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Repeating History: Why Writing About the Past Matters

March 27, 2019
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Photo by Natalia Y on Unsplash

Historical fiction writers are in a deep funk. Sales are down in this great genre and most agents aren’t even looking to take on hist-fic novelists unless they’re somehow the type who can can get their stories folded into other genres like thriller or fantasy.

The success of novels steeped in history – ones like Outlander – are apparently not having the rub-off effect historical fiction authors have hoped for either. You’d think they would – readers and TV audiences alike have demonstrated that they’re just mad about Scottish guys of yore; ones in skirts with terrible hygiene and hard luck stories to boot. Why not medieval monks, Spanish conquistadors, American frontiersmen or Victorian era adventurers?

And you can’t blame the lull in historical fiction on readers and watchers who might be turned off by complex narratives that require (God forbid) a little work. Historical fiction readers love a good saga and world-building has extended far beyond the usual suspects. Game of Thrones, while not historical per se, has definitely proven that a well-appointed world is all the rage. Not only have audiences gobbled up that labyrinthine narrative, but both the show and the novels have managed to ensnare even the most die-hard fantasy haters who would normally loathe anything involving a flock (?) of dragons, a dwarf, a princess or two, and an army of undead knights.

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Photo by mauRÍCIO santos on Unsplash

Most of the historical fiction authors in my various writers groups are frustrated beyond belief, and many lay the blame not at the foot of market forces or lazy, disinterested readers as much as today’s hyper politically correct culture. They suspect this very restrictive climate is manipulating the market, denying oxygen to what was once a thriving category of fiction.

It’s a point worth exploring.

We can start by looking at what’s been happening in young adult fiction, when recently two authors voluntarily pulled their books from publication after having been attacked, mostly on Twitter, for “not having the right” to tell the fictional narratives portrayed in their novels.  One of the novels explored, through a fantasy-inspired world, human trafficking in Asia and the other was a gay love story that takes place during the genocidal civil war in Yugoslavia back in the 1990s.

These authors were called everything from privileged to disgusting and were excoriated for their alleged insensitivity – racial and otherwise. Blindsided, they quickly issued statements about being “deeply sorry” for having offended anyone, and promising to take time to “reflect upon” any insensitivity on their part and “the pain [they’ve] caused.”

On a purely civic level, language like this causes the hair to stand up on my arms. As the daughter of political refugees from a totalitarian regime, I admit I have a difficult time being on the fence about compelled apologies by anyone – especially artists. It is, after all, through art that we can safely explore our darkest impulses, try to live for a short time in the body and mind of someone who is an utter stranger, in a place that is foreign to us.

Such is the magic of unchained literature; the vast and noble journey of the human imagination.

I’ll be honest, I really don’t know much about the young adult books in question. I haven’t read them, and it looks as if I won’t ever have the opportunity to see for myself what all the fuss is about. What I do know is that their authors – an Asian-American and African-American who also happens to be gay – are themselves members of the very minorities to whom the publishing world has been trying to give a voice.

And now their voices have been silenced. Even worse, these authors have chosen to self-censor.

To add a layer of cosmic sarcasm to this saga, the African-American writer in question, a young man by the name of Kosoko Jackson, was a former “sensitivity reader” who flagged potentially “offensive” content for young adult publishers before snagging his first, and highly anticipated book deal. This implies that not only are stories with “sensitive” characters or plotlines being punted from the slosh pile at major publishers, but the ones that are being accepted into the fold are subjected to a smoothing of rough edges that undoubtedly removes what could be construed as offensive, while also conceivably expunging the very heart and blood of a story. The quirky bits of color which make us ponder, regret, shudder, laugh out loud or grit our teeth in fury. 

And the reason this trend sends a particular chill down the collective spines of historical fiction writers…and, I assume, most agents and acquiring editors, is simply because nothing is more controversial, laden with political bombs, than history itself.

It’s hardly a wonder that few literary professionals are willing to take a chance on a genre that focuses exclusively on times that played out before the woke awakened. Ones involving people and events that actually happened and are hard to sanitize without compromising nuance, context and substance. In other words…artistry.

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Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash

An inherent part of this dilemma is that readers of historical fiction tend to be sticklers on historical content, too, and actually want to see the world through the eyes of one of its past inhabitants. Warts and all. They reject a yesteryear that has been dressed up for current mores or is too staunchly condemned. Most true lovers of history have that itch to learn from a character who they might come to see as a good man, despite the fact that he’s conflicted about an unpopular war, his relationship with his wife or daughter in an era long before women’s rights, slavery.

Seems to me we could gain a little bit from that perspective. Maybe if we could learn to love, or at least understand a character who came out on the wrong side of history, we could extend that compassion to someone today. Empathy is the lifeblood of historical fiction, after all. It’s also a vital element of a well-functioning society.

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Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Whatever the objective reasons for the downtrend in historical fiction – and I have no doubt there are multiple variables involved – the fact is, many authors have come to feel the current climate creates a vicious circle in which historical fiction can’t win. The writer can’t write from the historical context the reader craves because the editor won’t accept a shaded representation of the past, because the online mobs – an itty-bitty and increasingly despised fraction of readers I should add – would throw a hissy-fit.

If indeed the historical fiction sales crash is a casualty of this cultural swing, it’s a conundrum to be sure.

Yet, I believe we need only to look at trends from the past to find the answers. If our beloved history does indeed repeat itself as many historians allege, all of this, too, shall pass, rendering these very mobs as merely:

“Dress’d in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d…”

…If I may quote the greatest historical fiction writer ever to grace the Earth – William Shakespeare.

And if I can borrow from science here as well, Newton’s law tells us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, maybe, just maybe, a resurgence of historical fiction is just around the corner? But while we wait for this tempest in a teapot to run its course, we can take comfort in the fact that there are some really good indie-published historical fiction authors who will keep the candle aflame. People who don’t care about mobs or trends…just readers.

For your reading pleasure, here’s one. Her name is Octavia Randolph and her bestselling books have charmed readers all over the world.

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About Octavia: I write the kind of book I want to read myself. I write about history as a way to better understand my own times. I write about people who are far better, and (I hope) far worse than myself. And beautiful objects inspire me: the hand-carved combs, skilfully wrought swords, and gemmed goblets of the world of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga. Almost everything interests me; I’ve studied Anglo-Saxon and Norse runes, and learnt to spin with a drop spindle. My path has led to extensive on-site research in England, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Gotland – some of the most wonderful places on Earth. In addition to the Circle Saga, I am also the author of Light, Descending, a biographical novel of the great 19th century art and social critic John Ruskin: Ride, a retelling of the story of Lady Godiva; and The Tale of Melkorka, taken from the Icelandic Sagas.  I’ve been the fortunate recipient of Artistic Fellowships at the Ingmar Bergman Estate, Fårö; the MacDowell Colony; Ledig House International; and Byrdcliffe.

Check out Octavia here!

And please check out my latest vlog episode of Love at First Write:

9 Comments
  1. Judith Bancks permalink

    I cannot imagine my literary life without Historical fiction. It tells us of ourselves, our roots, the birth of our laws and customs. With great authors such as Bernard Cornwell, Phillipa Gregory, Edward Rutherford, Ken Follet andmy much beloved Octavia Randolph I cannot believeit would fade and die.

  2. Beverly Laude permalink

    People are becoming too easily offended. Bad things happened in the past. Do these same people think that if we don’t write about them or read about them that these supposedly offensive actions will be erased? A very thought provoking articke! Now, I am going back to reading my historical fiction book!

  3. Colleen Baker permalink

    Hello Victoria…..
    I was very happy after reading your article “Repeating History.” This reader loves stories built on or around historical times. To read books that pull me in and at the same time teach me more about history makes for great reading. Please keep up the good fight and never give in to the PC & TwitterCyberBullies. Thank you for the wonderful personal stories you share.
    I truly enjoy your books and as long as you continue writing I will continue reading. Have a great day.

  4. Thank you, Colleen! That means so much!

  5. I really enjoyed your vlog. Our attitudes and beliefs may change over the years, and the circumstances in which we live, but men and women are still the same. We ignore the past at our peril.

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