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Baffled once more

November 19, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

A certain fuss has erupted concerning historical fiction, dominance thereof in the Canlit landscape, following Steven Beattie’s reaction to a Globe & Mail essay that wasn’t even concerned with historical fiction; in fact, I missed the offending sentence entirely because my eyes had glazed over by that point. I was considering another question instead: why the essay pretends that “YA fiction” isn’t actually a category created to encourage teenagers to punch below their intellectual weight. Consequently, I failed to sputter on cue.

In any case, much commentary ensued, culminating in B. Glen Rotchkin’s insightful observation that historical fiction reflects an interest in research over experience, which may have something to do with the professionalization of creative writing.

And this, I think, intersects with something I complained of earlier, the hazards of giving up a day job in the real world to retreat into the creative writing department. If a novel is the product of research over experience, then you would indeed expect every noun in the book to sound like it came off Google; perhaps, in fact, it did.

Beattie suggested that there are perils in engaging the here and now, “since it leaves one open to criticism from vested interests on the right or left of the political spectrum,” and he’s probably right.

Suppose you have a stripper as a character; suppose you portray her as a victim of exploitation. Now you risk arousing those third wave feminists who insist she should be empowered. Empower her, on the other hand, and you’re open to accusations that you’re candy-coating reality.

It’s important to understand at the outset that you can’t win.

It’s also important to understand at the outset that people who make such charges can’t read, and should stick to YA fiction. Your character is one character, one possible experience, not the embodiment of an archetype.

But it’s important to understand, before making that argument, that you still can’t win.

This is, of course, assuming that anyone pays attention. And this is, I think, where Beattie is wrong: lots of novelists address the present, without any apparent fear. It’s just that they don’t get noticed.

Perhaps readers like historical fiction precisely because it doesn’t engage the here and now. Not that you can’t engage the present through the past, but the reader needn’t pay attention if you do. The reader can substitute “learning about another time period” for whatever other values the book may have — and many readers do cite learning about history or other cultures as one of the values of fiction.

Which makes no sense to me, but there it is. As usual, I’m baffled.

Categories: canlit, writing
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