Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Living in the past


I subscribe to Literary Review; if you don’t, you should. The writing is sparkling and I’ve learnt more about the yays and nays of how to knock up a novel from their reviewers than from many of the how-to books crowded on my shelves. Much of LR covers non-fiction books which can lead you down interesting research paths for fiction. Even reading the reviews can throw up ideas for stories. The only danger is that you spend all your money ordering sacks of books using the readers' offer. Well, that’s my review of Literary Review, but this post is not about that: it’s inspired by LR in a different way.

Today, let’s flick forward through the May edition to the fiction section; that’s what we’re into here at Strictly Fiction. We find ten novels reviewed last month, including the latest release from the truly amazing Colm Toibin, ultimate master of characterisation – his stories exist in the spaces between the characters. But, enough of him, the survey we are conducting is about temporal setting. How many of the ten novels would you expect to use a contemporary versus historical setting? Half? A third? One?

You were wrong; the answer is . . . er, not sure, possibly none. Of the ten fiction titles sweating under the precision eye of LR, there are eight historical offerings, one that was actually written in the 1930s and one that might be contemporary. Hoorah, there’s one. It’s included as one of the short pieces in their monthly Four Debut Novels page (my ultimate fantasy, but never mind that). In fact, for the one – possibly – contemporary novel we aren’t actually told when it is set, and this researcher wasn’t painstaking enough to find out. Nine out of ten would be a striking enough ratio, so who needs facts?

I bet the story you are slaving over right now is historical. Notably, the possibly contemporary piece receives, perhaps, the harshest treatment of all the books on trial, but surely that can’t be because its setting is contemporary. No, no.

So, there is a trend; you’ve noticed it too. Contemporary fiction is history. Setting your work in the present is so last year.

As you might have guessed, the novel I’m limbering up to submit is set in the halcyon days of 2008. Do you remember that period in history? So long ago now, the last of the salad-summer afternoons just before the world got crunched. I researched that period constantly while I was writing it, by staring out of the window. Since then it's been laid out on the editing table. Now I’ve come to realise the thing is unpublishable simply because it isn't hist fic. That's the only acceptable genre.

Before I press the delete key, are there any other rational explanations? Perhaps the readers of Literary Review are a load of old farts who only read historical fiction and regiments of contemporary novels are preening themselves on the bookshop shelves, blissfully ignored by LR. Frankly I doubt it. Every recently published book I can find in the Ealing branch of Waterstones harps back to days of yore.

People aren’t interested in now. They want then. We have to face the truth, forsooth!

Here’s an idea. I’ll tuck my novel under the bed for forty years and wait while it grows in value like a fine Margaux. If I’m still alive, I’ll then cast it into the gaping maws of the publishers, pretending I wrote it as a historical piece. Everyone will marvel at the startling recollection of the period just before the end of civilisation, the death of global capitalism. In the meantime I’m starting a new one set in the Mesolithic period; an extract is linked here. It’s called Hist Fic, to leave agents and publishers in no doubt that it’s the sort of stuff they are looking for. It's the only chance for publication to an escapist readership who can’t look today in the mirror.

Let’s extend this research a little more.

So, when is your story set?
It's historical, of course, like all the rest.
I'm breaking the trend and risking a contemporary setting.
In the future: you forgot to mention sci-fi, you muppet.
What story?

pollcode.com free polls

16 comments:

Emerging Writer said...

That's a bit worrying...

Susannah Rickards said...

First ouch! Second, shame that I hadn't spotted that trend at all, so thanks for raising it. Perhaps the trend will swing back in favour of contemporary lit?

Perhaps it's that we live in times that are portrayed by the media as dire but are actually exceedingly comfortable. The worst recession since the thirties, we fret, but we don't go to bed hungry or not have a bed to go to. It's so difficult to write about basic safety and comfort in an interesting way.

If you look into genre, into rom com and crime there's contemporary stuff (isn't there?) I've always thought of them both as failsafe genres for putting a mirror up to the way we live now.

Good post Rod. I'm off to Waterstones this morning anyway so will have a hunt for a new contemporary book and put it eye level, face forward!

Samantha Tonge said...

Well, this is good news for me - there's hope for my historical chick lit yet...

Or, Susannah, i wonder if times are harder for a lot of people now and historical fiction is growing in popularity because it gives the reader a real sense of escapism. But then i suppose Sci-Fi sales would shoot through the roof too!

Whatever the reason - and selfishly - i am very glad:) I just need someone to start a trend of literature set in Ancient Egypt...

Thought-provoking post, Rod.

CarolineG said...

That will be you, Sam :)

Great post, Rod. I went and had a look at my unread pile and three out of six are historical [one, The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher is 1970s but rest are much earler] plus I have just finished Caro Rance's truly brilliant Kill Grief, set in the 1700s, and am currently reading Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamise [is darned good, by the way], which is set in the 1940s. So I guess you have a point...I don;t even consider myself a massive reader of histfic!

Roderic Vincent said...

Setting things in the 1970s does seem to be very popular at the moment. It's hist fic without the research hassle. You just have to rootle around in your memory a bit and spend half an hour on wiki. Sorted. Mention a few pop songs for the nostalgia factor - instant best-seller.

CarolineG said...

And remember to include lots of brown.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Heh, Rod - I'll add Thou Shalt Not Write Contemporary Fiction to my list, then.
I've just written a prologue to my new novel set in 1980. That's History, isn't it?? (it feels like it to me). Ra-ra skirts and jelly shoes and leotards and legwarmers.
Susiex

Samantha Tonge said...

One of the historical societies for authors says that a story has to be set more than 50 years ago to be classed as histfic. Which still seems quite recent, really.

But good news for those of us who remember the 70s, cos that's therefore contemporary!

Samantha Tonge said...

Susie, i set my first book in the 80s and the research was HUGE fun!

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Great post Rod and though I see your point I do sincerely believe that we have to write what we want to write and not write what market trends appears to dictate. That for me will always be contemporary womens fiction.
I'm obviously doomed. Mine's set in 2010, post credit crunch (HAH HAH!)

Samantha Tonge said...

I hope 2010 IS post credit-crunch, Fionnuala!

Susannah Rickards said...

Yes Sam I think you're right, it's definitely escapism too.

Went book shopping this morning for presents and ended up buying Wolf Hall (hist fic) as well.

Rebecca Connell said...

Oooh Rod, our first poll! (I think.) Very snazzy. I'm a contemporary girl myself, largely because the thought of having to do extensive research on a different period fills me with dread. I did set half of my first novel in the late '80s, but that didn't feel exactly historical!

Roderic Vincent said...

So far our poll proves, overwhelmingly, that I was right.

The Write Woman said...

I've just done the poll and I'm pleased to see contemps are winning! Don't you think it's just all part of the great circle of fashion - as with all things? Historical novels went out of fashion for a long time, so I guess it's their 'turn' to come back in again. Never fear - by the time everyone rushes to write a historical to get in on the act, it will have swung back to contemporary again! My point is: write what you're good at, and hope for the best. I couldn't write a historical novel if I tried: but I admire people who do, immensely. I've had 8 contemporary novels published, and I know some people hate contemporary fiction, but - it's what I do.

Caroline R said...

I totally agree with Write Woman about fashions changing. When I first thought of writing historical fiction, everyone was saying it was way out of fashion and difficult to sell, but it took me so long to write the book that by the time I finished, hist fic was popular again.