The Curious Case of the Antipathy toward the Canadian Historical Novel

I was scanning Quill and Quire, the Canadian publishing trade magazine, when I came across an article by Russell Smith poking fun at the Canadian historical novel. He has never much liked it and he was making fun of it again in the months leading up to the publication of his new unhistorical novel.

But he’s not the only one who professes distaste for it. I was in interview with Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer recently, and she raised objections to the historical novel too. So has Phil Marchand, formerly a Toronto Star literary reviewer and now a National Post reviewer. The Quill seems to pick up this theme from time to time. Others accuse the form of being crotchety or romantic, among other failings.

I find this whole issue odd. Why object to any form at all? In the old days, we held detective fiction in low regard and the same was true of science fiction. But nobody puts down David Mitchell for writing science fiction, and nobody seems to object to the works of Giles Blunt, John le Carré, or Peter Robinson, among others.

Interestingly, the attacks on the historical novel rarely list examples. I’d love to see who the objectors object to, but I never see a list. I suspect the objection is really to a kind of romance of the past, but I can’t say for sure because I can’t pin down the detractors.

I was at a talk a the Goethe Institute a couple of years ago and I asked the German audience if they thought it was foolish to read and to write historical novels. They looked at me like I was a fool. So would any European. They are aware they are still living history while we seem blithely unaware of it. We are like speakers who weren’t aware that they were speaking prose.

Barry Unsworth on Iphigenia and Agamemnon in The Songs of Kings; Umberto Eco on monasteries in The Name of the Rose; Rachel Kushner on Batista’s Cuba in Telex from Cuba; Mark Helprin on WW 1 in A Soldier of the Great War; Annabel Lyon on Aristotle in The Golden Mean; Roddy Doyle on street toughs in A Star Called Henry; Wayne Johnston on Joey Smallwood in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Finally, even Tolstoy’s War and Peace was written many, many decades after the fact.

What is the unifying defect of the historical novels I have listed above? I can’t see one. I wish the detractors would explain their position better.

The past is fascinating to behold because we always know more than the players did when they were living in their present. The same is pretty much true of novels, where we tend to know more than the characters in the books.

Also, the past keeps opening up in new ways. It turns out we knew less than we thought we did. Historians are still digging through Soviet archives to find out what happened under Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. – a good historical novelist seizes on a little-known historical truth and illuminates it in fiction.

Admittedly, to show the injustices of the past is banal, unless the injustices are new or unfamiliar. But anything poorly done is boring – sex and drinking are dull too if they are used to dress up a novel.

One can write well on any subject, in any manner, in any mode. The reverse is also true. To judge books by their categories is a form of Stalinism; first we go after the bourgeois, and then we enlarge the list to include kulaks, and then we move on to everyone else. To go back further, attacking historical novels is a form of Jacobinism. The danger of making these kinds of attacks is that one risks becoming Robespierre. But you’d need to know a little history to know what happened to him.