Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Looking for the next Bonfire

The UK has been having an interesting discussion lately regarding historical fiction.

This is one of the things I love about the UK, I must say. The US might have a discussion about race, if we're feeling really angry, but more often our discussions are about Balloon Boy and the Yankees dynasty. We would not have a national discussion about historical fiction.


The Man Booker prize ostensibly rewards the finest fiction produced in the past year as written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland (so no Americans, sorry). The release of the shortlist for this year's Man Booker prize stirred some contention when the public realized a number of the books listed were historical fiction. Indeed, the winner of the Booker prize, Hilary Mantel's WOLF HALL, is set in Henry VIII's court.

As Tim Adams for the Guardian wrote:

"Writers have always mined the past for stories that will illuminate the present, but the current appetite for historical fiction, and historical drama and anniversary-based TV and journalism, seems like something different – a flight from the here and now. (The future, of course, has for a little while been something we would rather not think about, or hoped might go away.)"

This is surprisingly similar to the conclusion of Simon Schama's TV documentary series A History of Britain, where he summed up his reflections on the most recent episode on Churchill and Orwell, but also the entire series:

"…It's our cultural bloodstream, the secret of who we are, and it tells us to let go of the past, even as we honour it. To lament what ought to be lamented and to celebrate what should be celebrated. And if in the end, that history turns out to reveal itself as a patriot, well then I think that neither Churchill nor Orwell would have minded that very much, and as a matter of fact, neither do I."

Of course, one could argue that Americans also honor their history. But is it part of our cultural bloodstream? Tim Adams thinks not to the same extent. As he said,

"There was a time when British novels did what they said on the tin... they took on the present and found new ways to understand it (this is still what the best American novelists, by and large, attempt – it is hard to imagine Richard Ford or Jonathan Franzen, to take two examples, having too much to say about the Pilgrim Fathers or Abraham Lincoln)."

It's an interesting, complex debate. When I watched Schama's documentary, his claims about Britain's "cultural bloodstream" resonated as true for me, even as a former American history teacher. I think there is a certain level of fascination with the past here that I don't see in the same way in the US. But of course, these are all generalizations, not absolute truths.

So how interesting it was last week Tuesday, when I had the opportunity to listen to two literary agents share their thoughts on the industry as part of my writing course's Tuesday night series.

Both agents (I'm going to avoid mentioning names, since this was a private forum), are fans of historical fiction and historical thrillers and represent a number of authors of these genres. They're happy to get more, too. But they referenced the historical fiction debate, and said something I found quite interesting. They believe there aren't enough overarching commentaries on modern Britain published today. They praised BRICK LANE by Monica Ali, but wanted more, ala Charles Dickens or THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe.

I can't imagine writing such a thing, talk about intimidating. But I do love this writing. And perhaps they are right, perhaps the UK needs more commentary on its present.


  1. How interesting! I guess ideally countries would have both: awareness of history and commentary on the present. I wonder why it seems like it's either one or the other? And I wonder where the recent popularity of dystopian fiction (at least in the US) falls into this - a commentary on past, present, and future?

  2. Thanks, Anna, I'm so happy someone else found this as interesting as I did! =)

    So fascinating your point about dystopian fiction... definitely some amount of commentary on the present, even though it isn't set in the modern day US. But I hadn't thought of that before, at least in those terms.


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