How Historical Fiction Went Highbrow

Paperback writers pass the torch to Joyce Carol Oates and Gore Vidal

Photo by Roberto Rodriguez/AP

One seedy bar on a side street in Key West advertised its wares on a scrawled sign: Live girls upstairs. Beats the alternative, I suppose.

With its invariable August weather and (usually more discreet) invitations to decadence, this tiny island—the southernmost point of the continental United States—has lured countless writers over the years. Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop lived there, and their houses still attract tourists. (Hemingway had the best house, as he would; it’s a museum now, crawling with cats that may be distant relatives of Papa’s own pets.) Novelists, playwrights, and poets continue to hide out from northern winters among the island’s leafy palms and clapboard conch houses, largely ignoring the bawdy revels that take place every night on Duval Street.

And so this year at the Key West Literary Seminar, now well into its third decade, some heavy hitters in the world of historical fiction met for something like pre-spring training. The likes of Gore Vidal, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Matthiessen, Russell Banks, William Kennedy, Marilynne Robinson, and Barry Unsworth were joined by historians such as Eric Foner and David Nasaw to sit in the sun for a week or so and talk about making history.

History is, of course, a made thing. It does not exist by itself in anything like a recognizable form. Indeed, we might all forget where we have been, if we didn’t have somebody to assemble and arrange the little blocks called facts from which history is constructed, artfully or less so. As Foner put it in his keynote address, “Works of history are first and foremost acts of the imagination.” And yet, while history itself has attained the status of social science—though not in the mind of Foner, who has campaigned at Columbia to have his department moved to the humanities—historical fiction has, in the past, been snubbed. The term historical novel was slightly derogatory, summoning visions of pageantry, as in the works of Sir Walter Scott or, more recently, Georgette Heyer or Herman Wouk. History served as a kind of brocade curtain, against which ordinary people (for the most part) strutted their stuff.

Yet as I listened in Key West to readings, lectures, and panel discussions, one thing seemed obvious to me: historical fiction has become our primary form of fiction. In our high-velocity, high-volume world, the present can seem just too bright, too close. We need the filter of memory to pull reality into focus. And so, one gets “real” history in novels such as Vidal’s Lincoln, Banks’s evocation of the abolitionist John Brown in Cloudsplitter, or a recent sequence of stories by Oates called Wild Nights! (after the poem by Emily Dickinson), in which she summons the ghosts of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway.

One of the highlights of this year’s seminar was a reading by Sena Jeter Naslund from her latest novel, Abundance, about Marie Antoinette, the doomed queen who came from Austria to France in 1770 to marry the dauphin. Naslund sprang to prominence with Ahab’s Wife, a “biography” of the fictional sea captain’s wife, to whom Melville alluded briefly in Moby-Dick. Both lives are telling, and Naslund, like so many novelists today, uses the rise and fall of the biographical arc to summon a world. The parts declare the whole.

I once asked Peter Ackroyd, the English novelist and biographer, what the difference was between his novels and his biographies. He said to me, in his deadpan way, “In biographies you can make things up. In novels you are obliged to tell the truth.” Of course, almost any novel can be called “historical,” in that the work of memory is always involved; and anything transmogrified by memory becomes, indeed, fiction—from the Latin word fictio, which means “shaping.” And yet, for better and for worse, that act of shaping can go only so far. As Mark Twain famously put it, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”

Walking along Duval Street on the last day of the seminar, I wondered about the potent, combustible mix of reality and imagination, something that confronts all writers. What is real? What is made-up?

Suddenly, a large woman wearing a python as a necklace asked me if I wanted to pet him. “He’s real,” she said. A muscular young man stood in the dark doorway of a gay disco, in nothing but a thong. He waved at me. In fact, he might have even winked.