Slumming in historical fiction

or, Politics? What Politics?

Yesterday I read a Tim Kreider piece at the New Yorker blog: Our Greatest Political Novelist? In it he argues that a science fiction writer might count as our greatest political novelist, and boo-hiss to genre snobbery. His chosen one is Kim Stanley Robinson. As an old science fiction lover, I thought his first few paragraphs simply the statement of an overdue truth: of course we’re important. Then he comes to discuss Kim Stanley Robinson’s foray into prehistoric fiction – which he introduces thus:

“Robinson’s new book, Shaman: A Novel of the Ice Age, is what you might technically call historical fiction, though it’s not the kind with a buff Byronic groomsman clutching a swoony supermodel heiress on the cover.”

F***. As I tweeted at the time. Genre snobbery? From the intellectual heights of his science fiction, Robinson slums in historical… Tim Kreider, genre champion, trots out the worst of the stereotypes.

Are the charges true?

Is HF a tame genre that doesn’t throw out experiments? Does it fail to do any analytic task, when it talks about history? Why are we lampooned, by a genre champion?

What I hear from listening is that historical novelists, when they think about their job with history, think of accuracy. Accuracy first, and they can obsess over accuracy. How about analysis? You have to think about your history too, but it’s fair to say analysis is less discussed. These are the two parts of the job with history, and it’s the analysis one that matters and that makes for fiction that aspires to be exciting (in an intellectual sense) or important.

Science fiction isn’t afraid to use these terms of itself, in the face of a sceptical world. They know they’re writing important stuff, stuff on the edge of the intellect, and they can knock your brains out of your head. They know this, they are self-aware, whether or not the world sneers at “that embarrassing little Saturn-and-spaceship sticker on the spine.” (quote Kreider)

Why can’t I stand up and confidently say these things of historical fiction? Why does the world still sneer? Why does Tim Kreider sneer?

Perhaps Kim Stanley Robinson himself wasn’t aware of the potentials of historical fiction, since he’s put out a tamer effort with not enough analysis – going from Kreider’s criticisms. (Or he just wanted a rest. Because he has been to history in The Years of Rice and Salt). – I can see an argument that the experimental stuff is happening in historical fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay is said to think about history, although I was let down by his Under Heaven. Or KSR in the alt-history just mentioned.

Kreider seems a groovy dude, but his attitude to historical fiction is out of the dark ages, and I see our reputation is as low as ever, at least in his quarter. And I do care what he says, as a cultural commentator, and as a champion of science fiction – the thinking person’s genre.

Why isn’t historical fiction a thinking person’s genre? The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. My first instincts, that I Twittered out, were, ‘It’s not his fault, either. It’s ours.’ I was in a slump with historical fiction yesterday, anyway, and had turned for strong liquor to 70s scifi in the person of James Tiptree Jr (intellectual giant). So this New Yorker post struck a chord. We’re not as well-off for thinking books as science fiction. I grew up on Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions. Where were historical’s dangerous visions? Where are they now?

Intellectual work can be done by historical fiction. This statement of Tim Kreider’s is rich to my ears in unintended irony: “Science fiction is an inherently political genre… It is also, I’d argue, an inherently liberal genre (its many conservative practitioners notwithstanding) in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident…”

What the eff is historical fiction for, then?

Historical fiction sees, or should see, our present as just the latest slice or stage of history, as subject to change as that which went before. It studies, or should study change.

Yet I bet he’d call us an inherently conservative genre. Because I’m almost fit to do that myself.

I worry about the time we spend with kings and queens. It’s nice when we have revolting peasants instead, but notoriously, they don’t look so glamorous on the bestseller shelves. The least-thinking sort of historical fiction lets every woman live a queen’s life and every man revert to a Viking. – And do we need an Anti-James Tiptree Jr Award in hf, as the least gender-questioning of genres? Yes, we do.

Criticise your king. If you wouldn’t vote for a king today, but you’re writing about one in the past, don’t leave your politics at the door. Think about them. There’s a crowd of what I can call wish-fulfilment hf, where we sink indulgently into history because it was more vivid, more bloody, more glamorous – that’s our pulp, like sf has a pulp, and most of us are fond of pulp. Right now I’m only here to talk about the intellectual end. There is one, even if Tim Kreider hasn’t caught up with the fact.

Every page we write has consequences. As he points out, prehistoric fiction has to take a stand on rather major and contentious issues: human violence, human sexuality. I’m here to tell him, if he doesn’t know, historical fiction does too. My subject’s steppe-and-settled, and I meet major issues. Write a page, it’s political.

On that I agree with Julian Rathbone. In an interview he said this:

“We should acknowledge that we experience our sources through modern sensibilities. All historical novels, consciously or unconsciously, present a point of view and I think it is better if the writer knows what he is doing, rather than not. It’s a more honest approach. If you think of historical fiction in the past, Walter Scott for instance, they definitely had contemporary relevance – the Whig view of history for instance. When you get into modern popular historical fiction, on an overt conscious level that disappears – but however unconsciously, the writer’s ideology or agenda are still there.” — the interview online

They are still there. Politics sticks out a mile. No doubt a great artist can disguise it… but these are the Rathbone Rules –
1) Your politics comes out in your work, no matter what.
2) It’s dangerous to have unconscious politics in your fiction. Better have them conscious.

I know how present politics is, I know I face political questions, big ones, and I don’t want to dodge them, I want to tackle them head-on. Leave my politics at the door? leave my beliefs & principles? No way, or else what’s the use to even look at the past? I’m with Julian Rathbone on this. As for Tim Kreider, to write about the past can be as political as to write about the future. Inherently political, even inherently liberal, “in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident…” That is HF’s job.