Prof. Cora Agatucci

Literary Genres

Seminar #1 Summary:  What Is Historical Fiction? ~ 9 April 2003
Seminar #1 Summarizer:  Cora Agatucci, ENGL 339-E, Spring 2003
URL of this webpage: http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng339/seminar1.htm
Seminar #1 Participants:  C.A., T.C, C.D., C.D., T.E., A.K., A.L., L.L., L.S., and J.V.  Added Contribution by Ca.D. | T.C.
Works Cited in this Seminar #1 Summary are given below.

1.  What is "Historical Fiction"? 

bullet Hoffman and others [e.g. Macleod and Sarricks] were recommended for providing helpful genre definitions--lists of genre conventions and criteria--to recognize and understand what historical fiction is.

2.  How historically accurate must [good] Historical Fiction be?  How much and what type of historical inaccuracy and fictionalizing are acceptable in "Historical" Fiction?  What about liberties taken with both verifiable "history" and "realistic" plausibility that characterize the HF subgenre of "historical romance"?

bullet The answer to these questions is "undefined."  "Fiction" allows for some "fudging" of the "facts"--but how much?  "Historical" fiction should present believable and plausible representations of the pastBut see also Rainbolt's discussion [i.e. “It’s not history.  It’s fiction” and should judged as "fiction"].
bullet The kind of changes --types of historical inaccuracies, etc.--presented in Historical Fiction is important to answering these questions.  Egregious anachronisms are unacceptable violations of genre expectations for Historical Fiction (e.g. introducing cars into 19th-century historical fiction or giving women rights that they did not have during a past setting of a historical fiction).
bullet The uses to which Historical Fiction is put are also important.  Macleod discusses this issue [in relation to children's historical fiction]: "historical fiction should be good fiction and good history."  This criterion seems especially important if historical fiction is being used in the classroom to teach history.  Some "fudging" of historical accuracy might be considered acceptable if the historical fiction dramatizes positive role models (e.g. for females in the case of Sarah Plain and Tall).  Instructive lessons can also be focused on historical inaccuracies, distortions, etc., in historical fiction's representation of history - e.g. to teach critical thinking, etc.  And further inquiry and study are needed for teachers to determine and teach just what is indeed historically (in)accurate:  e.g.  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl  suggests that at least some women were more rebellious and insistent upon their "rights" than what (our perceptions of) "official" history may have led us to believe.
See also Sarricks on what she considers desirable in HF writers' intentions and respect for historical accuracy. 
bullet What is the difference between Historical "Romance" [e.g. Sir Walter Scott's fiction and the film Braveheart] vs. Historical "Novel" [i.e. adheres to conventions of literary realism]?  [Cora: offer definitions in separate handout - using W. Scott articles]

3. What is meant by "persuasive" (Rainbolt) as a criterion for defining and judging Historical Fiction?  Can , should [good] Historical Fiction be both "persuasive" and "entertaining"?

[Rainbolt quotes "the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa: 'When you write a novel you do not have the obligation to be true and exact; the only obligation you have is to be persuasiveAnd to be persuasive as a novelist in most cases you are obliged to transform, to distort reality, to lie, to invent something that is not true -- that is the only way fiction can be persuasive" - emphasis added.]

4. How far in the "past" must a fiction be set to qualify as "Historical" fiction?  Does any fiction set in the "past" qualify as "historical fiction"?  More specifically, should any work of "realistic" fiction set in the past be classified as "historical fiction"?

bullet Seminar responses to these questions were varied and conflicted.

[Sir Walter Scott's response: The "novel should be set at least two generations in the past" (R. Gordon Kelly, cited by Rainbolt).  Later Ernest Leisy "reduced Scott's criterion to only half a generation: 'A historical novel is a novel the action of which is laid in an earlier time'" (R. Gordon Kelly, qtd. by Rainbolt).]

[Sarricks' response: "The simplest definition of historical fiction is that it is set in the past, before the author's lifetime and experience, but there's much more to it than that. Historical fiction makes a point of conveying a serious respect for historical accuracy and detail, and its intention, beyond providing reading pleasure, is to enhance the reader's knowledge of past events, lives, and customs" emphasis added.]

bullet One interesting discussion strand focused on Mark's Twain's Huck Finn [including speculation on whether a novel like Huck Finn written by a white male author today would be accepted for publication, much less be "canonized" as great literature worthy of study in today's literature classrooms].
bullet Huck Finn is a work of "literary realism" set in the author's past--so should it be categorized as "historical fiction"?  To answer this question, one could choose to apply the distinction proposed in Hoffman
"There are two kinds of historical fiction. In the first the setting is historical but there are no historical events or persons in the story. . . . The second kind of historical fiction is where both the setting and supporting characters are factual."

5.  Readers should be aware that authors' perspectives, biases, theories inform and shape the thematic messages of works of Historical Fiction.

bullet Historical fiction and historiography are informed and shaped by the (political, social, economic, biographical, etc.) perspectives, biases, theories of their authors.
bullet Some works of historical fiction are (deliberately) intended to supplement, challenge, and/or "revise" history (i.e. "official" historiography).  [E.g. post-colonial historical fiction (see Aizenberg: These writers share a "need . . . to come to terms with a past usurped by a colonial regime," to refute the colonizers' "'official' versions" of that past, and to re-create a "national history, particularly those portions distorted or censored by [Western] conquerors and their successors" (85)".]
bullet Seminar #1 discussion included interesting speculation on what messages would be presented by  future historiography and historical fictions addressing the current "Iraqi" war.

Concluding Observations & Questions for Further Consideration
By Seminar #1 Summarizer Cora Agatucci

1.  Defining a literary genre is a challenging business--a task harder than it may at first seem to be.  Seminar #1 discussion of proposed genre conventions and criteria proposed for defining Historical Fiction revealed considerable ambiguity, interpretive range, and differences of opinion in trying to clarify and apply these definitions--i.e. use them to decide whether specific works of literature and film are, indeed, "historical fiction."

2.  What is the value--and what are the benefits and limitations--of using Genre (theory and criticism) to approach study of literature [and film]?  I think this kind of question is important and should be asked more often than it is.  Here we are in English 339 - Literary Genres, a course required of EOU Discourse Studies students, and an elective approved to satisfy general education degree requirements for other students.  But why?--what essential or valuable knowledge and skills can we gain from this course relevant to humanities study of literature and film?

3.  What are the interdisciplinary differences and similarities of "History" and "Historical Fiction"?  While not posed or addressed directly, this key question underlies several of the above Seminar #1 discussion topics--yes?  (And one key reason why Cora chose "historical fiction" as the focus of ENGL 339-E, Literary Genres is because this particular genre within the field of Literature/Film Studies overlaps and interrogates traditional academic boundaries between "History" and "Literature.")

ADDED Contribution by Ca.D.
I like Scott's response that the past is at least two generations past.  This time frame seems reasonable. However, I am frustrated by the lack of a defining standard for historical fiction in regards to the amount of history it should contain.  This lacking seems odd to me.  I understand the purpose of historical fiction, but am not sure I would be able to identify works of historical fiction on my own.  I agree that an author's background and his or her opinions should be considered when reading historical fiction since an author usually writes with a specific purpose in mind.   IJ enjoyed watching Braveheart, but am not sure that much of the movie is based upon acutal history.  I decided to write my paper about this movie because I wanted to see how much was truth and how much was make-believe.  After this discussion, I began to wonder just how accurate historical fiction writers are and how much actual history in included in such works.  I enjoy historical fiction as long as it's not Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Realism really is not an enjoyable genre for me, but historical fiction is.  I have seen Schindler's List, but would not want to watch it over and over.  The historical events the movie is about is disturbing.  I only watched the film to better understand the holocaust while I was studying it in high school.  I did keep in mind that not everything was historically accurate.  Usually, I use historical fiction for academic purposes.  I don't generally read or watch it for leisure time.  Especially the historical romances because I am not really interested in that genre.

ADDED Contribution by T. C.
Seminar #1

Historical fiction is set in the authors past. If the author writes of something that is happening in his or her time, such as WW I, it is not historical fiction today simply because it is about a past historical event. During our life-time we will not be able to see a historical fiction novel wrote about the war in Iraq. The Vietnam war though, I have to wonder. When our generation has reached the adult years and is creeping into our senior citizen years, quite a bit of time will have passed between when the war took place and the time we will be in. Most of the veterans will have probably have passed. Being that my father is one of them, it is hard for me to say that. We are seeing historical fictions being wrote in book and movie form about Pearl Harbor. Not all of the survivors from that tragedy are passed on but we are still able to look at it from a historical point of view.

Much discussion was spent on whether Huck Finn is historical fiction or not. Some of the students in class felt very strongly that it is not historical fiction. I however think it is. It is a book set in the authors past with historical events. The places and the characters may not be true, but the general idea of what Jim and Huck went through are real. There were slaves back in that time and it is quite possible there could have been an abused little boy that lived at the same time. The idea of it is not so far fetched. Just because the story does not have to do with a war that took place or the rise of a nation, does not mean it is automatically disqualified as historical fiction.

Works Cited [in Cora's Seminar #1 Summary above]

Aizenberg, Edna. "The Third World Novel as Counterhistory: Things Fall Apart and Asturias's Men of Maize." In Approaches to Teaching Achebe's Things Fall ApartEd. Bernth Lindfors. Approaches to Teaching World Literature Series: 37.  New York: Modern Language Association, 1991.
Cora's Intro to HF:  http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng339/Intro/Aizenberg.htm

Hoffman, Brenda.  "Historical Fiction Criticism & Evaluation."  Historical Fiction.  Internet School Library Media Center (Inez Ramsey, Library Science Program, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA; 1997).  Last accessed April 2003.  URL: http://raven.jmu.edu/~ramseyil/histfic.htm
Cora's Intro to HF:  http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng339/Intro/Hoffman.htm

MacLeod, Anne Scott (professor at University of Maryland and author of American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, University of Georgia Press).  "Writing Backward: Modern Models in Historical Fiction."  Horn Book Magazine, January/February 1998. [Horn Book publishes Books for Children & Young Adults]  Last accessed April 2003.
URL: http://www.hbook.com/exhibit/article_macleod.html

Cora's Intro to HF:  http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng339/Intro/MacLeod.htm

Rainbolt, William (Dept. of English, Univ. of Albany-SUNY).  "He Disagreed with the History, But He Liked the Story."  Writing History / Writing Fiction: A Virtual Conference Session.  History and MultiMedia Center, University at Albany-SUNY.  Last accessed April 2003. 
URL: http://www.albany.edu/history/hist_fict/Rainbolt/Rainboltes.htm

Cora's Intro to HF:  http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng339/Intro/Rainbolt.htm

Sarricks, Joyce (Literature & Audio Services Coordinator, Downers Grove Public Library, Downers Grove, IL).  "Writers & Readers: Historical Fiction--Rules of the Genre."  Booklist 1 April 1999.  Rpt. NoveList News June 1999.  [ NoveList News is produced in the Durham, NC office of NoveList, a division of EBSCO Publishing]. Last accessed March 2002.  [Sorry! Link broken as of April 2003. ~ CA.]
URL: http://novelist.epnet.com/nlwebp/NoveListNews/nlnews9906.htm
Cora's Intro to HF:  http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng339/Intro/Sarricks.htm

ENGL 339-E Seminar #1 Sources:  See Introduction to Historical Fiction
[Index to Cora Agatucci's Summaries of Selected Readings]
URL: http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng339/Intro/

See also Cora's Online Reserve (password protected) for more articles on Historical Fiction
URL: http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci_articles/

ENGL 339 Students: For more example Seminar Summaries from Spring 2002,  please see:
Spring 2002 Seminar #1 ~ What Is Historical Fiction?
URL: http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng339/spring2002/Seminar1.htm
Spring 2002 Seminar #2 ~ Jewel in the Crown
URL: http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng339/spring2002/Seminar2.htm
Spring 2002 Seminar #3 ~ Jewel in the Crown
URL: http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng339/spring2002/Seminar3.htm
Spring 2002 Seminar #4 ~ A Pale View of Hills 
URL: http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng339/spring2002/Seminar4.htm

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URL of this webpage: http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng339/seminar1.htm
Last updated: 04 June 2003

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