The Contemporary Historical Novel & the Novel of Contemporary History

Xavier Marcó Del Pont

Sir John Reed has stopped smiling: ‘You know your history.’ ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I know my history.’

David Peace, Nineteen Eighty (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2001), p. 9

What is historical fiction? “Everyone knows what a historical novel is,” Avrom Fleishman states, “perhaps that is why few have volunteered to define it in print” (Fleishman 3). However, literary prizes – those institutions of canon-making – have little, if any, qualms when it comes to advancing their own sense of what constitutes historical fiction in the 21st century. The Alfonso X the Wise Award for Historical Novels creates a certain definitional unknown by failing to establish its interpretation of the term “historical fiction.” However, the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People (for Canadian writers) considers the point at which a novelistic setting may be considered historical as “one generation (i.e., 25 years),” meaning that “[r]ight now, any plot with a late 80s/early 90s setting would be considered historical fiction.”[1] The Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction (for children and young adults) does not necessarily delineate a strict threshold, though currently it “recommend[s] decades beginning before the mid 70s, or at least 30-40 years in the past as a minimum era.”[2] The M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction stipulates that, in order to be considered for the prize, “[b]ooks must be set more than fifty years in the past in any real, earthly location” (according to their submission criteria), whilst the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction’s guidelines effectively fossilize 1950 as the threshold between history and the contemporary: “The dominant story line must take place prior to 1950. Split-time novels are eligible but only when the majority of the story takes place prior to 1950” (according to the prize’s Readers’ Guidelines). The recently founded Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction – founded in 2010 – stipulates that for a novel to be considered historical fiction “the majority of the storyline must have taken place at least 60 years ago,” “[r]eflecting the subtitle ‘Sixty Years Since’ of Scott’s most famous work Waverley” (1814) (see “About the Prize” information).   

historical novel covers

What is historical fiction? Can the submission criteria for literary prizes awarded to historical novels help us to answer this question?

[Images used under fair dealings provisions]

In this article, I will question the restrictive views held by literary awards concerning what may and what may not be regarded as historical fiction, foregrounding some of this cultural phenomenon’s stunting effects on literature. I will then go on to propose that historical fiction would benefit from a much wider temporal scope, one that would include the novel of contemporary history and historiographic metafiction as some of its subgenres. Prizes for historical fiction appear, in my mind, to define the genre too narrowly, having a dual effect: they reshape the manner in which we view existing, canonical works of historical fiction, whilst also curtailing the temporal range of future historical fiction-writing. For example, published in complete form in 1869, the four volumes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace span the period between 1805 and 1813 (with the epilogue taking the reader up to 1820), meaning it would not qualify as historical fiction according to the Walter Scott Award’s guidelines, in spite of the fact that Tolstoy himself was born years after any of the events portrayed in the novel, in 1828. Tom Bragg uses Waverley and Scott’s other works as examples to call attention to the problematic issue of a rigidly defined temporal starting point: “A range of 40 to 60 years from the novel’s publication would suggest that Scott’s Waverley (1814) is a historical novel but its ‘sequels,’ Guy Mannering (1815) and The Antiquary (1816), are not” (Bragg 5). Though not a historical novel, we may take an illustrative example of the influence of the guidelines and regulations of prizes on the production of literary works from Salman Rushdie’s novel Grimus (1975). As Pavithra Narayanan puts it:  

Grimus, written with the intention of competing for the Victor Gollancz Prize for Science Fiction, nearly won the award, but British publishers withdrew the book at the last minute, not wanting the novel on science-fiction shelves. (Narayanan 95)  

What this example from the 1970s demonstrates is that authors do often create work with specific competitions or prizes in mind. Therefore, however immaterial the particulars of a literary prize’s guidelines may seem from afar, if they bear any impact on the specific contents of the works that may be considered, they will have a direct influence on creative output and literary production. And, given the considerable heft of certain awards, in both prestige and monetary terms, their purposeful reshaping of the literary ecosystem is highly problematic. The function of literary prizes ought to be to recognize a genre and, in theory, acknowledge its value (though, in practice, they often create it), but certainly not to reconfigure the genre with its own arbitrary rules. The 50 to 60 year rule effectively creates a temporal no-man’s-land. If the timespan that we consider “contemporary” comprises the last 10-20 years, and if the period that the Walter Scott Award defines as “history” has its starting point 60 years ago, it follows that there is a period of 40-50 years that remains an unperiodized wasteland; rejected by the contemporary, yet still unclaimed by history.[3] The zeitroman or period novel and the novel of contemporary history would bridge this representational gap. I am of the opinion, however, that the aforementioned genres still fall within the interstitial space between past and present and ought to be considered forms of historical fiction.

red riding cover

Complicating generic categorisations: David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet can be considered both as contemporary history and a set of historical novels, demanding as much meticulous research as the traditional “Zeitroman”

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]

As Brian Attebery asserts, “[g]enres may be approached as ‘fuzzy sets,’ meaning that they are defined not by boundaries but by a center” (Attebery 12). A central essence defines each and every genre, yet all genres are permeable and their boundaries overlap. Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (2013) is a novel of contemporary history. Yet, it also falls under the categories of detective fiction —albeit in a postmodern way—, historiographic metafiction, and even science fiction. Genre categorization does not function in an exclusive fashion, but rather through porousness and concomitance: different genres are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Lukács’ The Historical Novel (1937; trans. 1962) and Fleishman’s The English Historical Novel (1972) both put forth specific parameters by which we may judge what constitutes historical fiction, though their focus is classical historical fiction and the scope of their studies does not account for the period that saw the rise of what I would consider to be new subgenres of the historical novel, such as historiographic metafiction. Lukács and Fleishman proposed definitional specifications that were not foundational but, rather, diagnostic. Since the publication of Lukács’ and Fleishman’s studies the identity of, for example, historiographic metafiction has crystallized and its status has shifted from emerging to well-established, if not dominant. When Perry Anderson states that “[n]ow, virtually every rule of the classical canon [of the historical novel], as spelled out by Lukács, is flouted or reversed” (Anderson n. pag.), he is acknowledging that these rule-breakers have at least one foot firmly planted within the tradition of historical fiction, however iconoclastically, otherwise they would not be perceived as being subject to Lukács’ dicta. Anderson declares that:

[a]mong other traits, the historical novel reinvented for postmoderns may freely mix times, combining or interweaving past and present; parade the author within the narrative; take leading historical figures as central rather than marginal characters; propose counterfactuals; strew anachronisms; multiply alternative endings; traffic with apocalyptics. (Anderson n. pag.)  

And suddenly the true diversity of present-day historical fiction is revealed in all its beautiful incompatibility. Why should the zeitroman or period novel, the non-fiction novel or faction, historiographic metafiction, and the novel of contemporary history not be constituent parts of what we call historical fiction? The prescient clarity with which David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet (1999–2002) interweaves the Yorkshire Ripper killings with historical child abuse, 1970-80s politics, and regional idiosyncrasy is nothing short of historical. After all, according to Fleishman, “[w]hat makes a historical novel historical is the active presence of a concept of history as a shaping force” (Fleishman 3), a concept that is never in short demand in the work of Peace. The rigour of the research necessary for the creation of a serious zeitroman or a significant novel of contemporary history is not inferior to that required for a traditional historical novel. In John Hersey’s words:

a definite scrupulousness and thoroughness are required of the writer [of novels of contemporary history], who must have done even more careful research than an orthodox historical novelist, since the latter has no actual witnesses to contend with. (Hersey 27)

After all, it is significantly easier to fudge, so to speak, certain facts – or take artistic license – when writing a novel set in Ancient Egypt (at least given the fact that most readers will lack the knowledge to refute inaccurate contextual claims or erroneous details) than it would to get away with accidental misrepresentations or an inexact historical background due to poor research in a novel set in early 1990s Seattle.

Briony Atonement

The novelists of contemporary history risk legal actions by the people they portray: McEwan’s Atonement, for example, was accused of plagiarising Lucilla Andrews’ autobiography, No Time for Romance in its depiction of Briony’s wartime experience as a nurse

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]

When authors dip their toes in a past too recent, they often risk being sued by those who deem their novelistic alter egos unflattering, as was the case with David Peace’s The Damned Utd. (2006). Johnny Giles successfully sued Faber & Faber, received a public apology, and the references to Giles that the court found libellous were excised from subsequent printings of the novel. Yet, orthodox historical novels are not exempt from potential legal action, as can be evidenced by the accusations of plagiarism leveled against McEwan for having employed Lucilla Andrews’ autobiography No Time for Romance (1977) as one of his sources when writing Atonement (2001). Whilst working as a nurse in a London hospital during WWII, McEwan’s protagonist, Briony Tallis is told to clean blood from her face to avoid shocking patients: a scene and fragment of dialogue that McEwan has been accused of lifting from Andrews’ wartime autobiography (in McEwan’s defence, he mentions Andrews’ work by name in the acknowledgements to Atonement). In the 2007 film adaptation directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley, James McEvoy and Romola Garai (pictured above), Garai’s performance in this hospital scene conveys the way in which 18-year-old Briony has to come to terms with the traumatic experience of wartime nursing, which McEwan acknowledged was informed by his reading of Andrews’ own experiences at St Thomas’ Hospital during WWII.

There seems to be little reason why the novel of contemporary history or the zeitroman should be quarantined from the historical novel, when that very genre fails to see any distinguishing differences between a novel set in the period from 1935 to 1999 (Atonement) and another the action of which takes place in between the years 1500 and 1535, namely Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009), winner of the inaugural Walter Scott Prize. Not to mention that McEwan’s work has much more common ground with Peace’s or Don DeLillo’s than it shares with Mantel’s.

So what is historical fiction in the 21st century? The question itself forces us to problematise the distinction between the contemporary and history. But perhaps we should let historical fiction express itself. Perhaps we should allow the genre to define itself, instead of narrowing down its scope with prescribed outlines and rigid dogmatism. In “The Novel of Contemporary History” (1949), John Hersey proclaimed that the “genre of the contemporary historical novel is indistinguishable from that of the historical novel in general” (Hersey 26). I can only hope we will rise up to meet the challenge of Hersey’s expectations and that, “[i]ndeed, the superior novel of contemporary events will in time come to be regarded as a historical novel” (Hersey 26).

But the lies survived, those accepted little fictions we call history – History and lies – They survived us all.

David Peace, Nineteen Eighty Three (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2002), p. 38.

CITATION: Xavier Marcó del Pont, “The Contemporary Historical Novel & the Novel of Contemporary History,” Alluvium, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2016): n. pag. Web. 31 May 2016,

Dr Xavier Marcó Del Pont is currently Postdoctoral Visiting Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. He completed his doctoral studies on narrative structure in the works of Thomas Pynchon at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has published work on Pynchon, American identity, and the graphic novel form; beyond Anglophone Literature, his research interests include Film Theory, Literature and Science, and post-1945 Literature.


 [1] Personal correspondence with Meghan Howe (Canadian Children’s Book Centre/CCBC).

 [2] Personal correspondence with the Scott O’Dell Estate.

 [3] Whilst the National Book Awards stipulates that only the work of US citizens will be considered, its guidelines do not then go on to narrowly reconfigure our understanding of ‘US citizens’ by adding geographical caveats and exceptions. 

Works Cited:

Anderson, Perry. “From Progress to Catastrophe.” London Review of Books, Vol. 33, No. 15 (28 July 2011). Available at:

Attebery, Brian. Strategies of Fantasy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992).

Bragg, Tom. Space and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century British Historical Novel (London: Routledge, 2016).

Fleishman, Avrom. The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972).

Hersey, John. “The Novel of Contemporary History” in Helen Hull (ed.), The Writer’s Book (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), pp. 23-30.

Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel, trans. by Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (London: Merlin Press, 1962) [Originally published in Russian in 1937].

Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall (London: Fourth Estate, 2009).

McEwan, Ian. Atonement (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001).

Narayanan, Pavithra. What are You Reading?: The World Market and Indian Literary Production (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012).

Peace, David. Nineteen Eighty (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2001).

Peace, David. Nineteen Eighty Three (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2002).

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