some off track betting.

What is historical fiction?

by Matthew Pearl

matthew-pearlDo you know? I write historical fiction and am not always sure I do.

There are a few definitions I’ve come across more often than others.

One definition is that historical fiction is a work set before the author’s lifetime. If I wrote a novel about Al Capone in 1930, I would be writing historical fiction. So far, so good. But under this definition, the category of the novel changes depending on the author. If my grandmother wrote a novel about Al Capone, I guess, it would not be historical fiction.

I’ve noticed that the oldest person in the world seems to be routinely between 110 and 116 years old. Taking the latter age, crossing it with today’s date, it means that a novel could be written now (by that 116 year old) taking place in 1893 and not be historical fiction.

To determine what qualifies under this definition, readers would be expected to know the age of an author when he or she first finished the book. That’s somewhat impractical. Do people always tell the truth about their age? Poe lied about his age. And what if a book is published anonymously or under a pen name? What if a novel is published posthumously? What if an author is an extreme recluse, like Thomas Pynchon?

Does it matter where the reader fits in as far as the lifetime metric goes? If the world’s oldest person reads a novel set twenty five years ago written by a twenty year old novelist, does the definition evolve?

Let us look at another of the popular definitions. This one defines historical fiction as a work set at least fifty years before it is written. This replaces the importance of who is writing with when he or she is writing. Does fifty years make sense to you as the right amount of time? Why not twenty years, one hundred years, or one day in the past? How do we decide where to draw this line?

Set the Wayback Machine for 1857!

Set the Wayback Machine for 1857!

Even if fifty years does click with us, there are many points of confusion for this definition, too. First, it puts the burden on a reader interested in the definition to know when the novel was written. This can be tricky, even trickier than determining the age of an author. Perhaps the copyright page says 2009, for instance, but we should remember it is not unusual for a writer to finish a novel at a certain date, but publish it only years later or even posthumously.

What if a novel set in 1959 is started by an 18 year old author in 1985, finished in 1999 by a ghost writer who is 112, and published in 2010 after both authors have died?

Some new high school math problems!

There are other more complicated criteria to try to judge the title question of this post. Must historical fiction display a certain amount of fidelity to history to qualify? If so, how much? A book might be set three hundred years ago, but be injected with large quantities of fantasy or supernatural elements. Would that be historical fiction? Historical romance? Alternate history? Fantasy? All of the above? What if a novel is divided into chapters set in the present day and chapters set many years ago, like my friend Katherine Howe‘s terrific debut The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane?

ADDED: I’ve found it interesting at times people have said to me that they really like historical fiction books like mine and The Da Vinci Code. Interesting because The Da Vinci Code is set entirely in the present! But it and its characters are engaged in history, and certainly that would appeal to self-identified historical fiction readers. In that category, my friend Daniel Levin‘s The Last Ember, an exciting thriller set in the present with archeology characters tackling the subject of the past–in a way the characters themselves are engaged in historical fiction.

Those who follow my posts might notice I don’t really like categories or genres for books. My books have been filed in various categories by bookstores or media, including historical fiction, mystery and literary fiction. I don’t mind my books being categorized by other people or entities, whether readers, journals, libraries or bookstores. However, the categories do nothing for me as a writer and I prefer to think of each book as a story, period, without requiring some other possibly restrictive label.

Obviously, if bookstores had no categories, they would be far too difficult to navigate. Some methods of organization might prove more challenging for browsers than others. There is one bookstore outside of Boston called New England Mobile Book Fair where the books are categorized by publisher! As someone who is nostalgic for a time when publishers had more distinctive identities, part of me likes that idea very much.

You know my qualms about saying I’m a writer, but I’m very content to say The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Dickens are historical fiction.

If an author chooses to position a book as historical fiction, I accept that. I like seeing a book through the lens of its own ambitions, even if it yields cloudier distinctions among books.

I’ll do another post about whether there are “ethics” in historical fiction.

In the meantime, what do you think of the definitions of historical fiction? Do you have a better one? How important are categories or labels to you when purchasing, borrowing, reading or writing a book?

4 Responses to “”

  1. Jeff says:

    Historical fiction is what happened before MY time(birth)! It’s the reader that counts.

  2. Eileen says:

    I think to be called “historical fiction” a novel should contain accurate history which figures prominently in the plot. If there’s a fighting gnome in it, then it’s fantasy, even if the gnome uses period weaponry. It seems harder to determine how long ago the plot should be set to qualify. Doesn’t furniture have to be 100 years old to be an antique? If the novel is set 100 years before the time of its writing and is gnome-free it’s probably historical fiction, I think.

  3. tom says:

    my feeling, similar to eileen’s, is that “historical fiction” must rely quite heavily upon facts from the corresponding period. while the author is free to create characters with fictional motivations and situations, it is interesting and fun to see how they weave the real with the imagined. it is important that, even if the reasons for something to have happened are fictional, the end result is the true history.

  4. These are interesting thoughts, thanks to David for allowing me a guest voice and thanks to you for reading and your comments. I will watch out for gnomes, although perhaps Eileen that might get complicated if the people of a time period believed in gnomes? David is always trying to include gnomes in his plots and I usually talk him out of it. “Gnomes did not participate in the Whiskey Rebellion!!” I wrote in the margin of a recent manuscript of his. Tom’s definition that the end result of the story is true history is one I have never seen or thought of consciously, but indeed does seem to fit with very many historical fiction books, including my own. If by the end the fictional events/characters have changed history, stopped or started a war, killed an important historical figure, etc., than perhaps it is something altogether different.

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