I am noticing that a lot of my favorite writers are looking back in time to find fodder for their stories. In The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman brings to life New York City in the early twentieth century, with a particular emphasis on Coney Island. I knew a lot about the NYC sweatshops and street life from that time, but I didn’t know much about Coney Island, and I was as fascinated by her rendering of it as I was with the story she set therein. Another favorite writer, Emma Donogue, brings nineteenth century San Francisco to life in her novel Frog Music. Her story (based on a true unsolved crime) unfolds against the background of one particular summer’s historic heat wave and smallpox epidemic. Again, it was fascinating to have a wonderful capable writer bring this moment in history to vivid life. Then there’s The Orphan Train by Christine Baker Kline, which illuminates depression era orphans in NYC who were shipped out to work at jobs in the Midwest. The list goes on.
I never much cared for dry historical texts, so having a chance to regard historical events as perfectly restructured backdrops for good fiction is a great pleasure for me. But I notice the publishers for the three novels mentioned above go out of their way not to label these titles “historical novels.” I agree that first and foremost they are literary novels, but “literary” doesn’t reveal very much information, and I might have been inclined, had I published them, to call them “literary historicals.”
I see their point though. Historical fiction as a genre seems to have shot itself in the foot in the 70s and 80s when it took historical romance under its wing as a sub genre. There were so many historical romances for a couple of decades that the terms historical romance and historical fiction seemed to have merged. The former brought the latter down a notch, because while many historical romances are extremely good, some of them merely provide historical settings for formulaic relationships among the characters. “Historical” became a bad word in literary circles as a result. In more recent years historical fiction seems to be gathering back the strength it once had, but it’s happening slowly.
My novel, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, has two strikes against it. It’s historical in part, and it’s also got a legendary component. Since most legendary materials can be labeled romantic, it’s easy to call it a historical romance. But that’s not what it is. It’s definitely a hybrid, and I’m still trying to figure out how to refer it myself. But that’s okay. I like research, and the avenues I’ve been following to try to discover how to talk about my novel are leading me into some unexpected corners.