Blogger: Etta Wilson
Location: Books & Such Nashville Office
Weather: mid-70s and dry
Reading a review of Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants, the first book in his new historical trilogy, I found this quote from Follett: “Almost all the books you see on the bestseller list are basically novels in the Victorian tradition, stories with plot, character, and conflict and resolution.” The reviewer Alden Mudge is not quite at ease with Follett’s very general statement and relates the intricacies, the large cast, and the enormous research the author has invested in his newest work. Opening in 1911 and closing in 1924, the book uses World War I as the historical setting, and the trilogy plans to move forward through the century.
Which raises the question–will book three be a historical? That depends on how much time each novel covers and how far the last book reaches beyond World War II, a generally accepted breaking point between historical and contemporary novels. (Although some publishing houses view the 1950s as historical.)
I have begun to think that the 1960s may really be the breaking point between the two genres. Listening to a recent discussion among friends, I heard them talk about all that happened to change Americans in that decade–race riots and desegregation, the Vietnam War, the growth of communes, the decline of the traditional family, and the start of the Green movement.
If you were writing a novel about a Vietnamese war bride adjusting to life in the U.S. in 1972, would you think of it as a historical novel? The answer may depend on both your perspective and that of the readers. Thirty-year-olds might automatically consider it a historical novel, while those of us who lived through that conflict would not. In fact, the Vietnam war is a part of American history that many authors and readers still avoid because of the way that conflict affected Americans’ psyches, which may say something about whether it’s historical or contemporary. I do notice children’s books seem to relegate events to “history” a little faster than adult books, which is understandable.
Quoting Follett again, “The research and effort at authenticity is more difficult when you’re writing about history that is within living memory.” I’d say he got that right! If you remember the slang, music, radio programs, hairstyles, and other cultural expressions, you put a lot more care into accurately portraying those details.
I’d like to know what you think is the breaking point between historical and contemporary. What periods of American history do you find most fascinating?