I recently finished Robert Graves' I, Claudius, a book I'd heard about for the better part of my life, but had never felt any great urge to read, despite its near-universal accolades. This was really, for no other reason, the subject matter. As ecumenical as I try to make my tastes, the notion of a novel of intrigues taking place in the Roman Empire just left me cold for years.
In fact, the whole notion of historical fiction did.
And yet I had no trouble reading any number of other period pieces – Blood Meridian, Baltisar and Blimunda, The Name of the Rose, Ragtime, The Baron in the Trees, Borges' “The Witness,” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – all favorites of mine, and all determinedly antique in their subject matter.
Similarly, I have absolutely no trouble with films and series in period settings, including the Roman (Fellini's version of Satyricon, that's some mind-bending, next-level shit), although I had little patience for any of the CGI-laden epics of antiquity Hollywood was cranking out about a decade ago.
But what bothers me most, I think, about most so-called “historical fiction” is the absolute primacy given to the historical period. The author is supposed to set their story in historical times, and has a duty to maintain serious fidelity to those historical times. To keep faith to the tactics employed at the Battle of Waterloo, to know what would constitute the musical program at a debutante ball in the antebellum American South, to know something of the character of Marcus Aurelius, and to give him his due. Once, we relied largely upon literature for our understanding of the past. The rise of Wikipedia has made this approach largely obsolete, although of course it retains its devotees.
Consequently, this sort of constricted writing inevitably forms a “genre,” and genres tend to develop cult followings, most of which we don't necessarily ascribe positive associations with. We think of sci-fi fans as those who don't bathe, and romance fans as those who only bathe with scented candles and a high-pressure showerhead.
When I think about the historical fiction readership, I tend to think first, of middle-aged men reading novels about tall ships, men who would have had flat tops 40 years ago, and retain a Mittyish sense of romance about the life of battlefield heroics they could have had. Or I think about the subset of neckbeards who did better in English than in math, reading the more whimsical science fiction novels and behaving like the physical manifestations of Mumford & Sons songs.
Not a fair assessment, I know. And a lot of people would look at my bookshelf, and think it reeks of Gauloise smoke, single-origin coffee, and artisanal facial-hair conditioner.
Because I have my own set of criteria for literary work. I tend to prioritize mood and texture over plot, introspection over action, innovation over tradition, formal technique and ambition over entertainment value.
It's all escapism, in the end, isn't it? The middle-schooler reading Lord of the Rings for the first time might imagine a world beyond the drudgery of P.E. followed by Earth Science, in which there were quests that mattered. A few years later, he picks up William Gibson, and thinks about a world infinitely richer and more varied, in which the bread and circuses of homecoming court and his parents nagging him about whether or not he finished his college entry exam are so paltry by comparison. He grows up, gets his 9-to-5, and reads the naval novels of Patrick O'Brian and wishes they were living in a world defined by codes of masculinity and virtue, or sees himself as a hardboiled Raymond Chandler hero, and meanwhile the woman the next cubicle over reads her Nicholas Sparks and thinks about her dull-witted husband parked in front of the TV with his nachos. All easy to make fun of, but all ultimately sympathetic to me in the end.
Because when I go home, or when I'm on my lunch break, I want to turn off the steady flow of bullshit of daily life, and immerse myself in a terraformed space in which exotic ideas and structural complexities matter. To find some deeper reality on paper, when everything else seems to be banner ads, video billboards, smoggy air, and stale coffee.