Monday, June 14, 2021

Giveaway winners, and other historical fiction news

Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway of four books for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month at the end of May. I've been delinquent in announcing the winners, who have all been notified, and the prizes have been ordered.

Janie Chang's The Library of Legends - Michelle M.
Charmaine Craig's Miss Burma - Annette K.
Min Jin Lee's Pachinko - Nancy R.
Sujata Massey's The Widows of Malabar Hill - Donna I.

Congrats to all the winners!

In other news from the literary world:

Louise Erdrich's The Night Watchman, set in 1950s rural North Dakota and based on her grandfather's life, has won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Continuing on the subject of literary fiction: for the Sunday Book Review in the NY Times, Jonathan Lee, author of The Great Mistake, contributed an essay, "For Literary Novelists, the Past Is Pressing." Thanks to C. for the heads-up on the article.  Every so often, an author of literary fiction will discover the relevance of historical novels to today's world (usually because they've decided to write one) and produce such an essay, which will also trot out the same tired stereotypes.  I wrote about the revival of historical fiction in literary circles in my speech for the Associated Writing Programs conference in 2002, so this is all familiar ground, and it does make me wonder why the "fellow writers and editors" he spoke with haven't gotten over their aversion by now. In Lee's examination of historical novels that won the Booker and Pulitzer in recent years, it's also curious to see the criteria used:

In the 15 years before “Wolf Hall” earned Mantel her first Man Booker Prize, in 2009, only one novel set before the 20th century had been given the prize. The history of the Pulitzer is similar: In 2017, “The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead’s novel about an enslaved woman in the antebellum South, became the first fiction set before World War II to win the award in more than a decade.

Why look at just those novels set before the 20th century and those set before WWII?  Doesn't Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See (Pulitzer Prize, 2015) count as historical fiction?  As we all know, WWII settings have been prevalent lately.  How about Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (Booker Prize, 2000), set in the '30s?  In addition to this cherry-picking, there's no mention of the Walter Scott Prize, now in its twelfth year.

It is encouraging to see more writers getting an appreciation for the power of historical fiction, though, and I like the examples Lee provides in demonstrating how historical novels can grapple with today's themes while evoking times past, such as Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing.  I found this aspect especially on point:

The last few years have not been short of events that might legitimately break our faith in the readability and writability of our “now.” At the same time, they have also not been short of reminders — systemic racism, rising hate crimes, mass incarceration and the shootings of unarmed Black citizens by the police — that in America the past continues to erupt into the present and remains key to understanding it.

The piece is worth reading, both for examining the continuing perceptions about historical fiction in some literary circles, and for book recommendations.

In today's Washington Post, historical novelist Vanessa Riley, whose biographical novel Island Queen is published next month, has an important article about the importance of author's notes in historical novels written by women.  From the first paragraph:

Women-centered historical novels are having a moment, particularly when uncovering little-known histories. Resistance to these narratives, which cast heroines with agency, hidden talents and extraordinary achievements, has declined, but only after a hard-fought battle. Perhaps women have won the war and we can pen stories of our ancestors without the dreaded attack of the old guard — a patriarchy accustomed to controlling the narrative and wielding the term “historical accuracy” like a weapon.

This particularly affects, I should add, novels written by women of color, who have met with accusations of inaccuracy in depicting their characters' lives. Riley also interviews some of her author colleagues about their approach to author's notes and why they include them.

Back on May 27th, the New York Times, again, had an article from Alida Becker on new historical fiction to read this summer.  The works mentioned here aren't, generally speaking, relaxing summer reads but serious literary works exploring profound subjects.  Lots of WWII here.  I've read two of these novels myself, so far: Samantha Silva's Love and Fury and Pip Williams' The Dictionary of Lost Words. I also agree with one commenter's remarks: "Also, this list is very white and northern, isn’t it?" 

Finally, Nekesa Afia, author of the historical mystery Dead Dead Girls, her debut set in the 1920s, recommends six novels to "immerse yourself in the vibes of the past" in a piece for CrimeReads. Her selections are a mix of new books and classics.


  1. Great post! This makes me think of a novel I just reviewed for HNR, Testimony, by Paula Martinac -- it's set in 1960 and depicts the struggle of a history teacher in a small Virginia college to push back against colleagues who don't like her to teach the truth about the Civil War and slavery -- and who also, as a lesbian, has to deal with the gossip of suspicious neighbors and colleagues inspired by a homophobic, McCarthyesque congressman. It's a thoughtful, well-written novel that creates a picture of small town life that could easily be happening in the present moment.

  2. Thanks for mentioning Testimony, Kris - I'm adding it to my wishlist. That storyline does speak directly to the issues that we're facing today.

  3. Jonathan Lee's article is not only condescending but narrow-minded; except for WOLF HALL and HAMNET, all his references are to U.S.-centered historical fiction. Does HF that takes place in the rest of the world not matter?

  4. I agree a wider range of novels could have been chosen. Novels don't need to be set in the US to be relevant to American readers today. Looking at the Walter Scott Prize winners list could've remedied that, plus another great example is Min Jin Lee's Pachinko, a immigrant story with contemporary resonance.

    Just to note, there are a couple others in the article that aren't set in the US, like Washington Black and Lauren Groff's upcoming Matrix, set in medieval France.