I beg to differ. “Literary historical fiction” is simply a genre. It’s a descriptive term for a certain type of writing, and I think it’s time to raise the flag and not be apologetic about using the term.
It’s the genre I read, and the genre I aspire to write (although I don’t feel worthy).
But defining literary historical fiction ?or literary fiction in general?is tricky. I know it by the swoon that comes over me when reading. I know it by the lingering afterglow. In literary historical fiction, every sentence is a joy to read, and rarely do things evolve as expected (much less “happily”). There’s a profound complexity to the characters and the story. In terms of craft, a work of literary historical fiction takes longer to write than mainstream fiction—usually three to six years.
It’s at this point that I begin to imagine hackles rising because there’s an implicit sense of “better” and the consequent “not as worthy.” But that really is irrelevant. Whatever one enjoys reading is the best for that individual, and whatever one writes, as well.
This is too long a rant for a blog, but I do want to mention the works that inspired it.
First, Coventry by Helen Humphreys. This is a wonderful novel. I love the spare, lyrical quality of Humphreys’ prose. She’s high on my list of favorite writers of literary historical fiction.
(An intriguing work is mentioned in Coventry: The Nomenclature of Colours. I found a book about it on Google Books and was able to download it. It doesn’t have the colour samples, but it does have some of the enchanting decriptions: White: new-fallen snow; Azure Blue: a burning colour.)
Second, a novel I read just recently: The Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. (Do not be misled by the cover and negative reviews.) This writer has a breathtaking style: sultry, haunting!
Third, a novel I began just last night, and which I know, simply from the craft of the prose, I’m going to enjoy: Curiosity by Joan Thomas. (It’s available in bookstores in Canada and in a Kindle edition in the U.S.)
It's called Josephine, and it's by Francois Rance, the perfumer of Napoleon and Josephine. Here's a link for it: http://perfumesmellinthings.blogspot.com/2005/11/perfume-review-rance-josephine.html
Wonderful, Sarah. Had there been such a perfume available while I was writing the trilogy, I would have worn it every day. What's the name of it?
Great stuff. On an off topic note, I bought some perfume that was the exact formula of what Josephine Bonaparte wore, a subtle fragrance that is heavenly. I love it!
Thank you, Janalyn! I think COLD MOUNTAIN was the first book to open up publishers to the reality that not only historical fiction, but literary historical fiction can be very popular.
A writer, when asked the difference between the "commercial fiction" she wrote and literary fiction, responded that her books sold. I find that such an arrogant and ignorant statement, as if by being literary a book will not appeal to an audience.
As you may guess, I write literary fiction also. Thanks for this "rant."
Thank you Sarah and Erika!
I think you most certainly qualify for the title "literary historical fiction writer." I also think of Sarah Dunant and Tracy Chevalier.
I keep seeing recommendations for "The Reliable Wife." I'll have to check that out. Thanks for the recommendation!
Excellent post! I agree. I've been finding my reading tastes moving increasingly toward the literary end of the spectrum as well.