Saturday, January 19, 2019

Why I Read Historical Fiction

There are no great characters without a great time; ordinary times breed ordinary people (of the sort — dull, trapped, despairing — who inhabit modern novels).

–Hillary Mantel


G. Verloren said...

Hard disagree. I feel like it's an easy trap to foolishly fall into where the assumption is made that only conflict and strife make for interesting stories.

The "great times" of history were full of countless ordinary people leading dull, trapped, despairing lives. And it is almost never the common people of the past who constitute "great characters" in historical fiction - it is the lucky few who either live as privileged elites, or somehow win their favor.

We don't romanticize the illiterate, drunken, forcibly impressed sailor spending an exhausting eight hours pumping the bilge of a ship of the line - it's the gallant captain and his brilliant ship's surgeon who we lavish with our literary attentions.

We're not interested in reading about the everyday routines of the men in the trenches of World War I - instead we yearn to follow the daring and handsome flying aces, with their aristocratic bearing and gentlemanly code of honor and their stiff upper lips, who are somehow just intrinsically more "heroic" for dying in spectacular fiery crashes after dueling skilled opponents, rather than being mulched into a bloody pulp by a random artillery shell landing on them while they sleep fitfully in freezing mud, blood, vomit, and effluence.

In reality, it isn't that great times make for great characters - it's that the familiar tends to be seen as boring, and so the more exotic aspects of the past naturally appeal to us for being novel.

The story of even as exotic a figure as an ancient Roman Legionnaire in resplendant armor seems somewhat dull to us, because we ultimately find it common and familiar. The Legionnaire himself is still just another soldier on the ground, fighting and dying as is his duty, while other "greater" men actually make the decisions which shape the course of the larger conflict. We therefor treat him as banal and mundane - little different than our own modern day soldiers following orders.

But a figure like Julius Caesar? Oh, we can't get enough of him! We'll romanticize him all day long, and put him on a pedestal, and form a cult of personality around him, and excuse it all by saying he was a Great Character, the kind that can only come from a Great Time, and that the modern day is dull and drab and dreary without such figures, and pine for the lost glory of days of yore!

Modern novels don't look at ordinary people leading trapped, dull, despairing lives because the modern day itself somehow has MORE of that kind of people in in that the past did. (Quite the opposite, to be honest!)

No, modern novels are just disenchanted with yet again mindlessly celebrating the exceptional privileged elites that have dominated human discourse throughout all time, and are instead trying (perhaps clumsily) to examine more "ordinary" characters as an exploration of human experience that is more truly universal.

Personally, I'm all for it in principle. Ordinary people leading ordinary lives can be just as fascinating as the most exceptional elites leading the most excessive lives. Look at procedural dramas. Look at slice of life stories. Look at realistic science fiction. Clearly it is possible to tell compelling stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things, without having to obsess about "great characters" living in "great times".

There's nothing wrong with reading historical fiction. If that's your personal cup of tea, more power to you. But I absolutely take offense to the closed-minded insinuation that there are no great characters to be found among the ordinary and the modern. That's just foolish to believe.

Unknown said...

I have a feeling that what John and Mantel are criticizing isn't stories about ordinary people as such, but the endless dissection of suburban psychology. Yet another novel about suburban adultery? How about middle class elders reconciling themselves to a life of not living up to their potential? Or--most thrilling of all--the emotionally constricted suburban household where no one says anything? Whee!

Of course, anything done well is worth having. My memory is that John liked the first volume of "My Struggle." I found "American Beauty" quite moving.

G. Verloren said...


That's a different criticism though. If you feel that modern novels are trite and obsessed with suburban nihilism, then you merely need to say as much.

But to instead say that their problem is actually that they lack "Great Characters", because they aren't dealing with "Great Times", is entirely different, and wrong.

I actually personally agree with the general sentiment that many modern novels are rather awful - they're almost always full of obnoxious, self-indulgent, fetid, flatulent, navel-gazing of the worst kind. They feel like the old Eddie Izzard joke about "room-with-a-view-with-a-stair-case-and-a-pond type movies", where everything is just people opening doors and stammering in embarassment and never actually saying anything of substance despite seething with hidden inner drama.

But the argument for "Great Characters" in "Great Times" feels like simply the other half of that same joke, where those same films get remade by Hollywood as popcorn flicks for American audiences and you end up with "The Room With A View Of Hell, Staircase of Satan, Pond of Death!", where everyone lives in constant open conflict, shouting and cursing at each other all the time, and occasionally engaging in bouts of gratuitous and excessive violence as simple matter of course.

I would posit that both extremes are problematic and can easily lead to terrible stories, and that the key to a good literature isn't setting a work in a "Great Time" and only telling stories about "Great Characters" - but rather finding the greatness that already exists within a given time or type of character, whether they be historical or contemporary; exotic or ordinary.

Writing within a specific genre doesn't magically elevate a work, and historical fiction is not somehow immune to producing bad stories and unappealing characters. Good writing is good writing, no matter the time period you set it in or who you are writing about. You can make a work about Julius Caesar an insufferable and boring mess, and you can make a story about a middle-aged orthodontist from present day Iowa absolutely riveting and full of significant drama.

Subject isn't important. What matters is finding and telling a worthwhile story in a worthwhile way, whether it be about an ordinary topic or an extraordinary one.

pootrsox said...

I cannot speak to historical fiction in general (though Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett does a wonderful job with "ordinary" rather than "heroic" characters) but I can speak to historical mysteries. From the Cadfael series, through a multiplicity of series set in ancient Rome, Roman Britain, etc, to post WWI novels set in England I can point to well-written, historically accurate, and really interesting characters who are definitely of the "ordinary" rather than "heroic" sort, except for heroism in small. Even when some Large Personage walks across the stage, as in Cadfael when the Steven/Matilda war rages, the focus of the novels is on the "real" people, albeit fictional.