Historical Fiction and the New Literary Taboo

March 17, 2016 | 11 books mentioned 16 5 min read


There’s a moment in Shawna Yang Ryan’s soaring new novel, Green Island, where the narrator is about to break away from the life she’s always known; she will shortly be leaving Taiwan behind — emigrating across the Pacific Ocean to California. Her father comes into her bedroom as she’s packing. He has a gift, of sorts, for her. He’s brought a jar of soil from the family garden.

“I want you to remember.” He set the jar atop my heaped clothing. “Don’t forget.”

Don’t forget. His words were both an order and a plea.

It is February 1972. Richard Nixon is on his trip to China. Visiting Hangzhou, he’s completing the diplomatic mission that will open formal relations with the PRC. Taiwan, of course, watches with concern; China is a hostile power; with the recognition of the People’s Republic by the United States, Taiwan’s sovereignty might soon be at risk.

These, then, are the twin concerns of Green Island: the political and the personal. Indeed, just a few pages earlier, Nixon’s visit has been relayed by the novel’s narrative voice:

Nixon stands against a metal rail and tosses food into the water with concentration and joy. He drops into a grinning reverie as if he has forgotten the entire world is watching.

“Dr. Kissinger,” the translator says, “you can have a package if you want to feed the fish.”

“Denmark, Denmark,” says the Secret Service. “President feeding fish.”

They stand here at this moment, three of them the most important people to the fate of Taiwan — Richard Nixon, Chou En-lai, and Henry Kissinger — on an overcast day in Hangchow, feeding fish.

Walter Benjamin wrote that it is, “more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned.” And there are a number of novels, right now, that are balancing these antipodes — that take significant, well-known historical moments, and show them through the lens of nearly powerless, “nameless” protagonists. Through individuals buffeted by the afflictions of their age.

coverOf course, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See — with over two million copies sold, in hardback — is an example of this. Doerr’s novel follows two deeply-menaced protagonists — Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig — as they move within the world of German-occupied France. Though Werner has enlisted in the Nazi army, he has done it from necessity, and his efforts to retain his decency in the face of war, in a way, end up causing his death. Marie-Laure is blind; the conflict threatens her in a bodily way; she feels wholly apart from the big geopolitical forces that are — with generalized malice — trying to kill her. She is a suffering witness to history.

covercovercoverMany of the successful literary novels of the past 30 years have negotiated a similar territory, pairing small characters and big circumstances. Girl with a Pearl Earring (Griet, the fictional household servant, and Johannes Vermeer), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (fictional Saleem Sinai, balanced against the political and social figures of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (W.P. Inman, the wounded Confederate deserter, and the army he’s just left), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (the fictional doctor Simon Jordan, and the 19th-century murderer Grace Marks) even Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Sethe and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850), have all paired erstwhile anonymous, imaginary characters with unquestionably “real” circumstances. These books do not ignore history; they don’t neglect the geopolitical events that shape the societies in which their characters have “lived.” Rather they thread their characters through these times, using the novel as an opportunity to show the impact of world-historical events on individual lives.

In “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke says that, “the pictures drawn in our mind are laid in fading colors.” The project of the historical novel, then, is fashioned as an assault on this very fade. We, as human beings, struggle to remember, to retain a sense of the past. It has — surprise! surprise! — passed. But by inserting ordinary people into its great events, novelists can once again vivify and free the emotions of departed times. In a way, this is a gesture of resurrection. The text as Lazarus, stumbling — bandaged by covers — out of its dark cave. If the struggle of man against power is, indeed, the struggle of memory against forgetting, then the historical novel is — imaginatively, at least — a part of that struggle.

covercovercoverAs for the marketplace — its appetite for this type of book is not surprising. Since the early 1990s, when publishers started calling it “upmarket historical fiction,” many successful literary novels have been set in a time — or place — other than our contemporary world. But the willingness of literary tastemakers to accept a work of historical fiction as “important” does feel like something new. Whether it’s Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings — or two of the most anticipated novels of 2016: Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest and Mark Beauregard’s The Whale: A Love Story — it feels like there is a vast new space opening up in the fiction world, one that has the potential for both critical acclaim and strong sales.

Writing last month in The New Republic, the novelist Alexander Chee touched on some of these issues. Chee, of course, has just published the historical novel, The Queen of the Night — a book that has, as its central axis, a fictional 19th-century coloratura soprano, Lillet Berne. The book has been well-received, with positive reviews in nearly every major periodical, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR’s Weekend Edition, Time, Vogue, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle. It also went through multiple printings before its publication.

Still, Chee was worried about the reaction his fellow writers had whenever he told them he was working on a novel set in the past. Writing last month in The New Republic, Chee said that it was, “as if I’d announced that I was giving up years of hard work writing literary fiction to sell out and become a hack. I had inadvertently hit on a literary taboo.”

Yet both Alexander Chee and Shawna Yang Ryan took nearly 15 years to complete their novels. Labor on this scale is almost unthinkable. It is perhaps the exact antithesis of the genre model of fiction writing — with the rapacious, regular demands of the marketplace. The bruising deadlines, the concept-driven, pre-packaged product. Clearly, these two historical novels — with their robust intellectual projects, their deeply imagined settings — are of a different order. The hours-per-page, per-sentence, per-word — for both The Queen of the Night and Green Island — would discourage any beginning novelist.

In an interview with Slate, Chee said, “The longer the novel was unfinished, the more it endangered my ability to keep teaching, which was a large part of my income. It endangered my ability to get further grants. It endangered my relationship, because I had been working on the novel so obsessively for so long that my partner felt widowed by the project.”

Ryan’s experience was similar. “It kind of took over my life for the last decade and a half,” she said. Building her book’s foundation was an arduous process. In a conversation with The New York Times, she described the work of structuring the novel. Her dedication to craft — and her ceaseless evaluation and reevaluation of the project’s success — was built on a twinning of imagination and historical exploration. “I often thought of my research as similar to unraveling a sweater,” she said. “I’d tug at one thread, and a whole sleeve would come undone.”

's first book-length work of nonfiction -- Dog Gone -- will be published by Knopf in June. The author of two previous novels, he has won a Pushcart Prize, and written for The New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, Granta, and numerous other periodicals.


  1. Odd to not include Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in the list of historical novels regarded as “important”. From (double) Booker Prize to stage and TV it’s had a much greater impact than the books listed.
    Is it not famous in the US?

  2. Is the whole genesis of this article that Chee quote about “literary taboo”? Because that sounds a passive-aggressive self-pat-on-the-back. Literary historical novels are nothing new and the good ones are well received, perhaps even moreso than non-historical novels because of the subconscious desire to reward writers for the painstaking work/research that goes into a historical book. Tom Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Tony Morrison, William Vollmann, Bill Gass, Robert Graves, John Barth, EL Doctorow, Jane Smiley, it goes on and on and on. Congrats to Alex Chee for busting through that sacred taboo and writing the 50,000th literary historical novel.

  3. Oh and article nearly lost me at “soaring new novel”, but curiosity to see just what the “literary taboo” was kept me reading.

  4. This is a ridiculous article. there is no “taboo” to literary fiction set in the past. LIBRA? the book DeLillo thinks is his own most important work to date? UNDERWORLD, which moves back in time to 1951? Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, and now Innocents and Others, which chronicles currents in film and communication in the early 1980s? Zachary Lazar’s SWAY? Francisco Goldman’s Divine Husband? David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns? Colm Toibin’s the Master? Plus all seven volumes of Proust. Not to mention Victor Hugo, George Eliot, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Graves, Marguerite Yourcenar, Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, Leo Tolstoy, and on and on and on and on

    There is no authority to this article. it’s merely meant to create a false antagonism in order to promote new books.

  5. OK and I am going to throw down Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, Beryl Bainbridge’s Master Georgie and Everyman for Himself, Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, Hilary Mantel’s The Giant O’Brien, Adam Gould’s The Quickening Maze. The only literary taboo Chee can attest to is breaking the 40 dollar cost for a hard cover fiction in Canada. Guy’s got some big cahoona’s!!!

  6. Starting with the biggest name drop, War and Peace, and adding The Charterhouse of Parma, I wonder if it useful to think of two kinds of serious historical novels: those dealing with national/cultural trauma or pivot-points, like War and Peace, Wolf Hall, The Red Badge of Courage, The Book of the Night Women, Butchers Crossing, or The Buried Giant; and those about recent history, within the author’s aware lifetime, like Charterhouse, Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black (as much a spiritual history of the Thatcher era as about spiritualists–please read it), Puddi’nhead Wilson, The Door, Middlemarch, Libra, Flamethrowers, Sway, or A Brief History. Is there a different way they are important to the reader or writer?

    I don’t mean this to be an inclusive dichotomy. There are historic novels as parable or allegory (the example that comes to my mind is a play, The Crucible); novels about History-it’s-Self like Cloud Atlas; novels that challenge history like Blood Meridian or Ghost Town or Catch 22; and novels that rewrite history to include, like Tipping the Velvet or Middle Passage. It’s an interesting discussion–thanks for starting it.

  7. I’m guessing that literary historical fiction starts with The Iliad and Odyssey, since Homer is believed to have composed these works about 4 centuries after the war that inspired them.

    Later, Shakespeare wrote a couple of series of history plays, some about the Romans (Julius Caesar, Antony & Cleopatra), another group about the Wars of the Roses (The Henrys and Richards and all their parts), and ancient kings of Britain (Lear, MacBeth).

    And agreeing with Don Hackett, War and Peace is an archetypal example of a critically-acclaimed novel featuring fictional “everyman” characters caught up in giant historical events.

    All of the above works have been very popular for a long time. another work that certainly has had a huge impact on American culture and follows this “small fictional people in big history” format is Gone With the Wind. Although the book has never been a favorite of critics, and its racial views are horribly discredited (while accurate to the era of the characters and the historiography of the author’s time), the book has been enduringly popular and tells its story with a measure of real literary power. It also took its author several years to write.

    Works of this format have long been popular and prestige items in the Young Adult category, as examples like “Johnny Tremain” and “Summer of My German Soldier” attest.

    So I have to agree that there seems little “new” about historical fiction that gets taken seriously by critics while selling like hotcakes to readers.

  8. Sham covered what I wanted to say. It’s the equivalent of praising a Capital-L-Literary author for writing a zombie novel (cough, Colson Whitehead, cough) because it’s a “literary zombie novel”. There has been “literary” work in every genre since the birth of literature. The fact that the establishment literati may have missed out on them is their shortcoming and their inability to open their minds to more literature that isn’t just about trite middle class mundanities. The people who actually read ALL the forms literature has to offer seem to be more knowledgeable on the subject.

  9. I guess it’s about the fear of teenage pregnancy and the push for abstinence over safe sex. It’s about the first time and it’s about the risk. There is a view in YA scholarship that sex is made into a moral lesson, that it always has consequences. Most books I can think of where there has been a sex scene, it has been glossed over, fade-to-black, and there’s been a ramping up of the danger following the scene (although I also mostly read paranormal, so danger is very natural there!).

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