How Do You Classify Historical Fiction?

What is historical fiction?
When I posted my review of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Darragh McKeon, Jenny from Reading the End left a fantastic comment about classifying historical fiction that I think deserves a discussion post.
 

“Do you think something like this counts as historical fiction? Someone called a book about the Gulf War ‘historical fiction’ recently and I was thinking, but it’s so recent, does it count? And I was thinking that maybe the rule is, If it’s set in the quite recent past it doesn’t have to be historical fiction (like Eleanor and Park), but if it’s centered around historical events in the recent past (like this one is), then it counts. Maybe?”

I had to think about this for a little while, but I ended up coming up with two characteristics that tend to go hand in hand when I’m trying to figure out if I consider a book to be historical fiction (which is actually something I do – it’s a tag in my reading tracking sheet). For me, the book needs to take place in a historically significant time or place and that time/place needs to play a large role in the plot of the novel. I’m still not really sure where I fall when it comes to recent events, but I’m leaning toward thinking that if the event is important enough to be considered historically significant (the Gulf War is already in history books), then I might consider it. 

So, when it comes to All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, I would mark it historical fiction because so much of the plot revolves around the explosion at the Chernobyl plant. Although Eleanor & Park takes place around the same time, it doesn’t focus on a significant aspect of that time period and I don’t think it plays a large role in the plot.

But what do you think?

  • What are some characteristics you think a book must have for it to be considered historical fiction?
  • How far in the past is old enough to count as historical fiction? 
  • Can you think of books set in historical time periods (maybe some from the graphic – there are a few I’m going back and forth over) that you would/wouldn’t classify as historical fiction? Why? 

 

  • In order for me to classify something as historical fiction, it has to be a (re)telling of something significant that happened in history (like a story about a real person, but in a fictional setting), or a story that takes place during a significant time period (so books set during WWII don’t necessarily have to be about a soldier *in* the war necessarily, because WWII affected everyone in some way). I wouldn’t classify Eleanor and Park as historical fiction just because it took place in a certain time period. Growing up in the 80s or 90s isn’t significant in itself, not like someone’s story taking place during a significant event that happened in one of those eras. Does that make sense?

    I would classify a book that takes place during (and deals with the effects of) the Gulf War as historical fiction, I think. It may be recent history to us, but it’s still history. It did take place over ten years ago. I probably wouldn’t classify a story that takes place during the last election as historical fiction because that just happened a couple of years ago.

    • I think we’re definitely on the same page. My thought with Eleanor & Park was that it could have been picked up and moved to the 60’s, 70’s, 90’s without changing anything about the story, where a true historical fiction novel would have serious structural problems if you tried to change its setting.

      Now that Jenny asked the question I’ve been trying to decide where the “cut off” might be for time…ten years seems fair. But that would mean stories about 9/11 would be historical fiction and that just seems so odd…I guess I’m going to have to deal with that as I get older.

      • What a great discussion! I agree with the points here–the story must revolve around a significant event in history, not just set in that time period like E & P. I agree that ten years seems fair. As Heather (above) it may be recent to us, but it’s still history. And as time passes, it will become even more appropriate to label as historical fiction. I think we struggle to label books about more recent events as historical fiction because we’re still understanding the effects of these events (like the Iraq war?) So writing a book set in during that recent event may be more difficult–the “story” is still happening in real life…hopefully that kind of makes sense!

  • I think the best way to start with is to determine first what is the definition of ‘history’ in general. I know that for someone yesterday is history, and even 5 minutes ago is history, too. But for me it is not unless something eventful has happened then. At the same time, these events have to have some significant influence in relation to our culture, politics, economy, etc., that influences our life. So, for example, Robinson Crusoe, even though depicting events happening in the 17th century, is not historical fiction, because there is no historical event around which the action takes shape. But The Three Musketeers, on the other hand, can be considered as such as it centres around a real event that changed dramatically the course of history and the way people lived their lives.
    Therefore, as Heather said, you can’t classify a story about very recent events as historical fiction because we haven’t simply seen the consequences of those events yet, so we can’t say whether this event has any weight or significance.

    • I think you’re right about the weight of the significance – that’s a good way to look at more recent events.

  • To me, historical fiction can be very subjective, but most times, I go by the same rules you stated. If the book is driven by a historical event, I would consider it historical fiction. If it’s more about the characters or plot, and less about the setting, even if the setting is 1495, I may mark it literary fiction or general fiction. If it’s about a very recent event, say the twin tower bombings or the Iraq war, that’s when it becomes very subjective for me. Most of the time, books like that end up in my literary/general fiction bucket. I guess my main criteria is how much does the event feel recent to me.

    • Yeah, I definitely think it gets more tricky when it comes to more recent events and I still don’t know if I really have a solid criteria. I like what Olga said about needing to see how historically significant the event will feel.

  • Personally, the historical fiction label makes me nervous because it often seems to mean romantic historical fiction, which tends to drive me crazy. I am not sure where the line should be for what is historical and what isn’t. It’s kind of like the Oldies or Classic Rock station on the radio, I guess, always changing.

  • Susan

    This is a very good discussion. Because years ago( I am in my 50’s). Most fiction was romance historical fiction( kings and queens, england, etc). But recently things have changed. There is historical fiction now that takes place WW1, WW2, and Vietnam, etc. Like Athira said, it is subjective. But, if it is about characters only, it is not historical fiction. But, if there is historical background, and events, to me it is historical fiction. I just read a book called Palisades Park. I tagged it as historical fiction. Because there are historical references about the park. But reading historical fiction is so different now. It was not contemporary history, or recent history. But lately there are many books that are like this.

    • It seems like the global wars really added a whole new space for authors to write in because so many of the books I would consider historical fiction now are set during those periods (and 30-40 years ago, people would have been debating over whether or not it would be too “recent” to be considered historical).

  • Oh man, this is something i think about all the time. If you were to ask me if i like historical fiction, I would say no. Flat out no. But then I look at all the books you have pictured and I have read or want to read almost all of them. I like recent history. Go back more than 150 years and I probably won’t read it. And i never consider the more recent stuff to be historical but I guess it is. I can’t wait to read everyone’s comments on this one.

    • I think Susan’s comment below is right that the concept of the genre is starting to change a bit. I mean, it’s hard to look at books like Life After Life or All the Light We Cannot See and say there isn’t a huge influence of history in them, though with others (like Ruby…that’s the one I’m really stuck on) it gets a little trickier.

  • Ti Reed

    I agree. If it’s based an an event of historical significance, then I call it Historical Fiction. Even if said event is quite recent.

    • I’m starting to think maybe this might be it, I just feel like really current events are kind of tripping me up!

  • I’ve also seen the term “period fiction” which has a similar but slightly different connotation, at least for me. It seems to be a good middle ground, for when something takes place in more recent history that you’re hesitant to call it historical, or it takes place in history but that’s only the setting and historical events or figures aren’t a significant part of the plot.

    Personally, I’d put both the Gulf War book and E&P in this category… I even consider something like The Help to be more “period” than “historical,” even though I wasn’t even alive when it takes place. I guess maybe WWII is my arbitrary cutoff for “historical” (or maybe not so arbitrary… that’s as far as we ever got in my high school history classes).

    On the other hand, I’d probably put a book about 9/11 just in the literary or general fiction category. Despite its being such a significant event, it still feels too recent for either of those labels to work for me… but someone young enough not to remember that day – or who wasn’t even born yet – might feel otherwise.

    • I really like the idea of having another term for that middle ground – although, for some reason, I think I would associate “period fiction” with being the older of the two?

      • I guess for me, “period” could refer to any time period. Or it could just be that by the time I heard someone use that phrase, I already had “historical” in my head as being kings and queens and wars from centuries ago.

  • Great topic! I agree that for a novel to be historical fiction, a historical event should be at the center of it. This would include more recent things, and I would call A Constellation of Vital Phenomena historical fiction, despite it being set only about a decade ago. However, I would hesitate to call Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close historical fiction, even though it’s about the aftermath of 9/11, which was a huge historic moment. Maybe the difference between the two is that I have my own experience of 9/11, but I don’t have an experience of the Chechen wars — it’s maybe harder to call something familiar to me ‘historical’ than something more remote to my own life.

    • Isn’t that strange? Because I thought the same of Constellation – marking it historical fiction without thinking – but would have a hard time with how to categorize a book even much more deeply connected to 9/11, despite the fact that some of their time periods overlap.

    • Jennine G.

      I’d say 9/11 books that focus on the time period would be historical fiction. Some of my younger students were a couple months old or not born when 9/11 took place. Next year’s junior high kids were born in 2002 mostly. I guarantee they’d think 9/11 is historical fiction.

  • Ahhhh such great points, and really, a tricky question! I agree that, for me, it depends on how much of the plot revolves around the historical event/time period. That’s not to say character-driven novels can’t be historical fiction… it’s kind of a matter of, is the author trying to portray a time period via these characters? Or is merely the setting?

    • That’s a good point about the character driven novels. I think All the Light We Cannot See is very character driven (you get very little typical “war” action, despite the WWII setting), but I definitely consider it historical fiction.

  • Jennine G.

    Yes, I agree with you and others…depends how much of story focuses on the events of the time period. Of the ones I’ve read up in your graphic, I’d say they are historical fiction. Also maybe people would debate it depending on how big of an event it was that took place.

    • I think that line with how important the time is to the story can be a little tricky when it comes to some books (I’m really thinking of Ruby, which I’m still unsure if I would call historical fiction).

  • Interesting discussion! Like you, I consider a novel to be historical fiction when the time period plays a major role in the plot. The lines between genres are so fuzzy and of limited utility.

    • Definitely true about the utility of genre, especially since they’re so rarely sorted that way (except in our heads!)

  • I think your rules are perfect. I’m going to adopt them as my own.

  • Jade Morriss

    This definitely is a great discussion topic – I’ve seen a fair few posts in the blogosphere of late regarding how a book is defined in to a specific category. I think the two main points which you apply to be historical fiction are on point really. It’s interesting how some of us categorise genres differently though.
    :-)
    Bits & Bobs

  • I think I define historical fiction very subjectively. If it happened before I was born, it’s historical fiction :) If there are other characteristics that are more important than the setting, like magical realism, that can beat out historical fiction as the genre in my spreadsheet. (I love that we track our reading so much! Book bloggers are just my kind of people.)

    • Haha, I like the before you’re born rule!

    • Nishita

      We think the same way :), I posted the same remark before scrolling down to see yours :)

  • The Book Wheel

    I’ve never really thought about it, but for me it’s a dual narrative. I know this isn’t true for a good chunk (or most of) historical fiction, but the HF that I’ve enjoyed over the years has almost always had it. I guess that means that to be classified as “HF I will read” it should have a dual narrative, rather than classifying the genre as a whole.

  • Books on the Table

    This is a really interesting discussion — I never thought much about defining historical fiction, but after reading through all the comments, I think Ti Reed’s sums it up really well: historical fiction is based on an event of historical significance. Funny story: when my daughter was about 10, I gave her a copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. She read a chapter or two and then handed it back to me, saying, “Mom, why did you give me this? You know I don’t like historical fiction.”

    • Oh my gosh, that’s hilarious! I wonder if she’d still think the same with the updated versions they just came out with :)

  • I’ve been thinking about that this year since I joined the British History Reading Challenge (http://impressionsinink.blogspot.com/2013/12/british-history-reading-challenge-2014.html) that includes this guideline: “The reading challenge pertains to non-fiction or historical fiction, I have to draw the line at no purely fiction material.” So, I’m taking essentially the same definition as you — if it’s a fictionalized account of events during the Regency, then I’ll count it, if it’s a Regency romance, then I won’t.

  • I’ve been meaning to comment on this all week – mostly to say that I agree. I also think that @cls413:disqus makes some valid points with ‘period pieces’ being a kind of in between.

    As far as what’s “historical” and what’s not, I guess it depends on the subject matter. Slightly unrelated is that I still feel like it’s too soon to be making video games based on the First Gulf War… it’s a bit distasteful to me.

    • I think that deciding what’s too soon to consider historical is really the hardest, and probably the most subjective, part.

  • Stephanie

    Interesting discussion and my thoughts on the matter are probably nonsensical. I wouldn’t consider anything that is set in the last 60 years as historical. Why 60 years? Not sure. I think it’s based on my feelings that historical fiction must be set far enough back that culture and society operate very differently and in many different aspects than society now and 60 years (1940’s-1950’s) seems to be where I see that break. In other words that’s the experience I’m looking for when picking up a “historical fiction” – to read a book in a real setting that I’m familiar with but that is quite different in how it operates. I’d probably call something, even if it’s centered around a significant event, from the 1970’s or 1960’s just fiction or perhaps war fiction if it was focused on the Gulf war etc…

    • It seems like most people tend to make WWII a general cutoff, but I think there’s quite a bit of history that took place in the 10-20 years after that wasn’t necessary set during a war that I might consider historical fiction.

  • Great post. I read a lot of historical fiction and never actually thought about how I classify it as such. But I think the way you put it it spot on. I think everyone has their own cut off line and for me it’s typically been WWII but I realize that I should and can extend that a bit now.

  • Nishita

    I think if I see the events covered before I was born I consider it historical fiction. That’s an easy way out for me :)

  • Great discussion, and a topic I struggle with. I use the term ‘period fiction’ a lot when describing books, and it doesn’t pertain just to ‘recent history’ for me. For me, historical fiction has to be based in fact. I’ll use the Civil War as an example since I read it a lot. If the book talks about real people, but is a fictionalized account, I count is as ‘historical fiction’. An example would be some of Jennifer Chiaverini’s recent books, i.e.. Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. It mentions real people and talks about battles and teaches me something. On the other hand, if a book just took place during the Civil War, with barely a mention of real people or events, but did a great job describing the dress and food and was heavy on the romance, I might classify it as ‘period fiction’. And I would agree, the more recent it is, the harder it is to classify. If I can remember it, it’s not history….lol!

  • Great topic you brought up. I consider a novel historical fiction if it plays of in an important event in history. Like wartime stories or around any event that actually took place. If a book is set in 1940s for example, but there aren’t any historical facts in it, I might be less inclined to define it “historical fiction”

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