While my prime focus here is literary and classic 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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?