Scholars note many factors that complicate our definitions of historical fiction. The genre hinges on finding a balance between what one scholar describes as “inevitable friction between artistic composition and historical verisimilitude” (Hatavara). As historical fiction is somewhat of a hybrid genre, it is difficult to define. Perhaps the best way to approach the issue is to discuss all possible definitions in context of the difficulties inherent in the effort of defining historical fiction.
A basic definition may present historical fiction as a work that blends fact and fiction while referencing history. It is the genre between non-fiction and fiction. It developed as a genre after the 1600s when people tried to separate factual history from fictional history (Maxwell 545). It is seen as a non-academic historical narrative. It differs from “academic” because there are fewer restrictions on citing sources (Nünning 550-551).
Historical Fiction and Non-Fiction
When it comes to historical novels, fiction and non-fiction overlap. Both use similar techniques, including the narrative, plot, sequential, or continuous forms. Both may use an omni-present narrator. Ansgar Nünning suggests that historical fiction, as opposed to historical-non-fiction, removes the author completely, has a backward-looking narrator, and is never in the “present” (Nünning PAGE NUMBER).
Historical Fiction and Past Contemporary Fiction
In order to make the distinction between historical and contemporary fiction in eras, Jennifer Baker traces the history of historical fiction. First of all, Baker’s working definition of the genre relies on somewhat arbitrary, quantifiable values: “For our purposes, historical fiction is defined as novels (and sometimes short stories) with settings from a historical period at least fifty years prior to the work’s publication or occurring before the author’s memory” (1). Baker’s definition acknowledges its limitations by specifying that the definition is “for our purposes,” which would be to find a simple, universal definition of the genre even if this definition is problematic.
If Baker’s definition holds true at least temporarily, historical fiction becomes dependent on the historical orientation of the author and not on the text itself. A young author in 2016, for example, may write a story set in the 1980s that is considered “historical fiction” simply because the period takes place before the author can remember, whereas an older author who lived during the 1980s could write the same setting and it would not count, according to Baker’s working definition, as historical fiction.
In order to deal with this issue, Baker investigates the history and development of historical fiction. Perhaps a good starting point is to clarify what historical fiction is not. The genre does not include classics dealing with contemporary settings of the author’s time, such as Oliver Twist, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Baker 1). However, some of the classic authors of the previously mentioned works did write novels that would qualify as historical fiction, according to Baker: “Among the more famous are A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Letter and War and Peace” (2). Baker also cites Sir Walter Scott as the first author of historical fiction with his depiction of the legendary Robin Hood in the historical context of conflict between King Richard I and John of England (Baker 1).
Despite the technicalities of defining these classics, in a contemporary setting, each title listed above would fall under the category of “classics,” all written long ago, each barely distinguishable from another. In the eyes of a modern reader, all fiction written in the past essentially belongs in the past, to be read and interpreted through a modern lens but with its historical context in mind. If we are to examine the function of historical fiction, it may be that historical fiction as we know it can only serve its purpose when the work of historical fiction was written very recently. This leads to further complications of the definition of historical fiction.
Contemporary Views on Historical Fiction
In the contemporary era, another definition of historical fiction takes shape: that of post-modern historical fiction. Nünning defines this as a work that takes creative/speculative liberties in portraying the experience of a historical moment. It recognizes writing can never give people the same “experience” as the real moment in the past, neither can historical narratives ever be “objective,” so it does not concern itself with technicalities (550-551). Post-modern views greatly impact how we approach and define historical fiction.
“ One characteristic that differentiates current historical fiction from that of the twentieth century is a modern perspective on history” (Baker 5). The 1998 ALAN Review cites the growing prominence of multiculturalism and its invitation to “reexamine our interpretations of history… addressing previously neglected past events or offering revised perspectives of them” (Brown). Hence historical fiction serves a purpose that contemporary literature of the era cannot, that of reexamining history. It calls into question the validity of previously accepted views and the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.
Conventions of historical fiction, formed from audience pressures, are especially prominent in young-adult literature. Historical or fictional characters must be carefully balanced between modern sensibilities and historical accuracy in order to elicit audience appeal. For example, writers of young adult historical fiction cannot adhere to accuracy in such a way as to use archaic vocabulary that would deter readers. Gender roles are another issue in young-adult historical fiction where historical “accuracy” must often be compromised by audience appeal and a characters capacity for likability (Brown).
Historical fiction performs its function by reexamining history through the lens of modernity, according to the era in which the author writes. For example, historical interpretations of the Revolutionary War written during the Vietnam War differed greatly from past portrayals of the American Revolution. The historicized fictional accounts lack definition of good or evil characters and present challenges to parental authority that was assumed in previous renditions of the Revolutionary War (Brown). Hence, historical fiction becomes more a means of understanding the present era than the past.
Baker, Jennifer S. The Readers’ Advisory Guide To Historical Fiction. Chicago: ALA Editions, 2015. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 9 May 2016.
Brown, Joanne, Ricki Ginsberg, and Danielle King. “Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History? Problems for Writers of Historical Novels for Young Adults.” Ed. Wendy Glenn. The ALAN Review. 26 (1998): n. pag. Digital Library and Archives. Virginia Tech, 25 Apr. 2011. Web. 16 May 2016.
Hatavara, Mari. “Historical Fiction: Experiencing the Past, Reflecting History.” True Lies Worldwide Fictionality in Global Contexts (n.d.): n. pag. Stockholm University Library. University of Stockholm. Web. 16 May 2016.
Maxwell, Richard. “Historical Novel.” Encyclopedia of The Novel Volume I. Ed Paul Schellinger.
Nünning, Ansgar. “Historical Writing.” Encyclopedia of The Novel Volume I. Ed Paul Schellinger.