When does contemporary writing become historical writing? Why the questions?
It seems straightforward — if you do not have to do historical research, or set your work during a significant historical moment in the past, then it is a contemporary piece of fiction. However, I have been left wondering about this ever since I read Suite Française, an unfinished epic novel written by Irène Némirovsky between June 1940 and July 1941. Here is the trailer for a very dramatised adaptation of the book.
Of course I hear you say, it is historical — just look at the date. Wait I would answer, look at the story behind the book. Irène Némirovski was from a Russian Jewish family who fled to France in 1917. She became a famous novelist and wrote the novel after she fled away from Paris when the German army arrived. She was arrested by the French police, enforcing the German race laws, in July 1942. She was deported and shortly after passed away in Auschwitz. The published book came from the notes and drafts of the first two parts of a five parts book, They stayed with her daughters, who went into hiding with their nanny after her arrest and remained unread until the 1990s.
The book was published in French in 2004, then translated and published in 2007. It is a realistic description of her life and French society as a whole. It highlights the best and worse characteristics of each social layer and set her characters in, what was at the time a contemporary dramatic, historical moment. A victim herself, Némirovsky still managed to balance tragedy, trivial life details and humour and keep her ability to see the humanity in front of her, even in the German soldiers.
Had she lived, this novel would have been considered a brave contemporary novel. I can only imagine the argument between both sets of my grandparents whose tales are well reflected in the book. I can only be saddened by her shortened life. It is now a piece of history and classed as historical fiction. It is also a compulsory reading for Senior students in France apparently, alongside watching Nuit et Brouillard, Alain Resnais hard hitting documentary filmed in 1955.
This made me wonder. Are we putting artificial boundaries around genres? Time and changes seem to happen faster. How many twenty year old remember a time without digital technology? If I was to write and set a novel in the mid-eighties, would this become a historical novel, as the references to VHF, cassettes or even Discman would be absolutely alien to them? Where computers were less powerful than most basic calculators?
Maybe, this would need to be set on a significant moment of the period, the rising of AIDS, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Would the fact that the language and expressions, social attitudes and technology were different be enough? The NY Book editor seems to consider the 1990s as historical, I like the advice in this MasterClass explanation too, if you ever need to decide which category your work falls under. Here are two writers discussing historical fiction for teh Writers Association.
Most sites agree that a historical novel should be set in a specific location, within a short period of time. Regardless of the century, authors need to do their research and pay attention to details, mix real events in the plot. I love this quote from the NY Book Editors: ‘Be careful not to write contemporary characters and thoughts into a historical novel. It’s so easy to transfer your mindset and cultural attitudes to the characters in your story.’
So, just to keep us humbled, David Christian, one of the key brain behind the Big History project (the other founder is Bill Gates)
In the end though, if the 1990s have become a potentially historical setting for a novel, I wonder if I have become a historical artefact myself. Am I obsolete, like those most loved video games? Should I stop writing in Basic?