Monday, February 24, 2014

The Sixties: The New Frontier for Historical Fiction, a guest post by Richard Sharp

Over the time that I've been involved with the genre, I've seen the vibrant, socially complex 1960s gradually slide into the definition of historical fiction.  For this reason—and also because I was born at the tail end of the decade and am becoming "historical" myself—the subject of today's post intrigues me immensely.  In the following essay, novelist Richard Sharp puts the Sixties in perspective as an important historical setting and also as an attractive venue for both novelists and their readers to explore.


The Sixties: The New Frontier for Historical Fiction
Richard Sharp

I received a flattering review recently, and others like it, saying I had “written the novel that many of us baby boomers wanted to write and the rest have been hoping to find.” The subject was a historical novel set in the Sixties. Readers who lived through this period, Boomers and their predecessors, as well as descendants curious as to why their elders were so crazy, seem eager for good fiction on this era. That is, fiction that goes beyond war stories, “groovy” and conspiracy theories. This is an appeal to satisfy that pent-up demand.

Historical novel writers, I call your attention to a new subject matter. Are you attracted to an era of history that is poorly understood and which you might like to clarify for a new generation of readers? Are you intrigued by the primitive violence of a past age? Do the strange cultures of passing civilizations appeal? Or the roots of our unfinished business in gender, sexual and racial tolerance? Or the rhythms of distant drums? Or the natural remedies and mysticism passed down by gurus and charlatans? Do you feel the romance of Camelot?

Then awaken to a new sub-genre in historical fiction: The Sixties. By the common definition that historical fiction must be at least fifty years ago, we have just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and the fiftieth memorial of the assassination of President John Kennedy. Remembrances of the other seminal events of that era are falling into history like so many autumn leaves. And those that lived through that era are passing into history along with them.

Surely, you say, the contemporary writers of that era have dissected those times in non-fiction and fiction alike. Many have written about the Vietnam conflict—true. Of the struggle for racial equality—true. Of the counterculture of drugs and rock and roll. Of the sexual revolution and her sister, feminism. Also true. But these are the threads from which the Sixties were woven, they are not, separately, the fabric of those times, and novelists have yet to create a substantial array of fine tapestry from that fabric.

Why is that? Perhaps it is partly because the turmoil of the decade tore the society apart and also because our interpretation of that era became so remarkably political—the stuff of every Presidential election from Kennedy’s Camelot through George W. Bush. Barack Obama, born in 1961, is the first American President too young to have participated in the Vietnam War or have avoided it, to have visited Woodstock or not, to have learned of Selma or Kent State on live television, to have looked on Bond girls as feminists, or any of those things.

Many now remember Vietnam as the Baby Boom war and the counterculture as the Boomers’ great misadventure. By any objective standard, neither is true. The common definitions now in use place the Baby Boom from 1946-1965, the so-called “Silent Generation” approximately two decades before that and (thanks to Tom Brokaw), the “Greatest Generation” another twenty years or so earlier. To have been subject to the draft or experienced the summer of love, a young man in the Sixties would have had to be born in the first eight years of the Boom (before 1954) or the last decade of the preceding generation. So part of the lack of focus on the Sixties themselves may well be that the era does not fit well with the pseudo-scientific generational mythology we have come to rely on. Add to that the uncomfortable fact that the political, military, and even socio-cultural leadership of those years were from the semi-deified Greatest Generation (and would remain so through much of the Reagan Administration), and you have a formula for denial. But LBJ, Nixon and Carter were as much that generation as JFK. For better or ill, no one generation was responsible for the Sixties. But that does not excuse a failure to come to terms with it in either non-fiction or novels.

As I began writing two novels dealing with this period, The Duke Don’t Dance and Crystal Ships, it became clear to me that, the era was even more complex than I remembered as a confused voyager through those years. This was confirmed recently by the realization that at least two dozen major colleges (no doubt an understatement) are now teaching courses on the political/social/cultural history of the Sixties. Academics have even invented a new term for the period: “the long Sixties.” The term recognizes that some critical changes defining the period began in the late Fifties and that a large number of issues lingered well into the Seventies, at least as far as the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Today the Soviet Union has dissolved and we have had Nine-eleven, two Iraq wars and Afghanistan separating us from the trauma of the Sixties. Perhaps the time has at last arrived when both the academics and novelists can display some perspective on this era—that we don’t have to write about just the threads, but can talk about the fabric and even create something beautiful from that fabric.

For Crystal Ships, I started with the background music of the era, providing a personal soundtrack in the back of my head as I constructed the saga, aiding my recall of the writings we read back then and the performing arts that we watched. (The title itself recalls Jim Morrison’s “The Crystal Ship” and the Irish legend behind it, but serves as a metaphor for the fragile idealism of the period.) Pre-boomers wrote and performed the great music of the era. The boomers disseminated and preserved it and current generations still listen to it every day. The music was more of a unifying force for the period than a divisive one (despite some geezer complaints) and also provides a link to the present. For those reasons, I tried to immerse the reader in music and other cultural references to capture more of the spirit of the era. Other writers will find other devices.

I’m proud to have added a volume to a sparsely filled shelf of novels that attempt to portray the Sixties in all its diversity. Still my perspective is limited by what I understood of the actions, point of view and emotional reactions to those difficult years in my own social milieu. Those of different backgrounds will have other experiences that merit expression in the form of historical novels. JFK once said of the space program we do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” True also of recapturing the Sixties, but there are many shelves to fill.


Richard Sharp grew up a Colorado farm boy, later was educated at Harvard and Princeton, and began his career in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. He subsequently worked as a development consultant in some four dozen countries.

His rural roots have inspired two 19th-century historical novels and his later life, two Cold War era sagas. Self-published to date through the CreateSpace publishing platform, his well-reviewed and prizewinning tales are available through his website at


  1. Just wanted to mention that Reading the Past is a good antidote to VIDA's current "Dudesville" list of magazines that hire mostly male reviewers and (consequently?) review mostly male books.

    Makes me mad.

    1. It's funny you mention this since I was recently thinking that this blog's focus slants the opposite way since I review more books by women than men. Not deliberately so, but I enjoy sagas and novels with female protagonists, and the majority are written by women.

  2. A decade with a great questing and self reflection. Questing for freedom and equality. We were young. I was a teen and very idealistic at the end of the sixties and as I look back I definitely think we thought we could change the world and for me the first half of the seventies was indeed the rest of the sixties . 1975 is the end of that decade!

    1. Your experience is what I imagine when I think about the '60s. I almost wish I'd been around to see it for myself - one reason this post appeals to me, and why novels about the era do also.

  3. Thank you! I linked to this over my way. :)

    Love, C.

  4. It is just crazy to think of the 60s as historical fiction. Just crazy.

    1. I realize there's some dissent about the concept! How far back do you feel historical fiction should be set?

  5. I've just read with interest Richard Sharp's essay on "the long sixties" and he referenced the definition of history being fifty years ago.

    Recently I've been engaged in an interesting debate on the topic: When does a "current event" become history. I accept a timeline of fifty years may be a useful "rule of thumb" but real life circumstances may shatter that arguably artificial criteria.

    Recently a Helena Schrader shared with me her thesis on what and when an event becomes history. The following are her words: "At one level any significant event that is in the past is "history" -- even if it happened yesterday -- because it becomes part of the historical record of the future. The question, however, is when does an event stop being "current affairs" and become strictly "history" for those of living here and now.

    That can't be answered in objective measures of time -- years, decades or centuries. Some events have longer after-effects. Taking an example from American politics, as long as we were living in the "post-war" era, WWII wasn't really history, because it was still determining policy and action. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Reunification of Germany, the paradigm changed entirely, and WWII -- and the Cold War -- became history. In this sense, 9/11 isn't history yet because it still shapes much of contemporary policy and action.

    Looking at economic or artistic and cultural events the definitions or eras and the shift from "contemporary" to "historical" would, of course, be different."

    I understood Helena's interpretation by this example: Let me see if I've got event becomes history when the cycle is completed and finality is reached; for example, Nelson Mandela becoming president of South Africa consigned apartheid-rule to turn, Mandela's death consigned him and his actions to history.

    Both of these events transpired before the fifty year "window" but one cannot question at the very least the Historical significance of them, or doubt a place in history.

    Just a thesis.