Do you remember the story about the woman who was stunned to discover that she'd been talking prose all her life? I'm feeling a bit like that. This morning I knuckled down to my PhD, which today meant trying to collect together and make sense of as many taxonomies of historical fiction as I can find. How do you define hist fic, from Scott and the predecessors he denied, to now? What are the different kinds? Is it different if you have real historical characters in it, about whom the reader might have an opinion already? Is it different if the author is trying to shed light on their own time, instead of that past time? And so on. The library books and papers from learned journals litter my desk.
There I was, interestedly but meekly making notes about Scott, Balzac, Renault, Tremain and the huge, huge row that blew up over William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner, and trying not to get self-conscious about the new novel. How can I hold onto my conviction that what I write is worth writing, worth someone's £7.99 and several hours of their full attention, when Henry Esmond and A Tale of Two Cities are weighed and found wanting by Avrom Fleishmann? How do 'History as pastoral' vs. 'History as drama' (Harry E. Shaw) fit with fiction which 'invents a past,' vs. that which 'disguises a documented past'? (Joseph W. Turner). Should I be worrying about where the new novel - which has a form and a soul, though not yet a name - fits in these taxonomies? Too often it seems books are judged by how neatly they fit a theoretical structure, not the other way round. I'll forgive any academic who actually acknowledges, as Turner does, that, 'We should be wary... about confusing the value of a novel with the amount of analytical criticism that it requires, or the specifically theoretical issues that it raises.' But still, this isn't much to do with me trying to decide about tenses and first-versus-third person and voice, is it?
Working novelists are pragmatists. I don't plan and write a novel bearing in mind a critical field or recent developments in the genre, any more than I do to sell millions or win prizes. I write a novel because I have a story I can't bear not to tell, and almost all my craft and art, such as it is, goes into telling it as well as I can. Of course I enjoy the challenge of pinning down just a little of the zeitgeist of a time in history, conjuring up 'them' and 'then', as well as using that time, maybe obliquely, to say something about 'us' and 'now'. But in the end a story's a story: either the reader listens, or they wander off.
But when I get asked why I write historical fiction, once we've got past the undeniable fact that sex is more fun to write when corsets are involved, I usually find myself saying something about how I write historical fiction because history is how I see the world: it would be less natural to leave the history out. My sense of now and then always co-exist, so inevitably it creeps into my novels. And it's true that as I try to pin down that co-existence, in some way the novels change from being set in history, to being about history.
Still, that's bath-thinking, top-of-the-bus brooding, doing-the-washing-up contemplation, compared to the hands-dirty nuts and bolts of getting the words down and the plot straight (or crooked, according to genre). So you can imagine how disconcerted I was to read Turner saying this:
The best historical fiction, in my view, is ultimately about itself, about the meaning and making of history, about man's [sic] fate to live in history and his attempt to live in awareness of it.
Now that sounds much grander and more philosophical than I'll aspire to. Besides, if I worry too much about philosophy I might end up like the centipede, who walked perfectly well till someone asked him if he started with his right foot or his left. But it is encouraging to realise, after the event, that I am trying to do in a small way what other, greater writers have tried to do. Maybe all those critics sitting in their studies aren't so removed from the working kitchen of writing after all.