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« The Hermeneutics of Suspicion | Main | Novel No Longer »

01/12/2009

Comments

D.W. Merriman

First time poster here, long time reader.

What's ruffling your feathers is symptomatic of the current trend in novels. I like to think of the novel in the twentieth century as having four distinct movements, which can be further caterogized into two dichotomies. The first dichotomy includes modernism, which exalted the text as being a culmination of history and culture, and postmodernism, which belittled the text as merely a product of the current historical and cultural climate. The second dichotomy includes magical realism, which treats as reality what presumably could not happen, and the cultural or historical novel, which treats as reality what presumably did happen.

Novelists and critics, as a group, have yet to advance past this final trend of the twentieth century. You astutely mentioned that "all five of the 2008 National Book Award fiction nominees could arguably be called historical novels." This is symptomatic of the current trend: to presume that the novel is examining actual reality. More popular is the cultural novel, presuming that the reality of a culture can be examined. Recall postcolonialist Le Cl├ęzio's Nobel win, and Horace Engdahl's revealing assertion (which you discussed in a post) that the United States cannot win a Nobel since it is too culturally insular. (Milan Kundera, in his book "The Curtain", describes this as the "provincialism of large nations", as their culture is large enough and rich enough for insularity.) This, as well as the infatuation with the opposite in magical realism, is all just a trend, the current movement. Dan, whether you like it or not, this will undoubtedly be replaced with a different trend, and a counter trend will follow, whatever that may be.

I will say, Dan, that I, too, am frustrated that sticking with the current trend, rather than experimentation, is rewarded. My guess is that only when a seminal work arrives and announces a new movement (such as "The Waste Land" or "Ulysess" for modernism or "One Hundred Years of Solitude" for magical realism) will the precursors to such a movement be appreciated retroactively.

Dan Green

D.W.: Thanks for your interesting comment. I think you're probably right, both about the presumption that that "the novel is examining actual reality" and that the fashion for history-based fiction will pass. It's not happening very fast, however.

Luther Blissett

Dan, there's a vast and interesting body of scholarship on the historical novel and its purposes beyond "merely . . . re-creat[ing] the past." One of my favorites is George Dekkar's *The American Historical Romance*, which explores as its central insight Coleridge's observation about Scott's Waverley novels: the historical novel is one that takes as its main conflict the battle between conservatism and progress, tradition and change. It need not be set too far in the past, it need not have local color or accurate costumes. It need only ponder the question of how something new is born into the world.

As such, the historical novel has often been at the forefront of artistic innovation, as it mixes genres and discourses to stage the conflict between past and future values. It's no wonder that, as Linda Hutcheon points out, postmodern fiction is often very much a type of historical fiction (from Wilson Harris and Alejo Carpentier at the founding of magical realism to Pynchon to Alasdair Gray to Steve Erikson to Barth).

Dan Green

There is postmodern historical fabulation, and then there's historical fiction, such as the novel discussed in this post, the goal of which is clearly to recreate the past. It's the latter I can't appreciate.

Luther Blissett

And the point is that "postmodern historical fabulation" is an awkward way of saying "historical novel." You're free to try to redefine "historical novel" to mean "costume drama," provided you acknowledge the fact that there wouldn't be any postmodern historical fabulation without the tradition of Scott, Cooper, Hawthorne and Hugo.

I'm with Dekkar, though: if it doesn't dramatize the historical and historiographic processes, it's not historical fiction. It's just a novel set in the past.

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