In its online home, The New York Times offers a series of topics under the banner Room for Debate. One of these topics discusses whether fiction is changing for better or worse. Having read what all six debaters had to say along with many comments offered by readers, I’ve concluded that most are optimistic about the novel’s place in our world.
This is good news.
Jane Smiley “In our dangerous world, the freedom and empathy that fiction develops in its readers remain essential.”
Matt de la Pena “We’ve grown terrified of sadness and self-reflection, and we actively avoid ideas that challenge.” De la Pena seems less optimistic.
Robin Sloan “Novels, on the other hand, are just about the most durable home for words we’ve yet discovered.” Sloan argues that new forms of writing prompted by technology are far less durable.
Thomas Glave “For it is at last undeniable that for all of us, wherever we may be, the opportunity to experience other people’s stories — their fiction — is a powerfully human one, that requires the uncommon and invaluable skills of careful listening and the ability to enter the lives of people different from ourselves.”
William Deresiewicz “the novel continues to do what it has always done best: compile the atlas of private experience, show us what it feels like to be alive at our particular time and place.”
Historical fiction is a particular type of novel. Survey participants responded to a question about why they enjoy this type of fiction.
What do these responses suggest?
To be fair, I did not frame the question to reflect whether historical fiction is better or worse, but look at the number one reason for reading this type of novel: to bring the past to life, appreciating how people lived and coped in very different times.
The stories of the past are highly relevant today which seems to me to resonate with Smiley, Glave and Deresiewicz. I would also argue that this top response is consistent with what Sloan has to say given that the notion of reading about history emphasizes the popularity of durable stories.
Just a thought.
What makes good historical fiction compelling is the story, as with any fiction. But I’ve been amazed at what I’ve learned about history from reading historical fiction.
Almost like a double scoop of ice cream – the story and the history!