Image by Emma Kumer

Past Tense | Our Historical Fiction Hang-Ups

David Schurman Wallace

The historical novel isn’t cool. Popular? Yes. Enduring? Yes. A bit, well — for nerds? Also yes. Coolness lies in being at the right place at the right time, particularly before everyone else — in possessing a sensitivity to the zeitgeist. This grasp of the bleeding edge, crucial to literature considered broadly countercultural, is used by writers (in a downtown bar, or up in a garret) to make history, not to recall it, even if no one would be so dull as to admit such ambitions. After all, the other hallmark of coolness is effortlessness. And the felt effort of historical fiction — research, dates, facts, figures, articles of clothing you didn’t know the name for until you looked them up — is always present. To the uninclined reader, this is homework. It’s boring. Yet a desire to visit the past springs eternal. There’s always that child curled up on the train or plane with a brick of a book, immersed in a vast world, a somewhere that’s electrifying in how different its ordinary is. As the novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, with great nostalgia for that innocent feeling, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Can historical fiction even be considered a genre of its own? Its many varieties share few common attributes other than that they all take place in the past. Even the simplest qualities are hard to pin down: for instance, how far back do you have to go? Did forty years removed count as “history” when Middlemarch was written? Today we might be reluctant to call a novel set in the 1980s or ’90s “historical,” though perhaps we should. Substitute instead Romola, George Eliot’s chronicle of fifteenth-century Florence, to catch her imagining an entirely foreign era. Sir Walter Scott, the father of the modern historical novel, set the line at sixty years — presumably a time when living memory is beginning to fade. The Hungarian philosopher György Lukács, in his foundational 1937 book The Historical Novel, distinguishes between novels that bring to bear the problems of history itself, implicitly posing questions about its transformation and the individual’s experience of it, and works for which history’s role is limited to “purely external choice of theme and costume.” Almost ninety years after Lukács, we’re more familiar with the latter. We might call these “period pieces” — think Bridgerton. Better to say that the historical novel is a mode, a resource from which a huge variety of writers can draw when in need. Rather than a foreign country, then, the past is like a mineral deposit, where stories and images are dug up and repurposed.

Despite the usefulness of historical delving, its stodgy reputation lingers. Among the latest to concede its unsexiness is Zadie Smith, one of the most successful novelists and essayists of the 21st century. In a 2023 essay for The New Yorker recounting why she decided to attempt the very thing herself, she writes, “I retained a prejudice against the form, dating back to student days, when we were inclined to think of historical novels as aesthetically and politically conservative by definition.” Smith explains that she has since overcome that student prejudice, but her statement of past avant-garde aspirations still feels like a strong challenge to the form. “If you pick up a novel and find that it could have been written at any time in the past hundred years, well, then, that novel is not quite doing its self-described job, is it?” she writes. “Surely, it’s in the very DNA of the novel to be new?” Smith traces the origin of her latest novel, The Fraud, a turgid foray into Victorian drama, to an idea encountered in her reading, long deferred then picked back up during the pandemic. The Fraud, she writes, is an exorcism of the “embarrassing influence” of another school-days irritant, Charles Dickens, whom she calls “too sentimental, too theatrical, too moralistic, too controlling.” Perhaps this return to a childhood totem — Dickens is a character in the novel, despite Smith’s stated desire to “kill” him — is a mid-career writer’s release from the pressures of continuous reinvention. Dickens is, from one vantage, everything the “new” novel is not.

The turn to the historical is also a turn away from the preoccupations of much recent “serious” literature. If you look at literary discourse that anxiously grapples with the state and future of the contemporary novel — on Twitter, in so much of today’s public-facing criticism — the historical novel is largely absent. Over the last few years, you may have seen pieces about autofiction and posts about being tired of pieces about autofiction. Its classic iterations — Knausgaard, Heti, Lerner — exhibit a constant sensitivity to nowness, as if it were a scab that must be picked at. Or if autofiction seems like a totally worn-out concept, meaning too many things to too many people, you can substitute the “internet novel” or “climate fiction” or whatever microtrend is currently surfacing. All of these literatures place a premium on transcribing the texture of the present, perhaps out of a shared sense of how difficult this is to do. Brace yourself for a novel styled after TikTok — there’s already one for Slack (Calvin Kasulke’s Several People Are Typing). The “contemporary novel” earns its keep by broadcasting just how contemporary it can be.

But time marches on beyond the works that sparked the Age of Autofiction: the first book of My Struggle (2009), How Should a Person Be (2010), Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), and others. Over a decade out, no new movement has emerged. Maybe we’re living inside a structure of feeling created by the release of the iPhone (2007, for reference), bathed in updates, tangled in a thicket of events (call them “Trending Topics”) that circle, interrupt themselves, circle back. No surprise, then, that we remain unsure of how to narrativize our historical moment as it unfolds — a problem for all times, but probably not one eased by the number of tabs open in our browsers. We could call this feeling of unbounded open-endedness Postmodernism, or The End of History, or The End of the End of History, or maybe, more modestly, just the Long Present. But as these anxious tales of the contemporary have been discussed and debated, the historical novel has quietly thrived.

Though there can be no one metric for success, historical novels have not only sold well for decades, but also garnered far more critical acclaim than their zeitgeisty peers. In a new history of recent historical fiction, Writing Backwards, Alexander Manshel argues that since the 1980s, literary institutions have privileged the “aesthetic, pedagogical, and political value of the historical past,” something borne out on college syllabi and in major American literary prizes, with “novels set in the past comprising nearly three-quarters of all shortlisted novels between 2000 and 2019.” At least half of the past dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, by my count, could be called historical novels. Today, the historical novel may be the dominant form of literary production, exceeding the small clutch of more “innovative” work in footprint. Only its theory lags behind the present.


In her essay, Smith writes that she came around on historical fiction once she understood its power to “radically transform your perspective not just on the past but on the present.” The idea of communication between “now” and “back then” is at the heart of the historical novel’s proposed value: that we read the past in order to understand the present. By taking liberties with the material, the historical novel can show us what the hard stuff (history proper) can only intimate; the evocation of “what life was like” becomes an exemplary contrast to our own lives, or else the record can be corrected, and a greater emphasis can be given to subjects and people traditionally overlooked. How far we’ve come, how far we have left to go. Otherwise, costume prevails, and time travel in the novel is merely an escapist fantasy. Something pedagogical, even moral, is at the heart of this perspective — it’s the same sentiment behind the claim that reading fiction makes us better, more empathetic people.

Whether or not one agrees with this commonplace, how exactly might the historical novel “transform” a reader’s perspective? There is a long tradition of Marxist thinking on the subject, and The Historical Novel is widely considered to be the starting point. For Lukács, the classic historical novel emerges in the period following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, amid “the awakening of national sensibility and with it a feeling and understanding for national history.” Beginning with a reading of Sir Walter Scott, Lukács’s theory of the historical novel lays out its typical characteristics, including a panoramic view of the society it depicts, and, borrowing from Hegel, the appearance of “world-historical individuals” — celebrities of the past that the reader may already know — as minor characters. In War and Peace, for instance, the “real” Napoleon appears in front of the “fictional” Andrei Bolkonsky in the aftermath of the battle of Austerlitz. For Lukács, the “great men” of history are too heroic to be ideal protagonists: “The proper hero here is life itself.” An everyman doesn’t get in the way of history’s sweep; his “relative lack of contour” lets him be a vessel for the disparate feelings and forces of the period.

But the meat of Lukács’s argument is his attempt to show how the historical novel situates characters of all statures (across class position, across levels of fame) within the vast workings of their societies. For him, Scott is a great writer not just because of the “popular character of his art” — his work has broad appeal, as opposed to the rarified alienation of Modernist writers — although this is important, too. Lukács looks for something deeper, writing that Scott “endeavours to portray the struggles and antagonisms of history by means of characters who, in their psychology and destiny, always represent social trends and historical forces.” The portrayal of an individual caught up in societal turmoil also shows that history is going somewhere, that we’re all part of a vast, unfolding process. This can sound a bit dogmatic (and it is — Lukács was writing in the shadow of Stalin-era debates about Socialist Realism), but it gets at something important about the historical novel’s unique power, namely how a past society can be pictured in a way that the present often cannot. With distance, we can start to grasp what Lukács, again borrowing from Hegel, calls the “totality of objects” a little more clearly. Lukács views the classic historical novel as an evolutionary phase of the form on the way to the realist masterpieces of Balzac and Tolstoy, who use the methods developed by the historical novel and apply them to the present. In Lukács’s view, there is no distinction of genre between the true historical novel and realism, and he insists that “the question of the historical novel as an independent genre only ever arises if for some reason or other the proper and adequate connection with a correct understanding of the present is lacking, if it is either not yet or no longer present.” Today, we typically view the historical novel as a separate genre; if Lukács is right, we’ve ceased to think of past and present as one continuum, all of it “real,” all equally available to our intelligence. The existence of a compartmentalized genre implies a blockage in understanding our own historical predicament, in drawing together two eras. What, for us, is lacking?

Lukács’s theory is nearly a century old — he situates the role of the “new” historical novel within the struggles against Hitler and Franco’s fascism. This kind of reductionism can lead into a trap of Marxist critique: either having the right politics makes a good novel, or the novels we like are construed as having the right politics. (Although Lukács condemns this kind of thinking — Scott was a conservative — I’m not sure he always beats the charges.) Brecht, Lukács’s modernist archrival, jokingly paraphrased his conservative aesthetics as inviting writers to “Be like Tolstoy — but without his weaknesses! Be like Balzac — only up-to-date!” There is something about this sarcastic formula that has an affinity with so many ostensibly straightforward historical novels today.

Fredric Jameson, in 1991, offered a pessimistic update to Lukács’s theory. In Postmodernism, Jameson argued that a “nostalgia mode” in culture had created a “colonization of the present”: a floating mass of pastiche — instead of the 1960s, we have 1960s-ness — that signaled an inability to think clearly about either the present or the past. Jameson’s reading of the historical novel acknowledges interesting attempts (like E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime) but vanishingly few true successes; it remains largely a category of aspiration, another revolution to be realized sometime in the future. Jameson would later write at greater length about historical fiction, but his claim remained essentially the same: “What seems to survive at best are a host of names and an endless warehouse of images.”

In a wide-ranging 2011 essay in the London Review of Books, Perry Anderson gives a broader and more balanced analysis of the historical novel’s evolutions, charting its journey into postmodernity (Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and DeLillo’s Underworld) as well as its global expansion (Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy and Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World). He provides a riposte to Jameson’s accusation of our lost historical vision: “Who is the ‘we’ of such loss of temporality, that extinction of a sense of history which is ours?” The implication is that around the world — maybe just not in the imperial center and at the big publishing houses — there are still writers for whom the historical stakes are pressing. Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel García Márquez, and others wrote so-called dictator novels (which use the larger-than-life figures of caudillos, or military or political leaders, as their centers) to make sense of historical changes, not because they wanted to pastiche a particular era. Anderson’s ultimate view of the form’s postwar development is that of inversion, “Not the emergence of the nation, but the ravages of empire; not progress as emancipation, but impending or consummated catastrophe.” For him, the recent story of the form mirrors the failures of the twentieth century that Lukács’s book was too early to account for. Historical novels were once about how things came together. With time, though, they focused more on how things fell apart.

In passing, Anderson notes that a “peculiarity” of the historical is its ability to exist in “an oscillating continuum of registers, including — to use for a moment anachronistic terms — not just ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ but also importantly ‘middlebrow’ ranges of work.” The assertion that this quality sets historical fiction “apart from other narrative forms” is perhaps less true than when he wrote it, as the line between “genre fiction” and literary fiction has become increasingly slippery. (Surely one could find a science fiction novel at every “brow,” too.) The popular, “middlebrow” draw of the form can make it seem less like serious literature and more like mass entertainment, exotic eye candy designed to distract you from your cares.

In American publishing, at least, the historical novel is usually less associated with Pynchon than with a certain kind of literary-ish best seller, like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See — something that might lend itself to Netflix adaptation. Because historical fiction tends toward the “epic,” to use Lukács’s designation, it usually aims to speak to the body politic, inviting the accusation that it might be broadly popular. Or perhaps more modestly, the wide sweep of historical fiction allows for spectacle, like Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur or Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra. Accordingly, historical fiction was the choice genre of many half-forgotten best sellers from the pre-computer age, like James Clavell’s Shōgun (a sprawling, dated portrait of feudal Japan) or the multitude of place-named tomes by James Michener (Hawaii, Space, Poland, Texas, Alaska, Caribbean, Mexico, etc. etc.). Michener used part of his substantial earnings to help found the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin, one of the most prestigious and best-funded MFA programs in America. Its graduates include Philipp Meyer (The Son), Rachel Heng (The Great Reclamation), Fiona McFarlane (The Sun Walks Down), and others who went on to write acclaimed historical fiction, whether or not they sensed Michener’s shadow. Research and technique, calling cards of the form, are at home in institutions that teach writing.


As the historical novel continues to prosper, there has been an explosion of different varieties and styles — something the Marxist critics, fond of drawing examples from nineteenth century and noncontemporary novels, don’t entirely capture. Today a diversity of approaches jostle for readerly attention, from “classic,” nineteenth-century-style exponents of the form like Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, about the struggles of generations of Koreans living in Japan, to the immensely popular work of Hilary Mantel (overtly focused on Great Men, from Thomas Cromwell to Robespierre) to metafictional showpieces like Hernan Diaz’s Trust or Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow. Helping to make sense of this profusion is Manshel’s excellent Writing Backwards, a wide-ranging study of the recent historical novel. It joins a current of scholarship that takes a sociological approach to the production of literature and that includes Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, a history of MFA programs and their effects, and Dan Sinykin’s Big Fiction, an account of how the publishing industry has conglomerated since the sixties. These works argue convincingly that institutions are a driving force (if not the driving force) for literary creation and reputation. Manshel’s primary observation is that the publishing industry and the university have pushed non-white writers toward historical fiction. According to Manshel, “Of the fifty-four novels by writers of color to be shortlisted for a major American prize between 1980 and 2010, all but four are works of historical fiction.”

Manshel’s story begins with the watershed moment of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which he calls “the single most canonical work of American fiction.” The deep and lasting influence of this masterpiece and its semi-allegorical reading of history (its title figure is possibly a ghost or spirit that represents the losses and traumas of slavery) can be felt in the work of multiple generations of authors who followed Morrison. Beloved’s overwhelming success, he argues, coincided with an opening up of opportunity to writers of color in literary institutions. Changes in the publishing industry and movements within the university, like New Historicism and ethnic studies, created conditions that rewarded stories centering non-white characters, seeing them nominated for prizes and placed on syllabi. One of Manshel’s signature examples is the distribution of NEA grants for fiction in the 1980s: the applicants were anonymous, but applications that described the historical subject matter of their projects made it easy to identify women and writers of color. Over time, he claims, the historical novel became the singular literary vessel for the expression of identity.

Contrary to Jameson’s account of the “warehouse of images,” floating free from deep historical connections, it’s clear that non-white writers have felt an urgent need to recover unwritten or lost historical legacies. Manshel showcases a wide variety of these works, from Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), the story of a Native American World War II veteran suffering from PTSD who returns to spiritual desolation on the reservation, to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015), a clever take on the spy thriller that, drawing on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, makes Asian and Asian-American marginality its comic subject. If Eliot’s Middlemarch could be said to approach 1830s England with a kind of childhood nostalgia, these novels have a critical, and implicitly political, stance towards the past, seeing it as characterized by oppression and suppression. Many recent popular historical novels are engaged in the project of rebalancing the ledger of past injustices by narrating them from overlooked points of view. We could call these “recuperative novels,” and they work to amplify and make space for marginalized identities — not just in terms of who’s writing them, but in the content of the novels themselves and the way they portray history.

In recent years, the recuperative ethos seems to have become the dominant technique for understanding history in fiction. The success of Colson Whitehead, one of America’s most celebrated contemporary authors, signals the triumph of the literature of correcting the record. After early-career experiments with genre, Whitehead turned to historical fiction with The Underground Railroad, which became a sensation, both winning the Pulitzer Prize and landing a turn with Oprah’s Book Club. The novel is an alternate history hybrid that plays on the tropes of the slave narrative, following the escaped slave Cora on her journey north in a Civil War-era America different than the one we know, but just as terrifying: the sterilization of black women (a historical fact) is enlarged into a widespread government program in South Carolina; the namesake underground railroad here is a literal railroad dug underground that assists runaway slaves. These darkly comic transformations, by refreshing our sense of the meaning of the original and its immense difficulties, wrests them out of dormancy. (Manshel devotes a chapter to Whitehead, linking him with what Manshel calls elsewhere a “new historical sincerity,” a reincorporation of postmodern methods into mainstream fiction without the irony and skepticism of writers like Pynchon or Vonnegut.) In The Underground Railroad, history is adjusted for effect everywhere — on her way north, Cora finds work as an actor in the so-called “Museum of Natural Wonders,” replaying a sanitized history of slavery. Whitehead is always vividly aware of the use and abuse of history, and part of his artistry is in resisting (and in this case, dramatizing) its tendency to return in prepackaged form. The result is fiction urgently investigating history — what it means, what a redress of inequity could look like. By bending the facts of the world to his will, Whitehead makes ignored legacies unignorable.

Similar, if less self-referential, recuperative impulses can be found in various novels that appeared in the wake of the Black Lives Matter moment, such as Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (a globetrotting story of a former slave’s scientific brilliance), Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer (an antebellum speculative novel that owes something to Octavia Butler), and Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets (a brutal plantation tale that revolves around an illicit queer relationship). But not all recuperative novels resuscitate stories of slaves, or even victims of racial discrimination. The move towards shifting the balance of representation can also be found in Colm Tóibín’s exploration of the queer sides of Thomas Mann in The Magician or Henry James in The Master, or in Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, a westward-ho story of queer devotion in nineteenth-century America. Other recuperative novels elevate unsung women in history, particularly women geniuses who have been blotted out by centuries of patriarchy. One example is Lauren Groff’s Matrix, a novel about Marie de France, the influential twelfth-century poet whose life events remain almost entirely unknown. Matrix exploits gaps in the historical record, charting a path for Marie from spurned lover of Eleanor of Aquitaine to powerful abbess, a position that allows her to harness her extraordinary gifts and cultivate a women’s utopia. Groff imagines a world of radiant visions and fantastic building projects, not to mention lesbian desire — but there’s a sense of peeking towards the present in how Marie’s utopia serves as foil to present concerns. (Roxane Gay, leaving a review on Goodreads, wrote “I am quite glad I wasn’t a woman in the 12th century. No thanks.”) Past and present are put in contact, but despite the novel’s beautiful prose, the relationship can feel disappointingly one to one.

Other recuperative fiction has tended toward the multigenerational epic, a form now so widely replicated that spotting the term on a book jacket can make one’s eyes glaze over. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing traces a lineage of West African women across several centuries up to the present (an elaborate family tree is included for guidance), almost functioning like a series of linked short stories. When each tale is told, we move on to a new descendant in the chain, fulfilling the Obama-era ideology of “the moral arc of the universe,” as the descendants of slaves rise over centuries to march for civil rights and become writers. The power of continuity is a sturdy, if safe, solution to the problem of historical understanding — all of the broken threads of the past, individually tragic, accumulate inevitably into the present, usually more uplifted, moment. In the multigenerational story, the novelist has a tool for bringing disparate generational struggles into one visible, causal chain.

The explosion of recuperative novels has been salutary for the historical novel — a whole universe of previously untapped stories — but at times one feels the limitations of this outlook when it seeks too obviously to instruct. At their least successful, they can become testimonies of punishment that tell us little that’s new. Readers project their present preoccupations backwards, collapsing the difference between time periods even as they absorb the author’s meticulous research. The result is often curiously static, and out of step with Lukács’s notion of a dynamic world that requires representation. When writers and readers start to feel present and past as basically interchangeable (in the past, conditions were worse, but human essence remained the same) the conclusions tend to thin out (progress is being made!). When a historical process unfolding is made visible, even if with just a hint, similarity and difference regain their balance: the past is often utterly unlike the present, but the breadth of a historical novel can help the reader sift through the debris and come to a more complicated understanding of change.

Novels that raise questions about their own historical vision attempt to shake off those kinds of reductive readings. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013), a sprawling account of New Zealand’s gold rush in the 1860s, revels in pastiche, channeling the costumery of nineteenth-century novels (gold is sewn into the bodice of a dress, men smoke cigars in the drawing room) in copious, almost exaggerated detail; the effect is not to naturalize, but to throw the trappings back in your face. Set on “the frontier,” the novel brings together white, Chinese, and Maori characters together equally in its tableau, in a way that feels more like a kind of retrospective wish fulfillment than a reality — and the effort is an ambivalent success. Yet Catton acknowledges this sense of fantasy in her guiding device: astrology, with characters representing different signs of the Zodiac in motion. The movement of the stars is destiny, of course, but at the same time we know that it’s all a bit fake. Reveling in the stagey implausibility of her construction, Catton makes history into a plaything, something more plastic, and more visible, but perhaps too brittle to create a deep connection.

Recuperative novels aren’t necessarily aesthetic failures — several of them are quite absorbing. But their proliferation suggests a deficit in historical thinking. History can instruct, surely, but isn’t some of its pleasure in its strangeness, its incommensurability with our own thinking? A novel like Rivka Galchen’s Everybody Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, set in the seventeenth-century Holy Roman Empire, offers an unusually complex vision of the communication between eras. The recuperative moves are there, but more subtly distributed. Katharina, the accused witch, is the mother of the illustrious astronomer/astrologer Johannes Kepler — she is another lost voice to recover — but she is also something a little more alien and undefined. Her arcane knowledge of herbs and animals suggests a sliding scale between traditional knowledge and the nascent science her son is helping to build. More than just re-centering a woman in a famous man’s life (as other recuperative novels like Therese Ann Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald or Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait re-center, respectively, a wife or daughter), Galchen asks an epistemological question: how different was the Early Modern way of knowing reality from our own? How can its language and its thought, so unfamiliar, be translated into ours? The historical novel, here, becomes something dialectic: we read from our own vantage (it’s our only option), but also encounter an existential mystery — we glimpse exactly what we can’t know.

Smith’s The Fraud is another example of the recuperative novel, albeit in its own idiosyncratic way. Its protagonist is Mrs. Eliza Touchet, cousin by marriage and housekeeper of William Harrison Ainsworth, a once-successful novelist who used to move in a circle with William Makepeace Thackeray and Dickens. When we meet Eliza, she is having the house’s floor fixed — too many historical volumes have caved it in, Smith’s nod to her own copious research. Ainsworth (as well as Eliza) is drawn from reality: he was the author of dozens of novels, many historical, all largely forgotten. When the great men come to dine, Eliza’s wit is ignored — she is left to serve drinks. Eliza, whose affair with Ainsworth has long since grown cold, is drawn into an obsession with the so-called Tichborne case, a historically factual courtroom sensation of false identity. Years after the loss at sea of a young nobleman named Roger Tichborne, a common butcher showed up and claimed to be him, angling for an inheritance. The parallels with a certain fraudster of our own time, garrulous and faking his wealth, stirring up the common folk at increasingly large rallies, are available for those who would like them.

But for Smith, taking jabs at contemporary politics is a minor digression; she remains engaged in a recuperative project. Eliza is struck by Tichborne’s valet, a black man named Andrew Bogle, who knew the young Tichborne before his disappearance. Approaching Bogle after the trial, Eliza calls herself a writer for the first time and asks him to tell her his life story. From this point on, the novel’s intertwined narratives — Eliza’s becoming an author and Bogle’s unclassifiable journey from Jamaica around the world — contain plenty of historical facts (including an interminable drawing-room visit with Alfred d’Orsay, a mid-nineteenth-century dandy who became the inspiration for The New Yorker’s Eustace Tilley). But the result feels curiously outside of time. Smith wants to draw from overshadowed or erased stories, but also reject the totalizing narrative that often accompanies them: the threat of a reductive identity politics. Bogle’s story illustrates the cruel workings of the British Empire, beginning with Bogle’s father’s abduction from Africa and progressing through Bogle’s life as slave and manservant.

This material improves on a few hundred previous pages largely focused on the literary world’s venality. But an intelligent reader already knows the British Empire was cruel, and the literary world venal. Smith, under the guiding light of George Eliot (another world-historical cameo) seeks to emphasize individual autonomy instead; Eliza’s greatest realization about Bogle is that he is not a mere product of what he’s gone through, but that his story indicates that “A person is a bottomless thing!” Smith insists on a transhistorical idea of the self, something that exists outside an understanding of how history shapes us collectively. The effect is to present individuals, contrary to Lukács, who do not embody historical changes, even as history surrounds them. (Perhaps the insistence on bottomlessness is drawn from another contemporary preoccupation of Smith’s, the challenge of students who read with too much politics and mete out simplistic judgments). Even the attempt to resist recuperation is itself an idea, drawn from the generic liberal politics that flattens the past into Smith’s understanding of the present.


A recent crop of novels take up the archive itself and meddle directly with the process of historical factfinding. These novels, which might be called more historiographical than historical, create a different kind of narrative, one that dramatizes the struggle with awkward or difficult or unknowable corners of the past. Among these are Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X, Dorothee Elmiger’s Out of the Sugar Factory, Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, and Justin Torres’s Blackouts. In Biography of X, the speaker is a former writer “correcting the record” — this now overfamiliar phrase is directly used — of her famed and deceased ex-wife, the artist X (a composite figure somewhere between Kathy Acker and Cindy Sherman). The harder she looks through X’s many lives, the less she’s sure she knows; the pleasure is in all the swerves Lacey takes the reader through. In Elmiger’s novel, “Dorothee Elmiger” is a writer working on a book, or maybe just a “report,” that has to do variously with the sugar industry, the famous anorexic Ellen West, a Swiss lottery winner, Saint Theresa, and the relationship between hunger and desire, among other topics. She worries if her notes really go together at all, and the resulting fragments are something almost more like poetry than a clear narrative. These novels, by foregrounding the author’s loss of control in making things cohere, create a different kind of pleasure, like watching someone walk a tightrope and anxiously waiting to see if they can pull it off.

It would be fatuous to suggest, however, that all historical fiction could become a chronicle of how little we know. At the end of his assessment of the historical novel in The Antinomies of Realism (2013), Jameson offers another possibility, claiming “however outrageously, that the historical novel of the future (which is to say of our own present) will necessarily be Science-Fictional inasmuch as it will have to include questions about the fate of our social system, which has become a second nature.” Jameson’s infatuation with science fiction, and cyberpunk in particular, has led him to look towards the future as the means of short-circuiting the deadening loop between present and past. He concludes his study by examining David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, virtually his only example of how historical fiction might be redeemed in the present. Cloud Atlas is structured in six interlocking, and entirely different, stories, ranging from a nineteenth century tale of the South Seas to a Korean future dystopia. The result is pastiche in overdrive, seamlessly connected but also displaying the seams as prominently as possible. Jameson writes that the novel “thereby fulfills one of the great indispensable functions of ideological analysis: namely to show the contradictions in which we are ourselves imprisoned, the opposition beyond which we cannot think.” Jameson seems to be onto something: novels like Ed Park’s Same Bed, Different Dreams and Siddhartha Deb’s The Light at the End of the World jump rapidly between historical frames, and include gestures towards the surreal and the science-fictional, racing ahead to heighten the contradictions between times. The protagonist of Park’s novel, Soon Sheen, is a minorly successful writer who keeps his day job at a technology conglomerate (cutely titled GLOAT). But running parallel to him is another, earlier writer toiling on a sci-fi series called “2333,” a classic piece of “hard” science fiction with alien worlds and strange physics. He is just as frustrated as Soon, but he at least offers the counterpoint of a more expansive imagination. These innovative novels stretch the boundary of historical fiction, offer a complex blend of the recuperative and something more ambitious. Maybe it is the ability, or at least the wish, to imagine a new world.

But what about that child, still curled up with their immersive doorstopper? Overt experimentation is vital to the health of any literary form, but perhaps there is still a virtue in that original escape, in the beauty of quiet association with voices that become intimate to us, even when they astonish us with their difference. Consider Edward P. Jones’s masterpiece The Known World (2003), a story of antebellum Virginia centered around Henry Townsend, a black man who is freed by his master only to build his own plantation and become a slaveowner in turn. Jones’s novel has an unstable structure, veering into the lives of seemingly minor characters as they experience terrifying revelations, cruelty, and even occasional tenderness. Far from the moral symmetry often found in the recuperative novel, Jones’s characters and their actions are not so easily mapped to the present (the central “moral” questions the novel raises clearly say something to our time, but the events are too strange to easily “rhyme” with the contemporary). The novel falls into the company of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower — not typically postmodern, nor exercises in empathetic identification. In fact, they may be the opposite. But there is something in the beauty of their style — their intricacy, the way all the historical trappings have been subsumed, condensed, and intensified — that lets a reader feel immersed by the sentences, while still holding a complex sense of history in mind. Unfortunately, there is likely no formula for this.

In The Known World, a skepticism towards the received historical record shines through at unexpected moments, as when the narrative interjects that “In 1993 the University of Virginia Press would publish a 415-page book by a white woman” about one of the novel’s characters and his descendants. Jones reminds us that we are reading history, but at the same time he warns the reader that dry facts and official narratives will never be enough. Whether or not we identify, we still need to feel. As the Long Present plods on, a passionate relationship to the past will have to be summoned again and again. Lukács pointed to shared experience as the source of that passion — individual and social held in tension, separating and coming back together. Writing of his beloved Scott, the philosopher remarked on how even the largest conflict is never abstract, “always runs through the centre of the closest human relationships”: parents and children, friends, lovers, the many small struggles that crest into the total pattern. The historical crisis is one experience stitched to another, and so is “never a matter of one single catastrophe, but of a chain of catastrophes, where the solution of each gives birth to a new conflict.”

David Schurman Wallace is a writer living in New York City.