A few short years ago, when the world was gripped by the throat by an ugly global recession, as opposed to just gripped by the goolies as we are now, fantasy fiction took off like a rocket. When times are bad, it seems, people want to go somewhere else in their heads, and that somewhere had vampires and shapeshifters, hellfire, sandals and swords, and, in the case of the Game of Thrones behemoth, an unholy amount of breasts.
When times are good, people like to read crime. Although we pretty much always like to read crime, it seems that nothing delights us more, when we’re spending our evenings rolling in money and pointing at poor people, than to read about dismembered women and the maverick cops who investigate their deaths.
I’m not sure anyone knows where we are at the moment. We seem to be in a state of suspended animation where everyone is very angry, but we’re not entirely sure at what. And I don’t know what it says about the human race as a whole, but the cultural result of this seems to have been a wholesale turn towards Historical Fiction.
I had a feeling, a couple of years ago, that Historical Fiction was due some sort of surge. But after a spate of consumption myself, I realised why. Historical Fiction is fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy or science fiction. The best way to suspend disbelief, and take a reader into another world entirely, is to haul them into the past. And then there’s the matter of pinpoint-accurate social commentary. Nothing can hold a mirror up to the present like a troubled past or a dystopian future.
And writers can get away with a multitude, when dipping into the past. Some of the best historical fiction novels are painstakingly researched and flawlessly executed: Wolf Hall, The Pillars Of The Earth and The Miniaturist come to mind. More aren’t. Loads of historical fiction novels have a tenuous foot in the realistic past, but are no failure for it.
L.P. Hartley said as a novel opener, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. And therein lies the beauty of the modern novel. A century ago, authors could get away with pages of intolerably boring description of places and journeys and buildings, because they had no visual media. Their readers had never seen Buenos Aires, or Kenya, or a large steamship, and were only dying to know all about them. But nowadays, we’ve seen everything. We watch travelogues from the Galapagos Islands, action movies set in the Antarctic, and space operas set in the black stuff. Where is left for fiction writers to explore, that readers cannot? The past: that’s where.
I’m a big fan of historical fiction. When I’m sad, or angry, or just plain bored, there is nothing better I like to do than to lose myself in a novel set during the Tudor excesses, the Napoleonic wars, or Victorian London. But I’m hungry for more, and I can’t wait to see what’s tearing up the bestseller lists in 2016. There will be 10,000 more World War I novels, sure. But in between, there will also be some gorgeous surprises set in times that nobody’s thinking about, which will go a long way toward explaining the state we’re in right now.