How Time Flies when you're reading great books

Dear Ms. Snark

Is there a fault line between "historical" and "contemporary" in describing a novel for a query?

Grandmother Snark wants you to know in no uncertain terms that if she was alive that year, it is NOT historical.

If I was alive that year, it is contemporary.

If Killer Yapp was alive, it's cutting edge modern and probably a text message.

Contemporary fiction is a sensibility rather than a spot on the timeline to my way of thinking. Jon Lethem writes contemporary fiction even if he sets it in 197o. Thomas Pynchon writes contemporary fiction even though Against the Day takes place at the turn of the previous century.

Don't get yourself wrapped up in terminology. Call it a novel. Tell me the year it takes place.


r louis scott said...

I was just thinking about frogs and the Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom when I read this entry. At the risk of causing world-wide sterility in amphibious creatures in general, I will post a quote from the Historical Novel Society website:

"There will never be a satisfactory answer to these questions, but these are the arbitrary decisions we've made.

"To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

"We also consider the following styles of novel to be historical fiction for our purposes: alternate histories (e.g. Robert Harris' Fatherland), pseudo-histories (eg. Umberto Eco's Island of the Day Before), time-slip novels (e.g. Barbara Erskine's Lady of Hay), historical fantasies (eg. Bernard Cornwell's King Arthur trilogy) and multiple-time novels (e.g. Michael Cunningham's The Hours)."


Leigh said...

This is an interesting way of thinking of it. I have one set during the Civil War, but it's a thriller, not something like Killer Angels. If we called it historical or even mentioned the H word, it would be misleading about what the story is. It does have a modern sensibility, even though it's set 100 years ago.

So far, we've said it "set during the Civil War" and have made sure the setting gets mentioned after the story does.

Deb said...

These be hard words, because some agencies will not look at "historicals", or wants historical exclusively. If you send 'em something, it better be in their mindset as a contemporary, not yours. And they all have different definitions.

Sounds like time for the dread e-query: "what time frame constitutes a piece of historical fiction for your agency?"