Sunday, 3 July 2011

Why are so many contemporary novels set in the past?

I was at a book group last night when the question of anachronistic attitudes in novels cropped up. We were discussing Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by Carry Tiffany, a good first novel by an Australian writer, set in a drought-stricken farming region in the 1930s. (Yes, I realise that description probably won’t have you racing off to Waterstone’s, but I joined a book group to make me read books I wouldn’t normally touch.) 

One member of the group was objecting to the attitudinal anachronisms in a novel set in 1930s Australia. She felt that, towards the end of the book, the writer made her female protagonist come over all feminist (Men! Who needs ‘em!) and anti-War (the Australian government is basically fooling farmers into enlisting). She argued convincingly that, while these attitudes might prevail in Guardian-reading Islington in 2011, they’d have been somewhat out of place in the drought-stricken Mallee of 1939.

(The worst example I’ve ever come across of this tendency was the Robert Altman  film, Mash, in which 1950s military personnel were made to speak, think and act like cool, Orange County semi-hippies from 1970. Ludicrous. Altman may just be the most over-rated film director of all time.)

Anyway, the discussion got me wondering why such a high proportion of currently published fiction - mostly written by liberal-minded women -  is set in the past. I suspect one reason for this is that the modern world is too confusing and hard to grasp for contemporary writers: they’re simply not sure what they think about it, or how they’re supposed to set about capturing it, or whether they’ll find themselves cut off by the shifting currents of Political Correctness and victimhood politics. Another reason might be that things change so fast, writers are scared their work will seem out of date by the time it’s published (9/11, the Credit Crunch, a black US President, Climate Change etc.): there’s nothing liberals fear more than being behind the times.

Historical novels offer the writer the opportunity to stuff their work full of Fascinating Facts about the period they’re covering (e.g. did you know that Victorians used to feed babies bat vomit to improve their eyesight?) and it means they can bulk their novel out to an acceptable 500 pages with tons of lovely research, even when nothing much happens in it. It’s the “Extended PhD Thesis” or “QI” school of fiction. 

There’s also the lure of being able to include sex scenes from eras where sex was still hidden and dirty and disgusting – in other words, exciting. Nowadays, of course, it’s everywhere, and, consequently, dull, dull, dull. Stick a couple of lesbians in Victorian frocks and lacy underthings, set them frolicking in a dingy Lambeth back-room, and you’re away! (There’s also a vague chance you’ll bag a TV adaptation at the same time.)

Another reason writers do it, I suspect, is that it allows liberal readers to be reassuringly shocked by the awful way people treated each other in Olden Times – the wife-beating, the exploitation of children, the cruelty towards the insane, the use of leeches, the dying of hunger, the executions etc. The writer knows that readers will be self-righteously horrified, and that we’ll all hug ourselves when reminded of how wonderful and beneficial Progress has been, and how superior we are to our ancestors. To a lefty, the present is always better than the past. It’s the other way round for conservatives: we long for the days when we were allowed to eat our babies, impregnate saucy servant girls with impunity, and flog the footman (actually, the last one sounds like a euphemism for another activity altogether). 

It must also be fun to have a central character whose attitudes are hip, urban and compassionate in a Guardian “Comment is Free” sort of way, interacting with deluded fools who believe in the Bible and patriotism and Empire. If only, the writer seems to be saying, you’d been lucky enough to be born in 1980, you’d have had Polly Toynbee to tell you what to think, Nelson Mandela to worshiop and Ed Miliband to protect you!

Most modern female literary writers studied English at university, and probably hanker for delightful, dreamy afternoons spent beside the Cam, smoking Gauloises and sipping Cabernet Sauvignon while lost in the rich imaginative worlds created by the likes of George Eliot, Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. For a few hours, you could stop worrying about whether you’re up the duff, or whether your Anthropology-reading boyfriend from Corpus is planning to give you the heave-ho, or about whether you’ll ever manage to get into publishing. 

There are the twin lures of being able to borrow someone else’s voice and well-tried novelistic templates. Being able to slip into a pastiche of the styles of your favourite writers from the past must be a lot easier for a young literary novelist than finding their own voice. And, of course, the structure and conventions established by the traditional novel must provide a comfortingly sturdy structure within which take your first steps as an adult writer.

Finally, there’s the simple fact that novels set in the past sell – and there can be few better reasons for someone hoping for a career as a writer choosing a particular style. Add in a bit of a detective story to guarantee some narrative drive, and a bit of horror to provide the occasional thrill, a real historical character or two, come up with a decent title – and you’re sorted!

I’m not complaining about any of this: experimental modern novels are only read by literary critics, people working in University English departments and a few assorted pseuds, while big, slabby novels set in the past tend to be read by… well, readers.

Good luck to you, ladies, I say.

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