Writing Toward Otherness: Why I Love Colum McCann and Hate the Term Historical Fiction

Writing Toward Otherness: Why I Love Colum McCann and Hate the Term Historical Fiction

Posted by Laura 


War and Peace is a novel. The Sun Also Rises, Ulysses, Gone With the Wind, and To Kill a Mockingbird are also novels. Simply, novels. Look them up and you’ll find that is how they are defined. As novels. Not as Young Adult, New Adult, literary fiction, or historical fiction but as novels.


Today, that doesn’t seem to be good enough. Books must now fit into a dizzying laundry list of genres that tell publishers, readers, and marketers exactly what the book is about without opening the cover. Take a look at this list of literary genres and you’ll see what I mean.

Writing a novel is hard enough. Categorizing it is painful and maddening. If you get it wrong and categorize your book as historical fiction, you might be told historical fiction isn’t selling right now but literary historical fiction and historical romance fiction are. I actually heard of one author who decided to refer to her book as women’s literary historical mystery fiction, whatever that is. Her strategy was to be the only author in that category. I think she succeeded.

After eight years of researching and writing my novel, Maelstrom, I was faced with the same issue. Because my novel is set in WWII Iceland, do I call it historical fiction? Because there is a love story woven through it, is it more accurate to call it historical romance? Or, because the main character is transformed by his war experiences, is it a young man’s coming of age story?

Years ago, one of my favorite authors, Colum McCann, was at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago. When asked about literary genres, McCann said, “You know, in Ireland, we just call them stories. We don’t even differentiate between fiction and nonfiction. Books are books, stories are stories.” Or something to that effect.

McCann, an utterly charming Irishman, is the voice I need to hear when I am frustrated by this whole publishing process. I love his outlook on life and writing. Luckily, I can go on YouTube and gain clarity and wisdom from him whenever I want.

But you don’t have to be a writer to do that:

Like me,  McCann hates the term, “historical fiction.”

“I hate the idea of the historical novel. The term, the historical novel. Not that I hate history, not that I hate the novel. But I hate the way those two words match each other. They seem to plunge everything down in a sort of aspic. And soften it, as if that particular time didn’t matter. That it almost wears a bodice of sorts.”

I read somewhere that McCann believes writing a novel set in another time or including real people and events should be about writing toward otherness. I love that. It is so much more lyrical than calling a book historical fiction.

And I also believe what the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz once said, “The real is as imagined as the imaginary.”



Leave a comment