BLOG Patrick McGuinness

NWR Issue 96

The Last Hundred Years is Not an Historical Novel

New Welsh Review at Oxford Literature Festival 2012

Patrick McGuinness addressed the Creative Writing programme’s masterclass this spring. This lecture was sponsored by New Welsh Review, and the following is a version of it. Thanks to Jem Poster, curator of the programme alongside Sarah Hall. Patrick writes…

There was a group of about 30 aspiring writers, gathered to hear my ‘masterclass’ on political and historical fiction. I felt something of a fraud, in the sense that I’d only written one novel, The Last Hundred Days, and I think you need to do something at least twice before you define yourself according to it.

I also felt (not fraudulent exactly but…) misrepresented by many of the reviews I had received for the book: I wasn’t a historical novelist, any more than I was a thriller writer or a political writer. The first few sentences of my so-called masterclass were therefore an attempt to say what the novel was not. And the main thing it was not was a historical novel. The label historical novel, perhaps alone among novel genres, supposes a realm outside the novel – ‘history’ – against which it can be checked, and this held many of the people I spoke to back from writing. I was surprised by how much time people seemed to spend on research and reading around their fictional place or time. My rule was simple, but I accepted the risks that went with that: period detail, facts, figures etc are all good so long as they fuel the writing. If they hold it back, in other words, if you spend more time checking them than writing your own book, then it becomes a problem.

One of the things about my novel is that its success (including being longlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize), whatever merits it may have, was in great part down to timing: it appeared at the same time as the Arab spring, and it suddenly had a great deal of topicality it certainly didn’t look set to have when it was being written. In that sense ‘historical’ fiction is not necessarily ‘about’ history, and it certainly isn’t the same thing as ‘period’ fiction. It can be about the ‘now’, and my book mostly is, despite being set in a sclerotic and corrupt late 80s Romania. It’s also about regime change, I suppose, and it’s a piece of ‘regime change fiction’, but because the operative word in the phrase regime change is not change (sadly), the book stays relevant, and stands perhaps for all sorts of times and places.

It’s to do with how you use the context and the setting. My feeling, writing The Last Hundred Days, was that I was interested in spirit of place more than historical accuracy: how many car plants there were in Bucharest in the 1980s etc – details I’ve been quite stiffly upbraided on by realism-randy readers – are of no interest to me. It was also a deliberate choice not to return to Bucharest, and not to overburden myself with research. Many of the writers at the class asked about how much research they should do, and told me about how this or that piece of historical contextualising was making their writing difficult. My answer was simple: if the period detail and the historical research gets in the way of writing, then don’t do it. If it helps with the writing, then do it.

What struck me from the questions I got about the novel was how many of the writers were worried about exactness of setting, precision of detail, documentary research, etc. They were also worried about the reader. A lot of people spent time second-guessing the reader, forestalling an imaginary reader’s objections. This too seemed fatal to getting the writing done. It’s hard enough even when you have a following wind: when you feel good, the ink flows, the page fills, and the right words come unbidden. But many of us seem to add problems, blocks, create problems for ourselves, and focus these problems on an imagined reader. Here again I think the advice is simple: the best compliment you can pay your reader is to ignore them.


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