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11.24.2009

Everyone Fucking Loves Historicals

Recently, the winner for the National Book Award was named. Colum McCann took home the $10,000 cash prize for his novel As The World Spins, about how a cast of characters in the 1970s were affected by a mysterious tightrope walker. A historical of course. Historicals always win, as I have learned.

Like this year's Man Booker Award winner, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall about King Henry VII, beating out Adam Fould's The Quickening Maze (also a historical novel) and Simon Mawer's The Glass Room (also a historical novel).

Luckily, the National Book Award was more diverse. But it still does irks me that historicals won while there are so many other good works out there. While I have not read any of the nominations myself, I think the lure of J.M. Coetzee's postmodern fictional autobiography or the short stories of Bonnie Jo Campbell (ok, I'm a biased short story writer) would have been more appealing. Or maybe, as novelist Kim Stanley Robinson pointed out, Adam Robert's Yellow Blue Tibia, a humorous sci-fi novel--but of course no science fiction work was even long-listed for any literary prize (i.e. "serious" (yep, those are air quotes!)).

This might be, unfortunately, the age of the historical.

And goddamnit, I hate historicals. It's limiting. It's what happened--Not what could happen. Most importantly, historicals DWELL in the past. Most historical novelist are happy to tell you how much research they did, the hours spent over history books, to get the right details, to recreate the past--most likely WWII--for example, Atonement by McEwan, Mawer's The Glass Room, anything by Jeff Shaara, Newt Gingrich even became a writer!--there's plenty more if you want to search for it yourself. There's sections in bookstores devoted to it.

It seems like We always go back. Back to WWII. If not, Victorian London with Pride and Prejudice knock-offs. If not, then King Henry's England (Philippa Gregory made an entire career telling the same stories over and over again! I think she just reshuffles the words and change the names, but that's just an opinion).

Personally, I say--Fuck the past. I was born in 1988, when the war was over; long after King Henry is dead. I was raised in an era of digitalization, where the MP3 gains popularity over vinyls and eight-tracks; what the hell do baby boomers have to do with me and my life?!? What does King Henry's executions have to do with me? Pride and Prejudice was timeless, but what does making Darcy a vampire truly mean other than a gimmick riding on the back of Twilight?

As Robinson states in his article:

"You can't get the meaning of our life in 2009 from historical fiction....Novels serve us, and are treasured, because we want meaning, and fiction is where meaning is created."


And I agree. We need to look at every type of fiction to see the whole spectrum of the human experience. From fantasy and sci-fi to romance and erotica to mixtures of any of these and writings that do not fit into any category. How are we to find meaning, to progress, if we speak of years ago as if it just happened. Honestly, I can't wait until some authors die so my generation can take over the story telling, to innovate fiction, to take it to the next level and not dwell on why war is bad. Until then, I think major literary prizes--especially the Nobel, which has a major European history bias if you haven't noticed ("Europe is still the center of the literary world," says a Nobel judge)--will be jokes of an old generation.

I do not want to win your prize. No one should want their prize if they are truly an innovative story teller, not just retelling dead people's stories.

I call for literary anarchy! (What that is, I'm not quite sure, but it's anarchy and defies definition, so it doesn't matter). I call for giving the middle finger to publishing corporations. And I say screw their classist, conformist, backwards prizes (C'mon a $125 entry fee? I have to wear a tuxedo to your ceremony? I have to write a historical novel?)

(On another note, relatively related, does anyone think it was ironic that the National Book Awards were sponsored by Google?)

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