Now and Then

“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.

Inventing the future, one toilet at a time.

Inventing the future, one toilet at a time.

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.

5 thoughts on “Now and Then

  1. Faith Hough says:

    This is an excellent post, and I completely agree with your sentiment. I write historical fiction…and believe me, if I wanted to escape to a simpler world, I’d be running, kicking and screaming, away from anything set in the past. (My novel is set in the French Revolution…if there’s one thing I’d like to escape, I’d put guillotine over cell phone.) The present is complicated; the past was complicated–because (surprise!) life is complicated. We don’t write hf to escape–we write because the past is interesting and important and influences the present. Reading historical fiction (and your book is a perfect example of this) doesn’t allow me to escape from my own world as much as to better understand it and more actively engage with it. When I read The Wicked and the Just I sat up for hours thinking of all the ways it applied to the present world (or the way those events influenced the way history progressed into what we have now). Watching the news, I would think about a scene from the story and find connections.
    Anyway…sorry for the rambling comment. And thanks for delving into the past to write such an incredible story!

    • J says:

      First of all, thanks for your kind thoughts about W/J! Ramble away – you’re among friends here. 🙂

      It always tickles me when people ask if I’d like to live in the past since I like history so much. I like the past right where it is.

  2. Yes, J, and yes, Faith, and equating “history” with “easy” is simply ridiculous. We live in the safest, healthiest, free-est time period the world has ever known; why would anyone call the past “easy” and “an escape?” And no one who has struggled to put words on paper should ever begin a sentence with “Writing…is the easiest way…”

    Besides, everyone knows that the best (“easiest?”) way to comment upon our modern world is to write fantasy. 😉

    • J. Anderson Coats says:

      I suppose if you’re not a fan of technology, “escaping” into a past where it hadn’t been invented yet is appealing. However, depending on when and where you are, neither has penicillin or refrigeration.

      • Me personally? I could not imagine living without ibuprofen or the medications that make migraines bearable. And I refuse to contemplate my childbirth experiences without a modern understanding of pregnancy and those helpful, informative sonograms. I don’t understand people who romanticize the past.

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