Transcending literary genres

My quote from André Maurois (yesterday — see below), on the "recipe" for historical fiction, provoked reaction from friends on LinkedIn which has led me to these reflections:

From the tone of his remark, Maurois classed "historical fiction" as popular entertainment, probably along with murder mysteries and most other genres. That is, as distinct from more serious literature, of the sort that challenges the readers emotionally or intellectually. I think that is fair for most of what is put on the shelves, or in the Amazon lists, in that category. Nothing wrong with that — it's perfectly fine, I suppose, to amuse yourself. But it also made me think again of Mario Vargas Llosa's and Julia Navarro's insistence that what they write is not "historical fiction" — a puzzling stance if by "historical fiction" you mean any fiction set in the past, but not puzzling if you take the term the way Maurois describes it.

We don't usually think of "Julius Caesar" or any of Shakespeare's other tragedies as "historical fiction" because, although they do everything that Maurois describes, they also do much more. War and Peace and Charterhouse of Parma also do more. They are much more complex character studies, and suggest more complex philosophical inquiries, than required for light entertainment. But (as I use the term) they spring from, and then transcend, the genre. I think fiction of any genre (historical fiction, murder mysteries like those of Borges, even erotica in the pen of "O" or Henry Miller) can rise beyond our usual expectations of the form. In fact, playing with the supposed rules of any of these genres is a good approach to creating surprising, complex fiction. I'm thinking once again of Don DeLillo's Libra, but there are many other examples.


Recipe for a historical novel

From a review by André Maurois:
THE recipe for an appetizing historical novel is relatively simple: take an exciting event (or period of history); study carefully your background; create an imaginary character (or a group of characters); let them have a sentimental life, distinct from the central theme; then tell the well-known story as seen by your imaginary characters, and sprinkle with local color. The result should be a nourishing and palatable dish, for a winter evening or a long journey.

The Saturday Review, February 7, 1942. Review of novel about the comic-opera life and death of général Georges Boulanger, 1837-1891: BRAVE GENERAL. By Herbert Gorman. New York: Farrar & Rinehart. 1942. 625 pp. $3.