“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.