Like many words (and other things) we take for granted, it’s kind of funny looking when you stop to actually examine it, isn’t it? Mr Webster says it’s French (which I already knew), coming from the Latin genus, which means kind, as in type (which I also knew). But what it all boils down to is that we humans have a weirdly obsessive need to categorize virtually everything, whether it’s moving or not. We want --- hell, need --- to be able to stick a label on it and neatly stow it away in its proper compartment. Otherwise, the reasoning seems to go, the darkly malign forces of higgledy-piggledy would reign supreme, and we can’t have that.
But sometimes, this proclivity tends to generate strange, almost nonsensical results. For example...
On my most recent foray to the local bookstore --- a trip always fraught with two separate and very real perils, which I can detail later, if you’d like --- I picked up the final installment in author Jack Whyte’s very fine historical fiction trilogy on Scottish heroes William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Whyte has written other really excellent works (a series called a Dream of Eagles, dealing with the Arthurian legend, and a trilogy on the Knights Templar), both of which I thoroughly enjoyed and can highly recommend. But my purpose with this post is not really to extol his books, but rather to muse on a comment he makes in his author’s note at the beginning of his latest tale.
By his own admission, Whyte’s works fall under a broad classification the publishing industry calls “historical fiction” --- but as he correctly notes, North American bookstores refuse to recognize it as a genre. Historical fiction therefore tends to get lumped into one of two sections in the bookstore: either Fantasy and Science Fiction or Literature, which as a giant, generic catchall has to be one of the most unhelpful categories bookstores have ever devised. Whyte notes that he gets thrown into the Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF) section because his first series was Arthurian, even though he went out of his way not to include what we would think of as common Arthurian ‘fantasy’ elements... the magical sword delivered by a goddess, the wizard able to perform all sorts of magic, etc. etc. (Rather ironic, really.)
Mr. Whyte thoughtfully provides a definition for historical fiction, saying “the best of it is a transcription of thoroughly researched records of genuine historical events embellished, emphasized, and made more appreciable to modern readers with one single element of historical commentary that is taboo among academic and classical historians. That element is speculation.” (Except he doesn’t mean speculation as in speculative fiction, which seems to be gaining traction as another term for F&SF.) So, for example, a historian might write about the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius, discussing people, places, dates and events. A writer of historical fiction --- such as Robert Graves --- would take those events and craft among the characters conversations and personal dealings, interactions we have no knowledge of, and wind up with two really great novels (I, Claudius and Claudius the God) that are faithful to the historical record while doing a great deal of speculation. In some ways, it’s not unlike a term used in the model railroading community, where something similar is referred to as “prototype freelancing” --- and could also be applied to the writing of fantasy, my own personal interest. But that’s a discussion to be had another day... which we’ll have.
In the meantime, perhaps a takeaway from all this is that we should avoid trying to pigeon-hole everything into broad stereotypical categories... and be prepared to look at things in different ways. That’s what C.S. Lewis was referring to when he said, “That is one of the functions of art: to present what the narrow and desperately practical perspectives of real life exclude.”
Or put another way... what was that Apple slogan awhile back? “Think different”? Good idea.
(Although, as an English teacher, I have to say I deplore the word crime involved. Pfft.)
P.S. What’s that, you say? The Perils of the Bookstore? Ah, yes. I did promise to elucidate, didn’t I? Thanks for reminding me. The first Peril is the Obvious One: so many books, and I want to read them all. Well, almost all. Which means buying them. My wallet recoils in panic while the clerks leer knowingly as soon as I step over the store’s threshold. The second Peril is also rather an Obvious One --- to a writer, anyway --- and ‘tis a cause for profound depression: again, so many books, but... how are my own offerings ever going to get noticed ‘midst the tsunami of new (and old) material? Of such existential crises are a writer’s life made.