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.