In which I stray off-topic

via Educating Alice

“Writing historical fiction is the easiest way to escape the Now; to avoid dealing with the internet, you only have to step back a decade or two. If you’d prefer to write about characters entirely innocent of TV, you’d need to retreat as far as the 1940s; then you get the second world war and the Holocaust, subjects that, despite their historical specificity, are understood by everyone to be unimpeachably Timeless.”*

I think what bothers me most about this sentiment is the oversimplified assumptions made about not only the past, but the intentions of authors of historical fiction in choosing to write about it. It’s extremely reductive to ascribe a single set of motives to anyone who sets a story in the past, and it trivializes the past itself as static, utilitarian and safely contained. (After all, bad stuff happened in the past, but at least the past is knowable. This does lend a patina of Timeless, but probably not in the sense implied by the article.)

I write historical fiction for a lot of different reasons, but one of them isn’t that I don’t want characters to be able to text. I firmly believe that the past is interesting in its own regard, that the middle ages were full of fascinating, three-dimensional individuals whose lives and worldviews are worthy of narrative space.

When I do my job right, my characters aren’t puppets who caper around acting out some modern morality lesson and they’re not twenty-first-century people playing dressup in chain mail and kirtles. When I do my job right, they’re people with problems to solve in a specific historical context, people who have to make their way in a world just as complicated as ours – sometimes more complicated – and more often than not, ten times as violent and fifty times as uncertain.

The past isn’t a stage. It isn’t a mirror. But is it an “easy” way to escape the Now? Maybe. We’ve spent most of recorded history trying to escape the Now. That’s why we developed representative democracy and codified law and flush toilets.

The problem arises when the past we want to escape into isn’t the past that really was. But revisionism is a whooooole ‘nother post.

* Nota bene: I understand that the primary concern of the article is more the state of Literature (and Literature is definitely not what I do), but even in other genres historical fiction is routinely dismissed as escapism and displaced wish fulfillment. I feel like I’m constantly fighting through a veil of romanticism that’s a direct result of how history is understood and mobilized in certain venues.

About J. Anderson Coats

J. Anderson Coats writes historical fiction for young adults chockful of name-calling and petty violence. THE WICKED AND THE JUST (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) is about teenagers behaving badly in thirteenth-century Wales.

3 thoughts on “In which I stray off-topic

  1. Great post! My current WIP is set in Victorian times, but like you I did’t choose that time period because I didn’t want my characters to have access to the internet or jet planes. It wasn’t even a conscious choice. The story idea formed in my head and the people were from the Victorian age. That was that.

  2. MaryKate says:

    Yes to all of this! Historical fiction certainly isn’t “easy”–not when you have to watch every word choice (can’t say “just a minute” when people weren’t able to mark time that way), every daily activity (What did they eat for breakfast? Did they eat breakfast? Did they call it breakfast?), every assumption…honestly, when I go back to writing contemporary stuff it’s always such a relief (my characters can say “okay” and move around a city with ease and I don’t have to explain every contraption).

  3. Wow. I never realized this was out there for historical fiction the way it is for fantasy. Ditto MaryKate: anyone who thinks you’d write historical because it’s “easy” is insane. The only “easy” thing is that, to some extent, your plot is written for you in the sense that the historical events already happened. And as far as “escape”? Maybe an awful romance novel where everyone is “milord” and there’s as much attention to detail as your average Renaissance Faire where Jack Sparrow is reeling drunkenly around. (Sorry – no offense to people who write good historical romance – you know who you are!) Real history is real life. So what if I think the clothes are pretty? 🙂

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