Historical Fiction

Guess who forgot August 1st was the first Tuesday of the month? Then just lost her mind in regards to posting this? Yes, that’s me waving! I’m just diving in.

A few weeks ago, my Teenreads newsletter hit my inbox and I carefully perused the latest YA titles that’ll be hitting shelves soon. I love the Teenreads’ breakdown because they don’t simply list all of their titles, they also provide genre labels.

I happened to see “historical fiction” so I stopped to read the book’s synopsis. I was shocked to learn that the book in question was set in the 1990s. I’m a ’90s baby. And I am not old—I’m not even 30! As far as I’m concerned the ’90s are not historical fiction. It might have gotten my back up.

Later, while I was trying to sleep, I couldn’t help but wonder what I do consider historical fiction. Stories set in the ’70s? ’60s? ’50s? I couldn’t decide. So I decided to look into it.

This speech by Sarah Johnson of the Historical Novel Society turned out to be an excellent resource. Two parts jumped out at me while reading.

First, her definition of Historical Fiction: “My journal, the Historical Novels Review, has a working definition, which we use for consistency purposes in deciding which books to review. To us, a ‘historical novel’ is a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.”

Second, this statement that I feel explains how the label became affixed to the novel that sparked this post in the first place: “I’d say that books are called historical fiction by the publishing world only when no other words could possibly be used to describe them.”

Now I have to backtrack a bit because my research has led me to discover that not everyone knows, or can decide on, what historical fiction actually is.

I came across this site in my travels that I completely disagree with for a number of reasons. The main one is applicable to this post: Despite what the writer says, alternate history is not historical fiction—it’s fantasy. Maybe general fiction depending on what happens and to whom.

For me, historical fiction does it’s best to portray history as close to the facts as possible. Depending on the author, they may have to change a few or many things to make the story work. Compare these prime examples: Diana Gabaldon and Philippa Gregory. Over two lengthy series, Gabaldon has made the conscious choice to change two—yes two—historical events in all of her books to make the story work. She stays true to history to a near fanatical degree. Gregory, on the other hand, has always played it a bit fast and loose with her characters, but she stays true to the major historical points and (in)famous people she depicts.

It all comes down to two things: one, historical fiction depicts the true past; and, two, the writer has done their research, not written a memoir or used their own memories to create the setting. If you’re interested, this thread on Library Thing covers a lot of what I, and Sarah Johnson, believe about historical fiction.

What are your thoughts on historical fiction? I didn’t know I had such strong feelings.

A Book with Something to Say: The House of the Scorpion

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of joyless books. They’ve been excellent, thought provoking reads, but they’ve left me a bit saddened and appalled over what humans can do to other humans. Not to mention what humans can do to everything else. I’m not sure how this trend came about, but after my current read I am picking up something fluffy. Very fluffy.

In the midst of these reads, I happened to finish Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own; therein, she mentions that women writers, since that is the focus of the essay, should not strive to write a book that speaks to those who criticise women writers. On page 73 of my version*, and in other parts, Woolf notes that the stories that speak to something more than the story the writer is trying to tell are not nearly as grand as “pure” novels. When writers try to write about something specific, like the treatment of women by men, they lose the art of storytelling.

My Woolf comments may seem like a random aside, but I’ve encountered these thoughts in recent years. On the one side, there are writers who refuse to admit that they have a social responsibility when it comes to their work. On the other side, there are readers who think books about social issues are boring. There’s even an entirely different set of people who think fiction can’t teach them anything.

I call bull on all of them. There are numerous writers who handle major issues adeptly and integrate them into their stories so that some readers don’t even know they’re being educated.

This brings me to Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion. This is a book geared towards the 9-12 crowd. It’s a coming of age story about Matteo Alacrán who we meet when he’s three years old and leave when he’s fifteen. It’s a futuristic, science fiction tale. It’s a horrific depiction of human selfishness and cruelty. And it also happens to be a book about sociopolitical, ethical, and scientific issues that were in serious debate at the time of its writing (2002), specifically cloning, pollution, immigration, and the treatment of migrant workers.

Compared to other books that try to teach, which can be extremely heavy handed, Farmer weaves these issues into her story seamlessly. I recently finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, which concerns itself in large part with the issue of global warming. However, the problem came up so often in such a not-so-subtle fashion that I couldn’t help rolling my eyes towards the end. For me, the difference was learning about these sociopolitical issues through Matt’s eyes and ignorance versus having a narrator say it to me repeatedly.

The fact that Farmer writes for kids likely influenced her treatment of the lessons she was trying to impart. There’s a reason people told kids fairy tales to keep them safe. Kids are much better at intuiting the lessons of a story that entertains them than listening to repeated lectures.

As someone interested in science, I usually enjoy stories about cloning. It hit me reading The House of the Scorpion that every book, regardless of genre, that I’ve read that contains clones sees them treated horribly by the rest of humanity. I was young when Dolly the sheep hit the scene and I have no idea what the general response to her existence was. Personally, I have a pretty strong grasp of science, especially genetics, so the idea of cloning doesn’t bother me one bit. I might be an oddity.

In regards to immigration and the treatment of migrant workers, it saddens me that the future Farmer depicts is extremely relevant now fifteen years after her story was published. Anyone who does not believe slave labour exists in this world, or even on our continent, is grossly mistaken.

Overall, as a reader, Farmer’s novel has given me a new appreciation for books that say something. As a writer, I feel educated about dealing with heavy topics now that I’ve read books that handle it well and not-so-well. I highly recommend The House of the Scorpion, but fair warning: It is a difficult read. The pages fly by, but the horror depicted is hard to digest in big chunks.

What’s the last book about a serious topic you enjoyed or felt changed your outlook on something?

 

*Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Annotated by Susan Gubar. Harcourt: NY, 2005.

A Year of Reading Women

I want to start my post today by apologizing for missing the first Tuesday of this month and not writing until now. The shift from April to May caught me a bit off guard and I did not manage my time well. Life got a little bit hectic and I couldn’t seem to get it done.

As I type, I realize we’re already in the 20th week of 2017. Is there a better time to initiate a reading challenge? Probably, but I’m doing it anyway! I would love for people to join me, yet I also want to see if I can personally do it. From my title, you have likely figured out that I want to read books written exclusively by female authors this year.

Honestly, barring book club picks by other members and assigned reading for my courses, I don’t think this will be a difficult challenge. I read stories written mostly by women anyway; looking at my bookshelves it’s an easy 3:1 ratio. However, with recent events around the world concerning women and those who identify as female, I want to make a point of it.

And I won’t be reading just fiction because obviously women write much more than that. I’ll be adding poetry, drama, essays, memoirs, and all the other good stuff out there. Too readily, certain governments and individuals with power are trying to silence the women who don’t agree with them. I might not be anyone important, but this shall be one of my means of resistance.

I was reluctant for all of a minute to take up this challenge. The only reason: one of my favourite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay, will be a guest of honour at When Words Collide this year and I had wanted to read all of his books I currently own. At this point, all I can do is shrug –they’ve sat there for years and a few more months won’t hurt them, or me.

So, as I look above my laptop screen at my calendar called “Women Reading,” I shall admire the artwork then shove my nose in a few more books. I hope you join me!

Interesting Finds

I have been all over the internet this month, so there’s a lot to share. Enjoy!

Have you ever wondered what those schoolyard bullies turn into? I’ve had to deal with a Regina type. Funny when she left how everyone at my job started getting along a lot better.  https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/bullies-youll-meet-business-sarah-w-browne

It’s hokey but true: a picture is worth a thousand words. What words come to your mind when you see all these male authored books flipped backwards? https://heatst.com/culture-wars/ohio-bookstore-flips-male-authored-books-displaying-them-backwards/

If you’re a language nerd, like me, check out these 10 things about the Englihs language. http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2015/08/ten-things-you-might-not-have-known-about-the-english-language/?utm_source=March21-17&utm_campaign=od-newsletter&utm_medium=Email&utm_content=10thingsaboutenglish-list-toppanel

I am a naturally negative person. I simply have trouble seeing the bright side of things. But I’m willing to try a few of these 10 things to make my life better. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/10-habits-that-will-dramatically-improve-your-life_us_58cae67ae4b0e0d348b3416b

This infuriates me. Good thing Angela Merkel has a better hold on her temper than me.  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/21/trump-did-to-merkel-what-men-do-to-women-all-the-time

If you don’t know the horrifying events happening in Chechnya right now, this is an important read. It makes me sick to my stomach. http://feminist.org/blog/index.php/2017/04/12/persecution-of-gay-men-in-chechnya-escalates/

And if that got a fire burning under you, here are 8 calls to action so you can help.

http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/35576/1/help-stop-the-torture-of-gay-men-in-chechnya?utm_source=change_org&utm_medium=petition

I’m finding this world a difficult place to exist in right now. It’s hard to believe what humans do to each other. All any of us can do is stay positive, stay informed, and help in any way we can.

People Who Don’t Read Fiction, or, A Defence of Fiction

Chances are, if you’re reading my post here, you are a fan of fiction. After all, I’m all over the internet as a writer and reader of fiction. Also, taking an assuming leap here, chances are that if you are a fan of fiction, like I am, you too are confounded by people who do not like or refuse to read fiction.

I have to admit that I see people who don’t read fiction in a strange light. Just like I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with people who don’t like animals. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people who don’t like fiction. I think it’s strange, but it’s not nearly as odd to me as the animal thing.

My friends and I have discussed this topic at length, and the main rationale we hear from people who don’t read fiction is that they don’t/can’t learn from it. Honestly, this infuriates me. I don’t want to insult anyone, but if you can’t learn from fiction, you’re either too lazy to figure out its purpose or you lack an ability to sympathize, or you have some combination of the two.

Understanding fiction isn’t for lightweights. Not only do you have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but you have to be able to read between the lines. Reading and comprehending fiction requires skill and intuition.

Now, I read non-fiction as well. I enjoy books on history and philosophy and science. One of the best books I’ve ever read is a non-fiction book called Sex with the King. But the thing about non-fiction is, you don’t have to go an extra step. All you have to do is read a straightforward argument and decide whether you agree or not. You can go an extra step, but you don’t have to.

With fiction, you’re always presented opposing views. Sure, the author leads you in a certain direction, like a thesis would, but you get to see all the sides. This isn’t always the case with non-fiction. Exceptional non-fiction will provide a full view and use counterarguments, but there is still no requirement that you think outside its confines.

I must admit, I’m tired of people trashing fiction, especially genre fiction. If you open your mind, you can learn just as much, if not more so, from fiction of any kind. And it’s usually a much more enjoyable journey. Some books I would liken to non-fiction, as far as what they can teach a person, include: The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, A Thousand Acres, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Beautiful Monsters.

Those are just off the top of my head. What fiction books would you consider more educational than some non-fiction?