Sunday, January 28, 2024

Three recent nonfiction works for historical fiction readers to check out

Multiple works of critical reflection about historical fiction have been published in the last few months, a sign of the genre's vibrancy and relevance to the current moment. Two of them focus exclusively on historical novels, and a third goes behind the scenes in the American publishing industry in the modern era. Although the last one has a more general focus, a great many historical novels are mentioned in the text. I have library copies of the first and last checked out to me.

Historical Fiction Now (Eaton/Holsinger) and Big Fiction (Sinykin)

Historical Fiction Now, edited by Mark Eaton and Bruce Holsinger (both English professors, the latter an author of historical fiction himself), contains essays by a diverse selection of authors – novelists, critics, academics – about the present state of the genre. Some authors discuss the background to their novels’ creation, like Geraldine Brooks on The Secret Chord, Namwali Serpell on The Old Drift, Tiya Miles on The Cherokee Rose (which was recently reissued), and Katherine Howe on The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Other contributors examine the notion of supposed anachronisms (Holsinger), their relationship with their role in chronicling the past (Jessie Burton), and views on writing biographical fiction (Michael Lackey). Some of the essays were previously published as journal articles or introductions from the authors’ novels. Historical Fiction Now appeared from Oxford University Press in Oct. 2023.

Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon
by Alexander Manshel (Columbia Univ. Press, Nov. 2023) has gotten a terrific amount of coverage in the popular press already, including the Wall Street Journal and Esquire. Historical novels frequently appear on syllabi for English courses at universities, and Manshel explores how and why that came to be. This volume, which I had the opportunity to browse through before mailing it off to a reviewer, focuses on literary historical fiction and how a once-denigrated genre became the genre of choice for novelists, particularly writers of color, interested in wrestling with serious themes. I hope to read the book in full more thoroughly in the coming months.

I had discussed the popularity of literary historical fiction in a 2002 speech for the AWP conference – it’s not exactly new for bestseller lists or literary prize lists to be filled with historical novels – so the line from the Esquire piece that “the genre is suddenly everywhere” made me roll my eyes a bit.

Dan Sinykin’s Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature (Columbia Univ. Press. Oct. 2023) is the book I’ve been most excited to see, and I got a good start via my library's copy last night. It provides entertaining insights into how consolidations in publishing have come to shape the landscape of American fiction, including how bestsellers happened, the changing roles of editors and agents at a time when larger companies are gobbling up smaller ones, and how nonprofit and independent publishers made their mark. Highlights from the historical fiction arena include how W. W. Norton made Patrick O’Brian a huge success in the U.S., and how and why E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime became a literary sensation. As someone who grew up reading classic historical novels and mass-market paperback fiction of many varieties, and who has followed the comings and goings of publishers’ imprints for many years as a book review editor, the topic of this book fascinates me. I’m looking forward to reading the rest.

If you've read any of these in full, let me know your thoughts!


  1. Thanks, Sarah. I'd be interested in hearing more of your thoughts about all of these books. I have a feeling Sinykin doesn't think the changes in American Lit are positive. I wonder if he includes some of the women authors in historical fiction, such as Anya Seton and Victoria Holt--both immensely popular in their day.

    1. What I've gotten out of Big Fiction so far (and I haven't gotten very far yet) is that he doesn't feel the quality of fiction has suffered, but the output is different than it would have been without all the consolidations. I didn't see either Seton or Holt in the index, or Philippa Gregory.

    2. I am curious, also, to see what other historical novelists are mentioned!

    3. Anonymous1:57 PM

      The articles you linked seem focused on the "literary" end of the genre, which seems to be the stuff of current bestsellers. So I sort of doubt writers like Philippa Gregory and Anya Seton would be mentioned. But I could be wrong!

    4. Manshel's book, the subject of the linked articles, is definitely focused on literary fiction. Sinykin's seems to have a slightly broader focus. I found a New Yorker piece about the book, if that helps give a better sense what it's about.