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Hysterical Fiction

July 3, 2011

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.


10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2011 2:23 am

    This is an excellent question, Kurt–why *don’t* authors of historical fiction leaven their alternate universes with humor? I wonder if it’s as simple as the fact that it may be one too many balls to juggle. Creating an imaginative world, one that’s based in the truth of history, and then adding a dollop of yuks? I wonder if your average writer (present company excluded, of course) has the chops to carry that off. Or even scarier, maybe it’s just that your average writer of historical fiction is not inclined to share a sense of humor.

    I’ve heard that the books in William Kennedy’s Albany Cycle–‘Ironweed’ being the most well-known, ‘Legs,’ and ‘Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game’–if not “funny ha ha,” are supposed to find the darkly comic side of Depression-era Albany. I haven’t read them, but thanks for making me think of them again. I need to put them on my TBR list.

  2. July 4, 2011 4:19 am

    If you want belly lauhgs as well as an outstanding historical research you should read Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser. There is nothing better in the genre. Trust me.

    More recently, Exit the Actress is a novel about Nell Gwynn, the mistress of Charles II. Although not as exciting as any of the Flashmans, it is an excellent picture of the Restoration London with subtle humor and no bodice ripping.

  3. Elizabeth permalink
    July 20, 2011 1:40 pm

    I agree! Serious – I’m okay with, but the Romance kills me. I have yet to pick up a Philippa Gregory or the like, yet everytime someone suggests an Historical Fiction recommendation, it’s one of those sappy romance ones. Recently, I started reading the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon and was so disappointed to come across so much romance (some may disagree but I’m pretty sure there was a range of about 200-300 pages somewhere in the middle in which I felt like I was reading a romance novel)!

    • July 20, 2011 3:28 pm

      Yes, there is an unfortunate subgenre known as “hot historical” that seems to appreciate historical settings primarily because it gives the author more clothing to narrate getting ripped off their historical subjects.

  4. August 13, 2011 8:35 am

    Come on guys… nothing wrong with a bit of love on the side… it makes the world go round. Where would Henry be without Eleanor, Antony without Cleopatra, Tristan without Isolde, Abelard without Heloise and so on.

    • September 16, 2011 5:12 pm

      Agreed. Heaven forfend–I would never argue with a little love. Heck, I put a whole bunch of it in my own novel. I’m just asking for a couple of yuks between orgasms.

  5. September 16, 2011 1:42 pm

    Kurt, I’m a little late finding and commenting on this post, but it is an excellent question. I know the dilemma firsthand since I have written a “hysterical fiction” book (great name, by the way). When I sent it to my agent at the time, he didn’t get back to me for four months. When we did speak it was so he could drop me as a client! I have numerous other agents and a few editors (one at Simon & Schuster) tell me that they couldn’t represent or publish the book because it was funny and that was a non-starter! Readers wouldn’t like it because humor was too “subjective”!

    So, I self-published it on Amazon (okay, here comes the blatant self-promotion). It is called “George in London” and purports to tell the tale of unsophisticated 19-year-old George Washington’s wild adventure in London in 1751 seeking his fortune.

    Maybe there is a readership out there that would like its history mixed with a few laughs, chortles, guffaws, titters, giggles and knowing smiles!

    • September 16, 2011 5:08 pm

      Happy to host a little self-promotion. I hope you sell a gazillion copies and prove to the publishing world that their is more to historical fiction than heaving breasts.

      • September 17, 2011 5:44 pm

        Thanks, Kurt. Your book sounds great. Hope it does well.

        Although I must say I rather like breasts! But I know what you mean!

  6. September 16, 2011 7:46 pm

    At first blush, I’d argue that the issue is that when we laugh, we generally laugh at ourselves, and historical fiction is a tough genre in which to do that kind of work. (That said, I think large chunks of WOLF HALL are hysterically funny.) We laugh at Shakespeare when we see ourselves and ignore the weird and foreign bits.

    [As an aside – and as a historian – I’d also point out that past peoples had a very different idea of what is funny than we do. I’ve had students write papers on 17th century joke books, and they come to me utterly at sea. You’ve got hundreds of jokes and not one of them is remotely funny.]

    So in order for historical fiction to be funny, one of the characters (or the book itself) has to have the same sensibility as a modern reader. (Think Elmore Leonard’s westerns. Very funny but, despite their historical setting, quite modern.) And any time you introduce the modern into a historical setting you are going to find yourself in a tough situation. Too modern a character will seem anachronistic, and too modern a perspective could break the story entirely.

    I’m not saying that it can’t be done, just that it would take an extremely careful author who has thought deeply about just these issues.

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