How Historical Novels Can Help Us Remember
Brooke Gladstone This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Fifty years ago, if you wanted to be considered a serious novelist, you might write a contemporary novel, one that captured the current moment with all its anxieties and technologies. But in the 21st century, the historical novel would give you far better odds for a critical hit. Take it from Alexander Mankell, author of the forthcoming book Writing Backwards Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon.
Alexander Manshel Between 2020 20, something like three quarters of the novels shortlisted for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award took place in the historical past.
Brooke Gladstone The New York Times Sunday Book Review section has a regular dedicated column for the genre and universities. The newer books taught are more likely to be set in the past. But as a reader, you may not have even noticed the growing infatuation with history in literature.
Alexander Manshel Because the historical novel has become such a diversely practiced form by such a wide array of writers. It's almost become invisible to us as a genre in itself.
Brooke Gladstone Consider the recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Two time recipient Colson Whitehead's set The Nickel Boys and an abusive reform school in the sixties.
NPR Some years you felt strong enough to head down that cement walkway knowing that it led to one of your bad places. And some years you didn't avoid a building or stared in the face. Depending on your reserves that morning.
Brooke Gladstone Meanwhile, Vietcong Win introduced readers to an ambivalent communist sleeper agent in seventies Vietnam with his debut, The Sympathizer.
Viet Thanh Nguyen I'm not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I'm simply able to see any issue from both sides.
Brooke Gladstone And Louise Erdrich, its 2021 winner, the night Watchman, dropped audiences into a fraught moment on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in the mid-twentieth century.
The Night Watchman clip Something is coming in, the government, said Thomas. They have a new plan. They always have a new plan, said Bitcoin. This one takes away the treaties, said Thomas. For all the Indians are just us at the point.
Brooke Gladstone All these books, different as they are, do more than transport us to another time in focusing on lesser known histories. They ask us to consider what's worth remembering at all. OTM producer Eloise Blondeau charts how historical fiction has become a rich resource for reckoning with our past.
Eloise Blondiau Last year, Hilary Mantel, the historical novelist, died aged 70. In her memory, a lecture she gave for the BBC was recirculated.
Hilary Mantel History is not the past. It's the method we've evolved of organizing ignorance of the past.
Eloise Blondiau History, Mandel says, is the record of what's left on the record. It's what's left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it.
Hilary Mantel It's no more than the best we can do. And often it falls short of that.
Eloise Blondiau At On the Media, we often examine the failings of our historical record. And many historical novelists have long engaged in the same project to bring the dead back to life.
Wolf Hall clip I promoted you. I am responsible for your rise.
Eloise Blondiau In her Wolf Hall trilogy, Mantel resurrected Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII. In the BBC's faithful adaptation, Boleyn confronts the King's advisor, Cromwell, who would plot her execution.
Wolf Hall clip And at the first opportunity, you've betrayed me. Those who've been made can be unmade.
Wolf Hall clip I entirely agree.
Eloise Blondiau Mantel's Boleyn is brave and irascible. She uses the little written evidence we have to tell us who Boleyn was, like a letter that told of Berlin, describing her imminent beheading defiantly.
Wolf Hall clip I only have a little luck, so it'll be the work of a moment.
Eloise Blondiau Mantel received pretty much every accolade a novelist can hope to win. But that almost didn't happen when she first tried to get published. She ran up against the shabby reputation of historical fiction.
Alexander Manshel Quite famously, Henry James wrote in a letter to a friend that the historical novel was, quote, tainted by a fatal cheapness.
Eloise Blondiau Alexander Manshel is a professor of literature at McGill University and he's also my guide.
Alexander Manshel So the idea was that to actually access the historical past through fiction was an impossible task, and the only people foolish enough to attempt it were those looking to make a quick buck on cheap thrills.
Eloise Blondiau That doesn't mean it wasn't popular. Over the last century, millions of copies were sold. Think of Margaret Mitchell in the thirties. James Michener in the sixties and James Clavell and Ken Follett beginning in the seventies. That decade also saw the rise of these really funny sci fi takes on the genre from authors like Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut and Ishmael Reed.
Alexander Manshel Here, the example I think of first is Ishmael Reed's 1976 novel, Flight to Canada, in which runaway slaves literally take flight aboard Air Canada jetliners heading north, and Abraham Lincoln is assassinated live on satellite television. It's an absolutely wild novel.
Eloise Blondiau But overall, historical novels were considered more popular than prestigious, which might explain Mantel's challenges early in her career.
Alexander Chee When she hoped to debut with a 700 page novel about the French Revolution, publishers were absolutely against it.
Eloise Blondiau The writer Alexander Chee, wrote about Mantel's experience for The New Republic. You quote Mantel saying they didn't want another novel about high hair.
Alexander Chee Yeah, that's not realizing, of course, that she would go on to become world famous and a bestseller for her Wolf Hall novels.
Eloise Blondiau Of course, Mantel got her historical fiction printed in the end. But it was only after she first had a successful contemporary novel published. For Chee, who began his writing career in the late nineties. The opposite was true. It took him two years to sell his contemporary novel Edinburgh, and during that process he had an idea for a very different historical book. He had been reading something that offhandedly described an intriguing woman.
Alexander Chee She was a favorite courtesan of the Emperor Napoleon the third. And she loved to walk on her hands because she'd been an acrobat and ride horses bareback. And I thought, Wait a second, what happened to her? You know?
Eloise Blondiau He sent his agent a note about a book that he'd later call the Queen of the Night.
Alexander Chee And that was the one that they overwhelmingly wanted. Editor after editor kept saying, Can he do that one first?
Eloise Blondiau You write, It was five years later that I was ready to sell a second book. And that little paragraph of the historical novel sold in nine days.
Alexander Chee Yeah, it was incredibly peculiar. And I should say I was paid over ten times for my second historical novel, what I was paid for my first novel.
Eloise Blondiau Between 2000 and 2010, when Chee's book was picked up, Alexander Manshel found that 80% of the novels that were shortlisted for major American literary awards were set in the past like Mantel's Wolf Hall. Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which was set in World War II and Ian McEwan's own war novel, Atonement.
Atonement clip Probably didn't read my letters, nor had I been allowed to visit you. Had they let me every day, I would have been there every day.
Atonement clip But if all we have rests on a few months in a library, three and a half years ago, then I'm not sure.
Eloise Blondiau Accolades were plentiful for the 2005 novel March, which Geraldine Brooks wrote about the father of the girls of Little Women. They also loved Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun about the Nigerian Civil War. So why the about Face? Manshel notes that some novelists vying for highbrow prizes didn't want to date their work with tech that would seem old in just a few years.
Alexander Manshel If you are a literary novelist, you are interested in having your work not only be read right now, but having it last, having it survive to be read in the future. And so when writers set their work in the historical past, they're also in a way claiming a kind of timelessness.
Eloise Blondiau While the promise of eternal relevance may have tempted some writers to try the genre that doesn't quite account for the scale of historical fictions dominance today. According to Manshel, there's one pioneer of historical novels who often gets overlooked when he tells people about his research. He's met with a common refrain.
Alexander Manshel People will say, Oh, you mean like Hilary Mantel? And when I say no, I mean like Toni Morrison. There's this brief moment of pause when we think about what the historical novel is and does and what it should do. We think about, you know, the courtly drama of Cromwell and Henry VIII. We're not thinking about a woman in Ohio in 1873.
Eloise Blondiau While Mantel's most celebrated books focused on the giants of 16th century England, Morrison's work exemplifies the expansion of the genre in a different direction in America, the retrieval of otherwise disregarded histories, often by writers of color.
Alexander Manshel Morrison, in her most iconic work Beloved coins the term re-memory. And this is the idea that history lives on in the present, even for those who haven't experienced it directly.
Eloise Blondiau Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, and it was a finalist for the National Book Award. It's often described as a ghost story about how a mother is haunted after she killed her own baby to keep her from being raised in slavery.
Toni Morrison You know, some things you forget, other things you never do.
Eloise Blondiau This is Morrison reading from Beloved.
Beloved Places, places are still there. If a house burns down it's gone. But the place, the picture of it stays. And not just in my re-memory, but out there in the world.
Alexander Manshel And this idea that there are histories, especially traumatic histories, for marginalized people in the United States that live on in the present was central to Morrison's entire body of work.
Eloise Blondiau In the eighties and nineties. Morrison's success was accompanied by a shift in the institutions that recognized American novelists. Universities, publishers and award committees --- they were admitting more people of color than they had before and recognizing more marginalized writers in turn.
Alexander Manshel At the end of the 20th century, as more and more Black, Asian American, Latinx, Indigenous and Jewish novelists were finally being recognized by the literary establishment, the vast majority of the work that was being celebrated was historical fiction.
Eloise Blondiau Those authors, Manshel says, were popular in universities because they allowed professors to both teach great works of literature and introduce students to history they may not have encountered before. Between 1980 and 2010, over 90% of the novels by writers of color that were shortlisted for a major American literary prize were historical.
Alexander Manshel I'm thinking of writers like Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko and Alice Walker. It's about lesser known figures and lesser known histories, and that's actually part of the project.
Eloise Blondiau In the past decade or so, a new class of writers has carried forward this tradition of disrupting the prevailing historical narratives. Like Morrison, Colson Whitehead weaves fantasy into his books. He transforms the Underground Railroad route that enslaved people used to escape to freedom into a literal subway system.
The Underground Railroad clip We're going down there. Yes, indeed. On this ladder. After you.
Eloise Blondiau In that book, Whitehead critiques the idea of linear historical progress. His protagonist, Cora, escaped slavery only to find work in a museum as a performer in slavery reenactments. In this clip from the Amazon show, Cora fearfully watches white men practicing their role.
The Underground Railroad clip You see, let it flow. And if you like, you could add some dialog.
The Underground Railroad clip Stupid animal. Hey, you like that, huh? I've done this before. Thank you. Well, that was...it was a lifetime ago.
Eloise Blondiau Several recent prize winners follow families across generations. In her 2016 debut, Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi charts the lineage of two sisters over 300 years beginning in 18th century Ghana. One sister is enslaved and taken to America, while the other remains in Africa. And in 2017, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee follows the journey of one family over eight decades, beginning with a young girl in Korea who moves to Japan, where her family is mistreated. The stories of these ordinary Koreans falling in love, struggling to pay their bills amid the giant storylines of war and mass migration were not ones that Lee had encountered as a history major in college.
Min Jin Lee It was so clear to me that everybody that I cared about, all the people that I really valued all these lives, important lives to me were not included in history. And I thought it's something that seemed quite untruthful.
Eloise Blondiau The first line of Pachinko is History has failed us. But no matter.
Min Jin Lee The more important statement, I believe, is the subordinate clause of the statement. History has failed us, but no matter because it is a statement of defiance, I'm saying it doesn't matter because we are history and we will be included and we will persist anyway.
Eloise Blondiau With Pachinko in particular, you're also tapping into a kind of collective grief for generations past. And I wonder if you write as a way to contend with loss.
Min Jin Lee Yes. I think that every honest storyteller is really experiencing a kind of loss. It could be of life. It could be of love, it could be of status, it could be of money. It could be a friendship, it could be of community. It could be of a nation. Some things cannot be had again. If we lose a parent or a sibling or a lover to death, we cannot get that person again. I think that it's honest to say that I rail against death because we have the time that those who have died do not have.
Eloise Blondiau For Lee, writing novels about the past is a way to shape the future.
Min Jin Lee You and I are making history right now, Eloise, and it's kind of breathtaking when you think of it that way, that 50 years from now, most likely I'll be dead. And let's say someone was considering, well, what did people in 2023 think about historical novels? Perhaps our conversation would come up and then we are making history. And with that knowledge, I feel concerned about the value and significance of you and me talking about this.
Eloise Blondiau That feels like more pressure.
Min Jin Lee Maybe it is. I guess I think of it as what an extraordinary thing that we get to be included.
Toni Morrison The past, I suspect, is probably more important than the future.
Eloise Blondiau Here's Toni Morrison again.
Toni Morrison The point is that there are lessons to be learned so that we don't have to do that again. And this garbage and it also that you can throw out. But it's all information. It's all the way we were. It's all part of who we are.
Eloise Blondiau History has never been just the purview of historians as powerful as they are. The more we all add to the record of our history, the truer it will be. No matter if those contributions are merely bits and pieces, tattered cloth, names on park benches, old maps or pottery shards. Add the alchemy of the imagination. And you have a novel, a gateway to our common humanity in every era. For On the Media. I'm Eloise Blondiau.
Brooke Gladstone Thanks again to Alexander Manshel, who shared with us so much research from his book Writing Backwards Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon, which comes out this Fall. Coming up, three lives in four objects. This is On the Media.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.