I want to make a couple observations about this October’s Northwest Bookfest, which was held for three days in Kirkland, WA, where, happily, it will return in 2012.
Unlike the businesslike intensity of a writers’ conference, the bookfest truly is a festive thing—a celebration of books and the folks who read them. Spread across Kirkland’s Parkplace, from the Performance center, through the Community Center, across the park to Parkplace Books (an independent bookstore—remember those?), 2500 readers and 125 celebrity writers talked, munched, and mingled for three extraordinary days. The carnival atmosphere was enhanced by the presence of canvas tents snaking there way between the venues like a Persian Bazaar where 74 vendors hawked everything from publishing and PR services to roasted meat. Musicians and face painting combined to say, this ain’t no writers’ conference, buckaroo.
Inside the venues, the Bookfest operated on two levels—one for writers and one for readers. Readers chose from a smorgasbord of author panels presented concurrently, while writers could pick from 74 workshops, 3 to 4 of which were offered hourly. The downside to having so much going on simultaneously is that you invariably find yourself desirous of being in two places–or three–at once. The upside is that all the workshops and many of the panel discussions were fairly intimate, allowing for a lot of interaction between readers and writers, or writers and publishing professionals. In an industry that seems to be reinventing itself every twenty minutes, it was nice to get face-to-face with the people who are in the middle of it.
I learned a lot, had a great time, and can’t wait for next year.
This space is usually devoted to writers of historical fiction and their work, but today we remember a reader, Dave Ward.
I was working on a blog last week when this note from Dave’s pastor flashed across my screen: It is with great sadness that I have to share the news that Dave Ward died tonight from an apparent heart attack. He was on his way home from work when he stopped at the scene of an accident on I-405 South. He began helping direct traffic around the vehicles, and continued to do so even after Paramedics arrived. They reported that he was doing everything he could to help, which if you know Dave, you are not surprised.
In the years after the death of his beloved wife, Tina, Dave spent many hours seeking solace in conversation with his friends. When he is memorialized this Saturday, many will recount the love for her he expressed in those conversations. They will also remember how handy, helpful, generous, and ingenious he was. All true, but what I want to acknowledge here is Dave the reader and thinker—perhaps not how people usually recall the fellow who was always fixing this or that, or rounding up a group of kids to take to a model rocket launch. (Yes, he will also be remembered as Director of the Kirkland Missile Agency.)
Dave and I shared many conversations of books we had read, mostly Cold War stuff and, in Dave’s case, engineering manuals. (He also studied the wiring schematics for the sanctuary when he was the soundman at his church.) The technical aspect of the story always interested him as much as the story itself. He was just like that.
We had our run-ins, and they left their scars, but he forgave me, I think. It was just a few weeks ago that he noted on his Facebook page that he had ordered my book. (A self-taught computer wizard, he would not read an ebook, so he waited for it to come out in paper.) Discussing the book, and hearing about the technical details I got all wrong, would have been a fun, final step in our reconciliation. Alas, that conversation is not to be.
May God be with his children, Grant and Genevieve.
Recent blogs in this space have considered the questions of accuracy in historical films and the depictions of characters with whom we can identify in historical fiction generally. The recent best-seller-cum-movie, The Help, offers a chance to look at both. It also raises a third issue: the problem of a member of one ethnic group writing an insider’s tale about another.
The screenplay is a far more faithful rendering of the book than an author can reasonably expect. (Hollywood resisted the temptation to throw in car chases or vampires, for instance.) Historians find no fault with the depiction of caste or the subtext of terror in race relations in the sixties South. If anything, that aspect of the story was fairly muted (see Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi). As far as historical accuracy, Stockton depiction is sound.
Character development, however, seems to have run this über successful first-time novelist into a hornets’ nest of criticism, which she can contemplate deeply all the way to the bank. The uninitiated observer from far outside the American South might be tempted to criticize Stockton’s depiction of the black women in the book as unrealistically noble and strong, but he’d get his inbox scorched if he did. Stockton stands accused by at least one critic of using stock Hollywood characters (think Amos n’ Andy), and another for—and this is a particularly dicey issue for white authors to deal with—the dialect she puts in their mouths. The issue that has been around since white artists like Elvis Presley (or Vanilla Ice, for those who can’t remember the other guy) started making money interpreting black music—is Stockton sharing history, or expropriating it? (This is quite apart from the Jackson, MS maid who avers Stockton unfairly borrowed her life for the central character.) One begins to understand Ms. Stockton’s exasperated outburst, “I just make this shit up.”
Whose history is it, anyway? Can white authors faithfully depict the racial oppression of African Americans? For that matter, can men write women’s history? As a historical novelist, I find it much safer to write about dead people.
Pam Binder and the staff of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association put together another excellent conference this year featuring heavyweight speakers, and some very useful workshops. The great mass of unpublished authors in attendance was uniformly grateful for all this, as it gave them something constructive to do while they anxiously awaited the execution of the prime objective: pitching to literary agents.
Writers understand that you have to prepare for a conference much as a guerrilla plans a clandestine operation. You prepare your sneak attack (elevator pitch), as well as your frontal assault (formal pitch), and you research your objective (the agents) with meticulous detail. I spoke with one author who compared his research on agents to the way a 12-year-old boy memorizes baseball cards: you study the face, the team (agency) and all the statistics (authors and titles). Armed with this intelligence, you reconnoiter the hotel lobby and wait for an agent to appear. Understanding their place in the literary food chain, agents usually travel in packs, but no matter; the stealthy author simply lies in wait until one separates from the herd, then pounces.
The unpublished writer is a desperate animal, obviously, but persistence seems to be the key to success. Two of the featured speakers at the conference shared their own stories of quiet desperation steadfast tenacity with us. Jane Porter, reigning queen of Romance literature, calculated that she had been writing books for seventeen before she published one. I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in…. Seventeen years! It is difficult to imagine such fidelity to a craft that brings so much rejection, but listening to her speak it was clear that she had found in writing a way to live in integrity; getting published was almost beside the point.
Deb Calleti spoke of her dedication to the writing life as an unpublished author with an impediment most of us would find difficult, if not impossible, to overcome: an abusive spouse who opposed her writing ambitions. She found inspiration where she could, including her college writing teacher, Pauline Christianson (who, coincidentally, was also my college writing teacher—I anticipate big things as a result), and found a way to persevere. As a National Book Award finalist with five novels lined up to become movies, her dedication seems to have paid off.
Both Porter and Calleti made it clear that they were writing to write, not to be published. If writing is something you have to do (and God help you if that be the case), then there is integrity in the doing of it. Truly live in that space and the rejection letters become just another piece of junk mail.
When a historian commits the sin of presentism—judging actors past by values present—the offending scholar will likely suffer the slings and arrows of indignation of his or her peer group. If a writer of historical fiction is similarly guilty, they’ll probably get a pat on the back from the publisher and sell a bunch of books. Such is the problem of presentism in historical fiction.
Natalia Cecire eloquently fulminates against HF’s scientific presentism in which the central character intuits scientific truisms amid a sea of superstition. Anne Scott Macleod reviews children’s historical fiction and points out the tendency to give the central characters in medieval history extraordinarily modern perspectives on issues such as planned marriage, despite the fact that this was the accepted custom of the day. Chandra Power takes a sociological approach to examine presentism of both reader and writer, and makes much the same point.
I can agree with all of this, but none of it addresses the problem’s essence, which is that HF authors are compelled to write characters with whom their readers can identify, regardless of historical authenticity.
So it’s all narcissism? We’re only interested in historical versions of us? That’s probably putting too fine a point on it, but, yeah, something like that. The difference between the presentation in history and historical fiction is often the thought processes of its subjects. The historian is forever trying to understand the cultural and intellectual climate of historical actors. This is usually not pretty: their views on sex, race, and well, damn near everything, clash with our own—often violently. The more closely we study our historical subjects—or heroes—the more imperfect they become.
For the historical novelist who wants to create characters their readers would like to have over for dinner, the strictly historical approach simply will not do. The writer who wants a marketable book will feel compelled to draw, say, 19th-century characters with 21st-century values—make ‘em folks just like us. The women are intellectually liberated, the heroes are sensitive, and somehow they end up on the right side of every issue.
God help me.
I have taken no small amount of grief for violating this unwritten tenet. I have always believed that supporters on each side of every issue have their truth. Villains do not see themselves as villains, and Snidely Whiplash has no place in a book for grownups. Nonetheless, several readers, bless them, have taken me to task for allowing the white usurpers in the Hawaiian Revolution, depicted in The Imperialist, to believe that they were good guys. Is there a bad guy who actually sees himself as such?
Painting characters in black and white is a lowest-common-denominator approach to literature, even if it makes the heart of every literary agent go pitter pat. Some of our favorite characters are those with whom no one could really identify. John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces) is a character no one would want to be, or possibly even be in the same room with, yet when he spoke we listened. Whenever the narrative followed his thoughts I found myself wishing I could read more slowly so as to enjoy his poetically convoluted reasoning just a little while longer. Similarly, Mark Helprin’s Freddy (a thinly veiled Prince Charles from Freddy and Frederica), was a lucidly obtuse character utterly unlike anyone likely to read him—he’s a prince for crying out loud—but still we find him somehow endearing and we cheer him on to each of his little victories and weep with him in his pain. These are exceptional characters from exceptional books, and I can think of no analogue for them in historical fiction.
You can probably get published by pandering to presentist presumptions of what a character should be, but only at the price of mediocrity.
EC Hoffman PodcastThe American Civil War started inspiring novels well before the four years of unpleasantness came to an end at the Appomattox court house, and the literary flow shows no sign of slowing as we observe the conflict’s sesquicentennial. From The Red Badge of Courage, through Gone with the Wind, to the exquisite Cold Mountain, this brutal episode continues to inspire a vast trove of literary treasure. Indeed, if you go to the web bibliography maintained by the University of Texas (http://www.uta.edu/english/tim/civilwar/index.html) you’ll find Civil War historical fiction nicely toted up in any number of categories, but “diplomacy” will not be among them. Despite the fact that the Union’s survival depended largely upon our diplomats’ ability to keep Europe out of the conflict, the subject has been almost entirely ignored in fiction. Well, a professor of diplomatic history at San Diego State University is changing all that.
Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman’s award-winning novel, Broken Promises, dramatizes the pivotal mission of the American minister to Great Britain, none other than Charles Francis Adams, son of one president, grandson of another, as he sought to prevent Britain from assisting or recognizing the Confederacy. The setting romantic, the intrigue pervasive, and the stakes (the fate of the United States) enormous—it is a riveting read. One might expect such elements as these to launch dozens of historical novels, but alas, it took the eyes of a foreign policy expert to see them as the perfect mix for a great story.
So, what is a respected diplomatic historian doing writing historical novels? Of course I asked her, (podcast at right) and she revealed her dirty little secret: she was a literature major as an undergraduate. Now, as a teacher of survey courses, she finds herself a generalist who is constantly learning new things, and of course, a story teller who knows a great drama when she sees one. And while the narrative of the Civil War is compelling enough, the story of Charles Francis Adams—a man with both a family and a national legacy to maintain—is a uniquely American tale. He bore the dreams of his father and grandfather on his shoulders as he assumed his mission.
Professor Cobbs Hoffman is currently writing a synthesis of American Foreign Relations from its origins to the present, but she is also working on a new novel on the foreign policy of the American Revolution. I’m sure the coming monograph will be excellent, but I’m anxious to see the next novel.
I’m starting to feel a little outnumbered. As a satirist wandering about historical fiction, I can’t help but notice that the vast majority of HF titles are either of the Romance variety, or what I like to call OSS—Oh-So-Serious, for the uninitiated. Perhaps I missed the memo—Is there some unwritten rule dictating that historical fiction needs to be so deadly serious about life, death, and whether our hero will get out heroine out of her petticoats? Or maybe writing about an age of weighty feminine garments inspires breathing that is heavy, bosoms that heave, and pathos without end. Argh.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the serious stuff. Gore Vidal’s Burr was superb, and there is no way you’re going to get any yuks out of that story, (even less so with his Lincoln, sick jokes about Mrs. Lincoln and the quality of the play notwithstanding). The super-serious Pillars of the Earth is a wonderful book, cum miniseries, which has now outsold all of Ken Follet’s other novels combined. And well it should—it’s good stuff. I have no problem with any of this; I just wonder why there is so little room for the smartasses of historical fiction. Are the satirists underappreciated, or are the agents, publishers, and other gatekeepers of literature conspiring (either consciously or through group-non-think) to keep wit and ridicule out of the realm? Is it not possible to have a sense of history and a sense of humor?
Rare, however, is not the same as nonexistent. Hysterical fiction is out there among the historical fiction. Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man would, all by his big little self, seem to have made the past safe for satire. So let us have a list! I hereby request (beg, plead, cajole) that this blog’s readership send titles of their favorite satirical/humorous historical fiction. Comments on each are welcome, but certainly not required. I am partial to American history, but I think inclusivity should be the byword for so exclusive a group.
I look forward to hearing from you.