I love history. I love novels. Put those two together, and you’ve got one of my favourite things: Historical Novels!
But what exactly makes a novel “historical”?
Jane Austen’s books are set in the 1800s, but that doesn’t make them “historical novels”. And yet Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is considered to be a historical novel simply because Dickens was writing about historical events that took place sixty-some years earlier.
But what about more recent history?
Last month, I read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. As I was reading, I got the sense that this book wasn’t set in today’s world… a realization that was solidified with the mention that the sitting president was Bill Clinton. Aha, said my brain. It’s the 1990s!
Now, as it turns out, Clinton’s presidency (or rather the Monica Lewinsky scandal) weaves its way into the book. Not that President Clinton is an actual character in the book—he’s not; nor is Monica—but he’s talked about, primarily by the narrator… for thematic purposes.
Okay, I reasoned… so, this book is a contemporary read. In fact, I’ve noticed that many bloggers categorize it as such. Which means it must have been written in the late 90s or early 2000s, right?
I checked the copyright date.
Wait a minute. That’s last year! In case, you didn’t already know. 😉
So, is this book considered contemporary fiction? Or is it historical fiction?
Historical fiction is usually defined as a book where the historical setting is important to the plot of the book. It’s easy to categorize a book set in Japan during World War II, or one set in London during the time of Elizabeth I.
I would argue that the historical references of the 1990s in this book are rather important to the plot. (And it isn’t just the stuff about Clinton. It’s also the timing with regards to test-tubes babies and the days when infertility was discussed in hushed whispers; the nature of Mia’s photography and art; the Jerry Springer talk show phenomenon; an era before smart phones existed.)
My question is this… Does all this make the book historical fiction? The 90s really isn’t that long ago, and I get the sense that many people don’t like to think of the recent past as “historical”.
So, how would you classify it? Do you call it “historical fiction” if it’s history of the recent past? Or do you consider the 1990s (or even the 1980s or 1960s or 70s for that matter) to be too recent to be labelled “historical”? (And if so, where’s the cut off point for you?)
These are genuine questions and I’d love to hear your thoughts!