Thursday, March 8, 2012

Historical Novels Review

I’ve just finished reading through the February issue of the Historical Novels Review which is a publication of the Historical Novel Society. I may have mentioned this in a previous post some time ago but I thought I would reiterate something. Anyone who reads or writes historical fiction, or has a passing interest in history, this is a membership that is well worth the money (about $60 US annually).

Every issue of the Historical Novels Review contains market news about the latest deals and releases of historical fiction/fantasy, something on history and film (love it!) and a spotlight for new voices in the genre (good for you, HNS!). There are also loads of reviews at the back of the publication.

This last issue was particularly relevant to some of the topics, issues, that I have been batting about with other folks on-line and in person of late. In the article, Violence, American Style, Ken Kreckel interviews Donald Ray Pollock. Now, I have not read Mr. Pollock’s work but the interview did ask some relevant questions: How much violence is appropriate in a work? and, How graphically should it be portrayed? Mr. Pollock had quite a rough upbringing and addiction-ridden lifestyle previously, so, when asked why the sex and violence in his work is so graphic, he says that “America has always been a violent place and many , many people are fascinated by criminal behaviour and mayhem as long as it doesn’t strike too close to home.”

That says something about the popularity of graphic violence in writing and other media today. I’m of the opinion that if it furthers the story and is consistent with the particular character, it works. Mr. Pollock says he writes about those darker aspects of life “because it’s what I know best.” Writing what you know is always a good rule! From the historical fiction context, if you are writing about gladiators, then violence and lots of blood is a given reality. On the other hand, gratuitous violence and degradation of women for the sole purpose of titillating the minority of my readers is not what I write for. You may think differently, but for me it seems that writers (and other artists) have a certain responsibility. We can’t complain about how society is going downhill and then encourage the very things that many believe are causing the fall of that society. The HNS article added an interesting dimension to the discussion.

The Historical Novels Review also features report backs on events and conferences. This particular issue looks at the Institute for Historical Research’s conference held in London last November. At the conference, academics and historical novelists discussed how the two come together and the priorities of the historical novelist. Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and a person who had helped the genre gain more credibility of late, was part of the panel. I won’t reiterate the entire article here but the question that was on everyone’s mind throughout the conference was “How important is historical accuracy in making historical fiction worth reading?”

As I’ve said before, that question is something that I have tried to come to terms with over the years in reconciling the historian and the novelist within. When I first started writing historical fiction I went in for the details and accuracy to the hilt but, when I stepped back from the writing, it seemed to the detriment of the story. Too much detail and not enough plot. One of the panellists said that what makes great historical fiction is getting into the minute details and feelings of life in the past, basic fears, loves and hates. The little things, the “minutiae of existence”, are what have disappeared from the record and “these truths about being there are what the novelist tries to convey.” As Hilary Mantel said, “historical fiction is about filling in the gaps” and conveying what was never recorded. That definitely makes for an adventure for both writer and reader.

For all you indie authors out there who feel that the Historical Novels Review is not for you, think again. The HNS Review On-line does look at self-published works as well so there is something in it for the do-it-yourselfers too!

I’ve been a member of the Historical Novel Society for a few years now and I have to say that both the novelist and the historian in me are quite pleased.

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