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Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 1: Historical fiction

October 12, 2020

While my prime focus here is literary and classical fiction, I do also delve into other forms (like biography, autobiography/memoirs, poetry, history), and other genres (like crime, dystopian fiction, and historical fiction). So, I’ve decided to start a little MM subseries on other genres and forms, starting with historical fiction. My aim is less to analyse the genre itself, than to share some of the ways in which it is supported in Australia.

I’m starting with historical fiction because of the recently announced longlist for the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize, which Lisa (ANZLitLovers) posted on recently. Let’s start with the prize’s home, the …

Historical Novel Society of Australasia (HNSA)

HNRA describes itself as

the third arm of the international Historical Novel Society, and is recognised as the home of the historical fiction genre in Australasia. The Society promotes the writing, reading and publication of historical fiction … Our events showcase the best literary talent and enable readers, writers and publishing professionals to celebrate the genre.

They consider historical fiction

to be important to both the entertainment and education of readers as it contributes to the knowledge of the reader and provides a valid perspective beyond the viewpoint of the historian. Both the imagination and dedication of historical novelists present an authentic world which can enrich a reader’s understanding of real historical personages, eras and events.

The secret River cover

While I agree that there is an educative aspect, we readers need to appreciate what sort of education we’re getting. We can’t expect certifiable facts but can expect insight into how things were or might have been. My favourite historical fiction, though, does more; it explores the past in a way that throws light on the present. I find the statement that historical fiction provides “a valid perspective beyond the viewpoint of the historian” interesting in light of The secret river controversy. Beyond? I think alongside might be better?

Anyhow, on the ARA Historical Fiction Prize page, they define historical fiction. It:

  • means novels written at least 50 years after the events described, or written by someone who was not alive at the time of the events and who therefore approaches them only by research.
  • can include historical mystery, historical romance, historical fantasy, and historical fiction written for children and young adults; and also alternate history, pseudo histories, time-slip novels, multiple-time novels, and parallel narrative novels with flexibility to crossover between eras stretching from 50 years or more in the past until contemporary times.

HNSA has now held three biennial conferences – in 2015, 2017 and 2019. They also offer a suite of prizes/awards of which the new ARA Historical Novel Prize is “the crown jewel”. The others are the ARA HNSA Short Story Contest and the TCW HNSA First Pages Pitch Contest. They also offered a Colleen McCullough Residency on Norfolk Island in 2019, and this year instituted the Elizabeth Jane Corbett Mentorship for Young Adult historical novelists (that is, for previously unpublished writers of young adult fiction, not for writers who are young adults1)

ARA Historical Novel Prize

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of men

This prize, which is supported (fascinatingly) by a building and facilities company, the ARA Group, is worth $60,000, with $50,000 going to the winner, and $5,000 each to two short-listed writers. It is open to Australian and New Zealand writers. The longlist was announced on 6 October, with the shortlist of 3 books to be announced 28 October, and the winner on 10 November.

The inaugural 2020 longlist is:

  • Sienna Brown’s Master of my fate 
  • Nigel Featherstone’s Bodies of men (my review)
  • Catherine Jinks’ Shepherd
  • Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain (want to read, Theresa’s review)
  • Dominic Smith’s The Electric Hotel (my review)
  • Christos Tsiolkas’ Damascus (my review)
  • Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of lost words (on my TBR, Lisa’s review)
  • Tara June Winch’s The yield (my review)

Surprisingly for me, I have read half of them!

HNSA Conferences

In 2019, the conference included a full-day academic stream, focusing on the overall conference theme of History repeats. There were three panels through the day: Genre and gender; Genre and the discourse of history; and War and conflict. Abstracts of the papers can be found at the link above.

Jessica Anderson, The commandant Book cover

One of the papers was “‘the truth of the book’: Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant as a work of biofiction, Merran Williams“. I have reviewed this book, which is Anderson’s only historical fiction work. In her abstract, Williams says that “Historical novels have the ability to provide unique insights into untold histories” and that

Anderson subverted the traditional biofiction of a man of importance by feminising the masculine history of Patrick Logan and the Moreton Bay convict settlement and telling much of his story from the point-of-view of the soldiers’ female family members. I focus on her fiercely forensic approach to historical research and how she applied this to her writing practice to produce a work of historical biofiction that shines a light on a foundational period of Australian history.

This is a stream of the conference I’d love to attend if it ever came my way.

AWW Challenge

Challenge logo

Many of you know that I have been involved in the Australian Women Writers Challenge pretty much from its inception. It collects on-line reviews by contributors of any books – all forms and genres – written by Australian women. At regular intervals, mostly monthly or bimonthly, volunteers post round-ups of reviews contributed in the previous period for specific genres/forms. Our current Historical Fiction volunteer is Theresa Smith (Theresa Smith Writes.)

You can find her Historical Fiction round-ups at the AWW site. The Books Reviewed search page will find all contributors’ reviews posted to the challenge. The site comprises an excellent resource for reviews on books published recently and in the past, because our reviewers read widely.

Other

The Nib Literary Award could be seen to support this genre in a broad way, because, although its winners tend to be non-fiction, its aims are to celebrate excellence in research, including in fiction.

Courtney Collins, The burial

There is also an interesting international site called historicalnovels.info which devotes a page to Australasia. It’s uncomfortably simplistic in its understanding, offering this about Indigenous Australians regarding historical fiction: “Native Australians, dubbed Aborigines by European settlers, did not fare well as colonization spread, but modern novelists recognize the positive aspects of their culture”. However, for readers looking for a list of Aussie historical fiction books, there’s something here. The list includes classic and contemporary novels – including writers like Eleanor Dark and Brian Castro! I learnt a few things, including that Courtney Collins’ The burial (my review) was published in the USA as The untold.

I’d love to hear what you think about historical fiction – even you Bill! – particularly regarding whether you like and why or why not?

57 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2020 11:08 pm

    An enjoyable Monday Musings Sue! As you know, I love historical fiction and read it more than any other genre or form. Thanks for the (double) mention.

  2. October 12, 2020 11:25 pm

    Even me! Aren’t you sick of me saying how much I dislike historical fiction, at least hist.fic. about history that matters – Australia, C20th wars, the Holocaust.
    Why? Because writers of the time said it better; because contemporary writers cover historical events with a contemporary glaze; because it’s just another way of imposing white privilege on other people’s stories.
    Will that do for starters?

    • October 13, 2020 3:37 am

      Haha Bill … no, never sick of hearing you say how much you dislike historical fiction, particularly in a place where it might get discussion going.

      So let me say things that you’ve heard before, too.

      Writers of the time don’t necessarily say it better because when you are IN something you don’t always see the whole story. Writers of the time could be racist, sexist, colonialist and so on. Even progressive thinking writers can’t help seeing their period through their blinkered-by-that-period eyes. Histories written at or near the time events take place are the same. Historians are blinkered too by their time’s perspectives. Later historians and novelists apply different perspectives which I think is (can be, anyhow, depending on the quality of their writing, thinking, research) useful. Later historians and novelists, for example, consider women (and their actions and role) from a different perspective. This is not to say they “make” stuff up (though of course they might do that). It’s to say that they can bring out different things about the time because, from their world view, they think to look for those things. Also, they can know things that weren’t necessarily known at the time because it was still happening and not yet documented. When you read histories and historical fiction, you have to think about about this whole perspective thing. My argument is that our knowledge and understanding is enriched by reading both contemporary and later perspectives. BUT you can’t just take it – any of it, contemporary or historical – at face value.

      I take your point about imposing white privilege but that’s not a given. Remember, Kim Scott’s That deadman dance is historical fiction. Hopefully, more Indigenous writers will write about the past from their point of view, so that we will have “we of the never never” from Bett-Bett’s perspective, for example.

      How’s this for the usual response!!?

      BTW I love the qualification re “history that matters”. Are you implying some doesn’t?

      • October 13, 2020 7:20 am

        Of course there’s history that doesn’t matter (to me) and do I am perfectly happy to learn British history from Philippa Gregory and Georgette Heyer.

        Kim Scott is a different case. His is as close to a contemporary account by the losing side as we’re going to get. And so is a completely different thing from revisionist accounts by members of the winning side.

        This leads to Waverly, the first work of historical fiction, which (like War and Peace) by being based on talking to old timers is valuable for being as close to contemporary as we can get in those cases.

        Then there are works, like Voss or most of Shakespeare, in which the interesting content is the retelling of known stories to comment on current events.

        • October 13, 2020 9:42 am

          I think you are pushing Kim Scott a bit to get out of approving historic fiction! He maybe as close as we are going to get but it’s still a few generations back, making it historical!

          For the record I’ve never read Heyer or Gregory, though I hear their research is good.

          I saw an article about Carroll’s TS Eliot series which called it I think “higher blown” historical fiction. Which means what, I’m not quite sure.

        • October 13, 2020 5:34 pm

          Georgette Heyer? I have to agree with Sue here: ‘Writers of the time could be racist, sexist, colonialist and so on. Even progressive thinking writers can’t help seeing their period through their blinkered-by-that-period eyes.’
          Georgette Heyer is a classic example of an author bringing their prejudices to the page. Within many of her works she expresses anti-Semitism and casual racism. Viewing history through her lense is definitely not preferable to reading a work of historical fiction written by a contemporary author. There are countless articles written about her on this issue, just Google if you’re curious.

        • October 13, 2020 7:21 pm

          Ah, I didn’t know this Theresa about Georgette Heyer. Are they saying that she expresses these things at odds with the period she writes about? That she has these prejudices herself?

        • October 13, 2020 7:29 pm

          No, that she has these prejudices herself. It’s quite distasteful, once you read up about her. I was going to buy a few of her books, as they’d been recommended to me by a well known author. Prior to purchasing, one of the blogs I follow reviewed The Grand Sophy, and she was disgusted with the obvious anti-Semitism. This led me to look into it further and from there, I spent quite some time article hopping and my opinion of her after all that led me to decide that I was no longer interested in checking out her work. There’s allowing for attitudes of the times and then there’s just crummy people. I feel she falls into the latter.

        • October 13, 2020 7:55 pm

          Yes, there is. And if it’s the latter then I agree. I haven’t read her books but I had heard about a new bio a few years ago by Jennifer Kloester and wondered about reading it because of the esteem in which I thought Heyer was held. I see now that Kloester discovered these values in her research for her biography!

        • October 13, 2020 8:05 pm

          It’s been a hotly debated topic throughout the Romance Writers networks. Heyer is considered a grand dame of the historical romance genre but there are many contemporary romance authors who (rightly so) want her blackballed. Romance as a genre comes under fire enough with its stereotypical cliches. Having an icon who is an anti-Semite is not something that enhances the brand, so to speak.

        • October 13, 2020 8:45 pm

          Oh dear… Part of me agrees and I understand their concern. But I don’t like censorship and banning really. Better to educate and inform people, encourage discussion, and hope they make good reading decisions.

          It’s particularly tricky when an author’s personal ideas appear in his/her work isn’t it?

        • October 13, 2020 9:18 pm

          It is. It becomes very murky. The Romance Writers of America were quite ruthless at the start of this year. People stripped of prizes, positions and memberships. It was quite a sensation to follow.

        • October 13, 2020 10:18 pm

          Wow!

        • October 14, 2020 3:43 pm

          Theresa, I love GH’s romances and don’t take them at all seriously. I have found her historical fiction interesting and informative. When I get home (ie. next week) I’ll address your comment more fully, not to defend GH but because what you say isn’t reflected in my reading (which might just be me being oblivious).

        • October 14, 2020 6:49 pm

          I wondered it you’d reply to this Bill. The one thing I have always heard about Heyer is that her research and therefor her depiction of the era is very good. The book my Austen friends seem to universally approve of is her An infamous army. I wonder if it contains any of these values Theresa has discovered about her.

  3. October 12, 2020 11:50 pm

    Interesting to see the definitions from ARA about what constitutes historical fiction because it’s a question that seems to have many different. answers. Last week I read one blog article which included, as historical fiction, books written by authors who had lived through the era they were describing. That doesn’t sit comfortably with me.

    • October 13, 2020 4:00 am

      Thanks Karen. The implication from HNSA’s 50-year definition is that an older writer could write historical fiction about something they’d lived through. For example, someone born in 1925 could, in the 1990s, have written historical fiction about WW2? Or someone born in 1950 could write about, say, the Vietnam War, in the 2010s. I can live with that because 50 years provides an opportunity for historical perspective which I think is the critical thing.

      However, in the HNSA definition there seems to be two “senses” of “historical”. One relates more to the reader, ie it’s set at least 50 years before the time it was written and is therefore being read. Fifty years is probably enough for us all to see it with an historical perspective? The other sense relates more to the writer, ie, it’s a time period they didn’t live through, so they have to do historical research, even though, perhaps, many of their readers will have lived through that time! This means that a 30-year-old today could write historical fiction about the 1980s. The writer has historical perspective by definition because they didn’t live through it, but many of us readers might not quite be ready to see that period from an historical perspective? Hmm …

      Thanks for the comment – it has made me articulate a little more my understanding of what HNSA is saying and what I feel about it!

      • October 17, 2020 6:43 am

        Hmm indeed. I’m not completely sold on that thinking.

        • October 17, 2020 7:54 am

          Would you like to explain your concerns, Karen? I don’t feel strongly one way or another, really. For the AWW challenge we go with around 50 years, but in the end, for me, it’s a bit about feel.

        • October 19, 2020 4:24 am

          It’s the idea that 50 years is enough of a gap to give a good historical perspective.

        • October 19, 2020 8:23 am

          Fair enough Karen . I think it’s probably enough for a valid historical perspective. In fact I think it’s useful because it’s far enough away for us to start to see some of its impacts – as we saw in the 2000s the impact of the 195Os on women – but close enough for us to ”know” how valid the perspective is, because it’s within lived memory?

        • October 20, 2020 3:47 am

          Oh that is an excellent example that does counter my concern well.

        • October 20, 2020 8:32 am

          Thanks Karen.

  4. October 13, 2020 8:44 am

    I’m not good on Oz h.f., alas .. International h.f. writers I love include Graves, Mantel, Tremain, et al – writers whose works must’ve involved SO MUCH RESEARCH that my tiny mind boggles. With admiration, of course.
    Oz writers have nothing like the volume of material in which to do their research; so they’re to be congratulated even more !

  5. Meg permalink
    October 13, 2020 1:07 pm

    Hi Sue, I like historical novels if they are about factual events and people, but are not distorted to satisfy the writer’s own opinions or prejudices. If I like a historical novel I always do more research just to make sure I understand the history. I too think Mantel is great, along with Tracy Chevalier. I don’t like historical fiction when a love story overtakes the history.

    • October 13, 2020 4:35 pm

      Yes, I agree, Meg, re that traditional style of historical fiction which I think was once called “bodice-rippers”. Distortion is an interesting issue. In a sense, the question is in whose eyes? We could argue that traditional history has been distorted to present a white male point of view? I feel there’s a fine line in terms of distortion that we need to be aware of, but I take your point. I think your checking the history ensures that you can watch out for lines being crossed!

  6. October 13, 2020 2:25 pm

    Historical fiction is my ‘thing’. I enjoy a wide range of genres but I always circle back to historical stories; they combine my love of imagining the past and learning new things about history with story telling.

    • October 13, 2020 4:36 pm

      Thanks Denise. I love that description of why you always return to historical fiction!

  7. October 13, 2020 2:56 pm

    Although I liked Jean Plaidy et al when I was young, I’m not interested in mere recreation of some period for the purpose of what is basically domestic drama, not unless there is some aspect of history to be learned from it. So, for example, I am unlikely to read romances set in the regency period, but I liked reading Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours because I learned about the illumination of books which is a subject that fascinates me.
    What I also like is the kind of historical fiction that brings us the voices of people not heard before. There’s fiction of this type coming out of African countries, where both history and fiction has been written by the colonisers until independence brought mass literacy and higher education to people previously denied it. The historical fiction I’ve read is based on traditional storytelling and oral histories of events passed down to the present from the PoV of the colonised. I have recently started categorising this as ‘hidden history’ on my blog to differentiate it from other kinds of historical fiction which I’ve enjoyed, like the Mantel trilogy which is a study of power and character, or Dragon’s Gate by Vivian Bi which is set during the Cultural Revolution.
    I think that the shortlist for the new award shows the diversity of this type of fiction. I’ve read and learned something from four of the titles, and have one more of them on my TBR with plans to get a copy of Master of My Fate.
    This is also the place to tell you that I am currently reading Steven Conte’s The Tolstoy Estate which recreates the German sojourn at Tolstoy’s estate outside Moscow before they were forced to retreat. As it happens I know a fair bit about this because we had a private tour to Yasnaya Polyana when we were in Russia, and our guide was an expert on the battlefield history of the area, tours of which he more commonly led. So en route, from Moscow, he gave us a bonus history of the German onslaught and how it was repulsed. In a very entertaining novel Steven Conte has done a superb job IMO of enlightening his many readers who won’t know a thing about this remarkable event in the history of WW2. And I think this is a history that matters because the Soviet contribution to the defeat of fascism (whatever their motives) has by and large been whitewashed from the history we were taught during the Cold War.

    • October 13, 2020 4:45 pm

      Thanks Lisa. Too much to respond to here, but I agree with pretty much all you say, particularly about historical fiction bringing out voices not heard before. As you say, there’s a wide range of historical fiction, from that which brings out new stories and voices not heard before to that, like Mantel’s, which draws out something specific from, or which offers a different perspective on, a more known history.

    • October 13, 2020 5:39 pm

      I am glad to hear you are enjoying The Tolstoy Estate. I knew nothing about that particular history and appreciated the insight the novel gave me. Such a good novel!

      • October 13, 2020 10:15 pm

        It’s just wonderful. I was tempted to drop everything today to finish it, but then, I thought, no, I really rather look forward to reading it tonight in bed:)

        • October 13, 2020 10:19 pm

          Sounds like a real treat. There’s something special about reading a great book in one’s bed isn’t there?

        • October 13, 2020 10:23 pm

          Yes indeed, I’m just about to head off to read it now!

        • October 14, 2020 8:35 am

          Hope you had a good night!

        • October 13, 2020 11:13 pm

          I gobbled it up! I started reading it one afternoon thinking I’d just dip in and get started and I read through the night to finish. It was captivating.

        • October 14, 2020 8:39 am

          These days my eyes get too tired for that sort of reading, but how I wish I could do it again.

        • October 14, 2020 12:38 pm

          Now I have to find a way of writing about it without gushing!

        • October 14, 2020 1:17 pm

          I think I may have gushed a bit…

        • October 14, 2020 6:46 pm

          Haha Theresa.

          As you and Lisa wrote this, I started thinking was a strange word “gush” is!

        • October 14, 2020 9:55 pm

          Ha! 😁

        • October 14, 2020 6:39 pm

          I look forward to seeing how you go!

  8. George permalink
    October 14, 2020 9:01 am

    Stendhal’s The Red and the Black was written very close to the time it was set in, but at one point there is a remark to the effect that “I’d prefer to fill this page with lines of asterisks, but my publisher insists that I’m writing about the Frenchmen of 1820.” The ultras then continue their discussion. And I recall that Flaubert said that A Sentimental Education was a history of his generation–it also was written close to the time of its setting.

    Are the continental novelists better at this sort of thing, or do I not have the distance on myown time and country to see what 20th-Century Americans have done? That great white whale The Great American Novel certainly ought to include history, and many of the attempts do aim for it. None that I can now think of seem that compelling. Or the continental novelists may have the advantage of working in smaller countries, where one capital can set the style.

    As for historical fiction set in the more distant past, Alan Tate’s The Fathers set in and around Washington when the US Civil War broke out, seems pretty good to me. Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, Ivan Doig’s Dancing at the Rascal Fair all take smaller chunks of western (US) history, and I should say do so pretty well. I hear good things about Janet Lewis’s The Inhabitants, but it is not easy to find. Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky gives an interesting picture of the great Jewish migration to the US of the late 19th Century.

    • George permalink
      October 14, 2020 10:06 am

      I should add that Cahan wrote a good deal closer to the time of the setting than any of Tate, Stegner, Williams, Doig, or Lewis.

      • October 14, 2020 6:37 pm

        So, do you have an opinion about what defines historical fiction versus contemporary fiction?

        • George permalink
          October 18, 2020 12:37 am

          I would say that fiction can be historical in two senses: as taking in the broader social and political setting (The Red and the Black), or as set in a time clearly not the author’s (Angle of Repose). Any novel I can think of is pretty well tied to a time and place. But not every novel takes in the broader setting. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has historical-novel ambitions in my first sense; but his Monterey novels Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat, set solidly in 1930s Monterey, do not. And of course a novel can be historical in both senses–think of War and Peace.

        • October 18, 2020 8:49 am

          Yes, I like this George. To some degree I think most historical fiction does both, but to different degrees? The latter type of yours, though, I think is often more subtle about its incorporation of the former? I’m trying to remember Canney Row in detail. I haven’t read Tortilla Flat.

    • George permalink
      October 14, 2020 11:36 am

      Also, I find that Janet Lewis’s novel is not The Inhabitants, but rather The Invasion. I’m not sure how I got that so wrong. She wrote other historical fiction, as well as poetry.

      • October 14, 2020 6:39 pm

        Oh, I think we all do that George at times … but thanks for correcting that. Quite a different title!!

    • October 14, 2020 6:36 pm

      Thanks for offering these thoughts George. I must say I have little experience of continental historical fiction so I can’t comment on your question regarding levels of “compellingness”! I can say though that I really loved Stegner’s Angle of repose, and found it such a “real” exploration of life in the pioneering west and the challenges faced personally as well as more broadly within the community. I don’t know most of the others you’ve mentioned.

  9. October 14, 2020 1:15 pm

    I enjoy historical fiction. But then, I enjoy reading almost anything as long as it’s written well. And I do enjoy learning about the period but I take it all with a grain of salt – if I’m really interested in the period I’ll turn to non-fiction. It seems to me that the best historical fiction says as much about the times in which it is written (ie today), as about the period in which it is set.

    • October 14, 2020 6:45 pm

      Thanks Michelle. Yes, I agree that in the end it’s the writing rather than the genre that counts. And, I’m with you regarding the best historical fiction saying as much about the time it was written as about the period it is about. I think that was my point when I described my favourite historical fiction – I like it when it throws light on today. For “facts” I go to non-fiction. But historical fiction can contain “truths” that are sometimes missed by historians, if that makes sense.

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