Kelly Kerney recently wrote a piece for Publishers Weekly titled “The Impossible Task of Writing Historical Fiction.” In it, Kerney proclaims her dislike for the term historical fiction and its rigid connotation—one that conjures bad memories of boring tomes written by authors with penchants for superfluous descriptions and romanticized characters. Meanwhile, other genres, such as near-future, have evolved into clever evergreen categories. But historical fiction writers should not be dismayed. The genre isn’t vanishing—it’s changing.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the sudden proliferation of the neo- prefix. The term neo-historical fiction is a relatively new trend in literature. Neo-Tudor, neo-Victorian, neo-Georgian, neo-’40s—the list goes on. Paradoxically, the neo-historical label claims a novel can be something both new and old. For the writers working in these subgenres, their understanding of the prefix neo- could instead imply something that is revived or modified. Their writing may represent a new attitude toward a particular historical subject, whether it be a character, a manner, or an event. These new categories give life to a seemingly diminished genre. People like new things, so why not brand the same old, same old into a refreshing package, one colored with relevancy?
Like Kearny, writers and publishers shy away from the traditional name. It’s why Bernard Cornwell’s wildly successful Saxon Tales is marketed as a “testosterone-infused action-adventure”—which, I have to admit, sounds a whole lot more exciting than a stuffy old standby. Does it sound better because people don’t like reading historical fiction, or is it because it’s so hard to write? Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize, but it took him 10 years to write it. Don Snyder, an author and mentor of mine, told me that “attempting to write historical fiction is just about the toughest thing a young writer could do.” I tried, and I agree.
When I interned for a local literary agency this past year, I noticed a dearth of historical fiction submissions. In an attempt to avoid the stigma, writers called it something else, evidence they’re catching up to market trends. On top of these concessions to rebranding, I noticed these writers had something in common: they still drew from the same historical tradition laid down by the father of historical fiction, Walter Scott.
Scott’s Waverly pretty much established the historical fiction genre in the 19th century; he wasn’t so much a historical novelist as he was a novelist with a theory of history.
And here is the point I want to make: historical fiction might be changing, lagging in popularity, or losing ground in the “is it sexy?” competition, but it isn’t going away. It isn’t going away because for as long as there are people on this Earth, there will be novelists with a theory of history. Like an albatross, the title may be claimed by fewer writers (including Kerney), and more publishers might shy away from the genre, but the novelists who hold to a theory of history will continue to write it.
I believe all of these neo- subgenres borrow from the fundamental formula laid down by Scott. Think about them. Do you notice similarities? You can call it whatever you want, but if your story deals with collective moments of revolution—such as wars or physical conflicts—or if it shows characters caught between two conflicting factions or ideologies, you’re writing in the vein of Scott. I would even argue that it doesn’t matter if you set your book a thousand years ago or sometime in the future; a theory of history is still a theory of history.
But history isn’t really about the past. It’s about human nature. We use the genre as a lens to see ourselves in a different age. To write on the human condition is to write with a reliance on history. Elements such as political consciousness, large-scale conflicts, revolutions, opposing factions, questions about government, economy, society, culture: all of these contribute to that theory.
Kerney wrote that “history is all around us, a continuum on which the past, present, and the future interact constantly.” It is precisely this interaction—this conversation between past and present, and present and future—that is driving this “new” trend in literature. Historical fiction is not vanishing at all, but changing for the better.
Justin O’Donnell is a writer and marketer living with his wife in Brookfield, Conn.