Showing posts with label historical fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical fiction. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Whimsy on Wednesday (Jillian)

A little literary news reel for you:

  • On the Telegraph, British author Hilary Mantel has won the Man Booker Prize for her novel Bring Up the Bodies, a sequel to Wolf Hall, which follows Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII.  Bring Up the Bodies details the Anne Boleyn scandal and her unhappy end.  Ms. Mantel is one of two authors to have won the Man Booker Prize twice and the only woman to do so.  This is a great testament to the power of fiction written well... and historical fiction at that.  Hers is the only Tudor-esque novel out of the hundreds that exist that I want very badly to read. 
  • Ian McEwan, also a Booker Prize winner, has said recently that the novella is the perfect literary form.  He might be right but that's quite a difficult thing to accomplish.
  • NPR has a lovely article on the 60th anniversary of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web.
  • National Novel Writing Month is coming up in November.  Writer Unboxed has several posts on preparing for the project.  I am considering participating in it this year, if only to maintain my sanity during this time of the Sisyphean synopsis.  I think it would be a good way to churn out a first draft of a novel, intense though it may be. 
  • Publishers Marketplace had an article on Ann Patchett interviewing JK Rowling.  One tidbit I found interesting: "I find that discussing an idea out loud is often the way to kill it stone dead.  They all sound rubbish," she said. I find this to be particularly true.  My ideas for stories or little nuances in my novel must be kept inside - let out too soon, even in private dialogue with oneself, and the idea evaporates or turns to dust. 

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Matter with Women's Fiction (Jillian)

On the today, (honestly, where else?) an interesting little article by Jojo Moyes sprang up about women’s fiction being unsufferably miserable. “There’s not been much wit and not much joy; there’s a lot of grimness out there… There are a lot of books about Asian sisters […], a lot of books that start with a rape. Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing,” says Daisy Goodwin, who is an Orange Prize judge.

Moyes sympathizes but ultimately concludes: “We’re damned for writing fluffy, upbeat chick-lit about shoes and cake, damned if we write about domestic abuse within a geo-political conflict… the biggest problem facing ‘women’s fiction’ (a term that is patronizing in itself) is that critics still don’t take it seriously.”

I found this article to be spotlighting the trends I see splattered and scattered on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, etc. By my estimation, a good 75 to 80 percent of modern “literature” on the market these days is this brand of writing – the fluffy, brainless kind, or the agonizing kind. So many of these are written by women. Even without having read many of them (listening to my gut instincts and running in the other direction), I’ve been wary of the great disparity between too much fluff and too little joy… mediocre microcosms of dysfunctional realities and self-indulgences. Very few of these novels seem to offer much in the way of “great literature”, but that is what sells. And, unfortunately, it is hard to tell the difference between literature and shelf-filler.

I remember back to my wrath over the historical fiction blunder The Illuminator (Brenda Rickman Vantrease), wherein the lady of a 14th century manor lauds the death of her husband who, as if you couldn’t guess, was an abuser; she has an affair with the illuminator who works out of her home; has to deal with the sexual innocence and unwanted pregnancies of the teenage children in her care (her son, the illuminator’s daughter)… even going so far as to attempt an abortion. (It seems so emotionally 21st century, I wanted to throw up.) Strategically-timed to coincide with the events of the Peasants’ Revolt, the lady’s twin sons end up killing each other, she is raped by the evil steward, and a poor, misunderstood dwarf marries the girl of his dreams. Sorry if I spoiled it for you, but believe me, I am saving you the trouble of wasting fifteen dollars… in case you happen to see its pretty cover and are lured in.

I am still trying to understand it. Again, to use Michelle’s term, this “emotional unkindness” about the past – especially an era of time that seems so cruel and backwater to our “enlightened” culture– is merely an excuse to fabricate a situation and write about misery and violence and its stereotypical manifestations, instead of a.) putting the 14th century in any sort of accurate or enlightened perspective; b.) showing exceptions to stereotypes, and making the characters more than empty vessels fulfilling predictable roles; and/or c.) to show any semblence of inner strength, redemption or character evolution to conclude and save a bitter story. No, this novel ends in rampant deaths… none of them peaceful, either. No fluffy, sugary or smiley-faced endings here. Just a high body count.

So… if I want to win a literary prize, I need to cram as much visceral misery as I can into my novel, a story about orphans or an abused and/or neglicted wife (regardless of whether or not I am one). But if I want to gain a huge reader following and lead the market, I must write about how much I like chocolate. Because, evidently, I am a woman and cannot write about anything else. (Or so it seems.)

As a woman who is a writer, I feel left out of this on-going discussion. My work doesn’t feel particularly feminine or fluffy or miserable… nor do I want it to be. It isn’t that I am deliberately running from the above mode of “women’s fiction” but that the stories I feel compelled to write are not restricted to them. I am interesting in more than one plain of existence… in breaking down barriers in literary themes and seeing where the writing takes me… not where I take it. I am not interested in having an audience primarily made up of women, but of men, as well.

I feel the camps of “the market” and “the critics” do not and cannot dictate my creativity or my taste in books. Neither can probably measure or answer why I get so much more out of George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Susanna Clarke or Flannery O’Connor than I do from anything that is “marketed” in my general (very general) direction. Not because they are women - because they write (or, wrote, as they case may be), stories that are not the status quo. Perhaps this means, scary thought, that I am thinking and writing less like a woman (gasp!) and more like… a writer!

Not, to clarify, that it this a matter of down playing my feminity, but not making it the sole source or shape of my creative fire.


(P.S. Susanna Clarke wrote Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is set in the early 19th century… Strange and Norrell are two competing magicians. Most of the characters are men, and yet this does not prevent Susanna from being true to her characters, male or female, or creating a fantastic, magically-intricate world. She is an exception to the “rule.”)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Trompe l'Oeil (Michelle)

Well, I have no idea how to pronounce it, and only recently learned how to spell it, but I have trompe l'oeil on the mind --- i.e., the artistic style which tries to make a flat painting look 3D and real. For example, this "dome" is painted on a flat ceiling in Gozo Cathedral, Malta.

I've been thinking about this because I recently spent yet another magic morning in the library doing research for the novel, stressing out about historical realism.

As I was walking out of the library, I thought of another metaphor to add to my previous discussion of the problem. It's like trompe l'oeil. Think about it: a representational painting creates the illusion that you are seeing into space (the much-vaunted "picture window"), but at bottom it is still just an arrangement of lines and shapes and colors on a flat canvas. Trompe l'oeil is the most extreme example of this principle, striving for an illusion that borders on trickery.

It's the same with historical writing: I want to make my reader think (s)he's seeing into history --- and to do so I'd better look at history pretty darn closely and replicate it as nearly as I can --- but the very nature of my project is illusion and craft. That's the nature of the beast.

And aren't the best stories, that pull us in and wrap us up, a form of trompe l'oeil? Why do we cry when Romeo and Juliet die, if there's not a part of us that thinks they seem real?

Monday, December 22, 2008

History, Nuisances, Et Cetera: Part 3 (Michelle)

History just became that much less of a nuisance.

I found this wonderful website on medieval and Renaissance material culture yesterday. It's not an academic site, so like all internet sources it should be treated with caution; it seems to be run by a reenactor, as far as I can tell. But it chiefly consists of details from manuscripts and paintings containing particular examples of material culture (carriages; clothing; furniture; boxes; etc etc etc). It takes you directly to the contemporary sources, so you can at least get a sense of how people viewed these elements of their own culture.

As I find them, I will continue add links for similar websites on the Victorian Age, the Roman Empire, the Ming Dynasty, and whatever else I can find that might be of use to writers of historical fiction.

God bless the Society for Creative Anachronism, truly!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Part 2 - Why History is Such a Nuisance (Jillian)

Ah, I considered simply responding to Michelle's post in a normal reply, but then I got to thinking: this has been on my mind lately, so I will just add to her marvelous post. She is totally right - the focus of historical fiction is a bear to smooth out and find the right balance between history and fiction... but above all, no matter where a novel is set, it must be about the story. Other wise, pages will be filled with complicated, and essentially inhuman, words.

As a writer of historical fiction (medieval) I often find myself incensed at the mountains upon mountains of worthless historical fiction. I am not certain this is an occurrence of me being a snob or what. But honestly... *plaintive sigh*

I just finished The Illuminator and thoroughly wished I had not been tempted to buy it. It is exactly what Michelle describes below - an overly unkind attitude toward the past. It takes place in the late 1300s when John Wycliffe is spreading "heretical" ideas about the Medieval church - its corruption and a "big" push for equality among the gentry and the peasantry. However, the characters talk like they're lobbyists fully involved in the struggle... and not surprisingly, there is no attempt to show the Middle Ages as anything but bleak. According to writer Brenda Rickman Vantrease, love was non-existent except in lustful, physical consummation; there were no righteous and good holy men (they all seem to be either dangerous radicals or greedy, wealthy yes-men of useless popes... and during this time there were actually two), nor righteous and good laymen; women were always regarded as little more than sexual property; and all conflicts with evil royal regents and the Church ended in bloodshed... the list goes on.

But the Middle Ages is not so different from the the Dark Ages... or the Renaissance... or Victorian England... or World War Two... in the fact people were still human, feeling human emotions and making human mistakes. The world was no more black and white and bleak than it is now. The citizens of 2008 (almost 2009) live in the same world that citizens of 1390 did - it is simply a little older. Regardless of what ideals or religious fervor ordered their lives, they still have a story. The post-modern age revels self-indulgently in the thought that with our technology and increasing knowledge of our universe, we are somehow above the views and stories of the past... when in fact, it isn't true. The stories have color. They never were black and white.

When writing historical fiction for myself, I have been swept away in the knowledge that it is a profound balancing act. That history is more than just a backdrop for a story, but often the life-blood, and the characters cannot be mouthpieces for current ideas. I, too, worry over the technicalities - wondering if a monk would really enter a bedchamber to tend to a sick young woman... whether or not there would have been some gender-barrier preventing him from giving her solace. Or what of the reverse? Could a woman tend to a man?

It is a beautiful challenge... but one I take personally for the sake of the stories of the past.

(Thanks, Michelle, for writing about this!)

Why History Is Just a Nuisance (Michelle)

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." (L.P. Hartley)

"The perfect is the enemy of the good." (Voltaire)

Writing historical fiction convinces me of one immutable fact: history is a total nuisance. Mind you, it's a good nuisance, like the presence of other people in the world, or children clamoring for attention, or the need to eat. There are some things that "bug" us that actually make us fuller, better, or less selfish people.

The foreignness of the past, the presence of certain historical facts that cannot be changed, and the stubborn refusal of historical people to see the world as we do all force us to admit that our own experiences and culture are not immutable, inevitable or superior to others'. Still, the initial irritation caused by such stumbling blocks in the creative process cannot be denied. Hence, the "nuisance." In any case, here, as promised, are a few initial reflections on the problems of writing historical fiction.

My own novel is set in 1513 (Is that the Middle Ages? The Renaissance? Ask six scholars, you'll probably get six different answers.), and while it contains more than a heavy dollop of fantastical events, I do want it to possess a measure of historical authenticity. In fact, that authenticity is pretty important to its main themes.

This means that I get frequent, frequent headaches about that authenticity --- in terms of dialogue, events, character reactions, settings, and on and on ad infinitum. Would friends of different genders, not sexually involved, have embraced after long separation? What finger would that woman's wedding ring be on? What did royalty travel in --- were there carriages yet? What would she be wearing? It's so hard to be personally authentic to my own vision and yet not to be modern!

It helps that I believe that there is a basic core of human nature, however shaped by culture and historical circumstance individuals might be. I'm not of the school, for example, that believes that no one fell in love until Chretien de Troyes invented it in the 12th century. Chretien gave us a language to talk about it that still influences us today, but affection existed.

But in some ways that makes my task harder, because it means that so many modern novels set in the Middle Ages and Renaissance offer very little guidance to me, as they take for their premise that life was simply nasty, brutish, and short. In fact, the only modern novels set roughly in my period that have been any help are Ellis Peters' marvelous Cadfael mysteries. Her characters seem authentically medieval (whatever that means) while displaying some of the humane qualities I am attempting to use in my own writing.

Then there is the question of dialogue. The article about M.T. Anderson, author of Octavian Nothing, that I posted last week, offers this interesting perspective:

He was so obsessed with getting Octavian's voice right that for the better part of six years, he restricted his reading to books written in or relating to the 18th century. He started speaking in "much longer sentences with a lot of semicolons," with the unintended consequence that his girlfriend mocked him for sounding like "some 18th-century [expletive]."

I admire this approach immensely, and I was actually doing something similar before I even read this article (she said smugly) by rereading a lot of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and historical non-fiction, as well as listening to audiobooks in the car of the same. These days, I often hear the cadences of Lord Peter Wimsey or the characters on Doctor Who in my I'm trying to clear out some of those modern cadences.

However, no matter what I do, I will always be writing by analogy. Unlike M.T. Anderson, I cannot perfectly imitate the speech and writing of the period, because then my characters would be speaking some form of late Middle English. (D'oh!) Rather, I have to figure out a way to evoke pre-modern speech patterns without sacrificing the immediacy that modern idioms will have for readers.

And this seems to be the heart of the matter in general, probably even for M.T. Anderson ---historical fiction is always an exercise in analogy, in making the past imaginatively accessible to modern readers. If you recreate the past absolutely perfectly, then you're just a Chaucer imitator, and there's nothing fresh about what you're doing.

To paraphrase a rather brilliant friend of mine, a modern reader's interest in an imaginary country depends, among other things, on its immigration policy. That policy must allow easy passage --- you can't demand that your immigrants memorize the whole Constitution verbatim, for example. That means, for me, that I can't demand of my readers utter historical authenticity or the ability to read Middle English. I am allowed a few anachronisms in the name of accessibility.

This, unfortunately, is anathema to my perfectionist spirit --- that part of me that is the consummate scholar. It's really hard to be both a scholar and an artist, but for some reason I persist in believing that it's possible. As somebody not all that wise once said (I think it was Voltaire, you see) --- "The perfect is the enemy of the good." If I get too hung up on authentic speech cadences or historical exactitude, the story itself will never be told. And there's the difference between a novel and a dissertation: the point of the novel is the story, not the historical accuracy.

I need to remain constantly limited by the strictures of history --- to feel the thorn in my side of that "nuisance" --- but I also need to know when to let go and allow the story to tell itself. Must everything in life be a balancing act?

p.s. If you get these posts via RSS feed and have gotten this one about sixty times, I can only apologize. The glitchiness of Blogger is driving me insane today!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Octavian Nothing, Et Alia (Michelle)

I welcome myself back after a very hectic Thanksgiving week! Welcome back, Michelle. So nice to see you here.

On to business: here is a great article that ran in the Washington Post this past weekend on M.T. Anderson, another young adult writer of quality. (At least, I think he is; I have not yet read his book.) He is the author of Octavian Nothing, an epic set in the Revolutionary War documenting the experience of a slave in very unusual but historically accurate circumstances. I noticed it in Borders a couple of days before the article ran, and now it's certainly on my list to read.

I was particularly interested in what Anderson had to say about trying to absorb 18th-century sentence structure, as I have been wallowing in Chaucer lately in an attempt to clean out some modern cadences from my ears, for the purposes of my novel. More on that in a future post probably.

In other news, here is What I Did With My Summer (or Thanksgiving) Vacation:
  • Read a lot of Chaucer (see above)

  • Saw (twice) and loved (twice) the Twilight movie. Ate my words from months previous about how it looked imbecilic and came away with a hearty respect for Robert Pattinson (channeling James Dean and Max Schreck simultaneously?!), Catherine Hardwicke (making it beautiful), and the general power of not being too cynical for your own good.

  • Finished a chapter! Yay! I successfully narrated a medieval journey without mentioning seedcakes once. Victory is mine.

  • Actually did research for my novel, which felt very virtuous.

  • Went to the library and checked out a whole pile of books I knew I wouldn't be able to finish but enjoyed myself anyway.

  • Fretted about historical accuracy in fiction. (More to come on this issue.)

  • Formed a resolution to read some E.T.A. Hoffman, after I finish the Canterbury Tales (ha!), The Faerie Queene (bigger ha!), and this random book I picked up at Borders about medievalists...

And, last of all, Coming Soon: Why History Is Just a Nuisance


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