Arifa Akbar: Seeing the present in shadows of the past

The Week In Books
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Historical fiction has sometimes been dismissed as the silly younger sister of the muscular state-of-the-nation novel, so some may have felt a sweet sense of redress when the historical novel was nowhere in sight at last week's Costa Prize.

Where the 2009 Booker shortlist was dominated by period stories, the Costa recognised Colm Tóibín's mid-20th century novel, Brooklyn, above Hilary Mantel's 16th century blockbuster, Wolf Hall, and one of its finalists, Raphael Selbourne, spoke out about the rewards of mining inspiration from real life for his debut fiction, Beauty.

Writers seemed to be removing their ostrich heads from the sand, some said, turning away from the historical novel and finally confronting the reality of a post 9/11 credit-crunched era. Selbourne has gone further to suggest that an author had a duty to provide readers with the issues of the day. "A historian is a narrator of the past, a novelist a narrator of the present. I have always admired those writers who were engaged with the immediacy of the world around them, who made sense of it not only for their contemporaries but for future generations."

Selbourne begins with the premise that to write about an aspect of the human condition, a writer must experience it or at least be at close proximity to those who have. But where does this leave the imagination or the allegories of historical fiction?

On handing Mantel her Booker prize last year, the BBC presenter James Naughtie made a jokey parallel between her Machiavellian protagonist Thomas Cromwell, and (the modern-day Machiavelli?) Peter Mandelson. Times may change, he hinted, impishly, but human nature does not.

Like Selbourne, Sebastian Faulks has complained that "too few contemporaries...(are) attempting to write state-of-the-nation novels... in the manner of the American greats like Philip Roth..." But America is beginning to take the historical novel seriously. The recently announced National Books Critics Circle Award for fiction not only selected Wolf Hall for its shortlist but Marlon James's 18th-century novel, The Book of Night Women, told from the point of view of a black slave girl. James points out that quite apart from bringing new, marginalised histories to light, there is a universality to historical fiction that defends it from charges of sepia-tinted nostalgia. "If you are going to ignore the idea of going back to the past to explain the present it means no to Shakespeare who was writing about things that happened centuries before him, it means no to Renaissance drama, it means no to Icelandic sagas and no to the Bible."

He also thinks that the historical fictive genre can sometimes capture a panoramic portrait of events, born from the vantage point of hindsight, that socially realist novels – with noses pressed against the present – simply cannot. "Why are we still struggling to write the great 9/11 novel? Not every story can be told while it's happening, because you don't have any scope to it ... The tyranny of social realism sometimes means that novels ended up being headless because they refuse to acknowledge how the past shaped the present."

Sarah Dunant argues that if a reader – or writer – cannot distinguish the present in the shadows of the past, perhaps it is his or her own failure. Her recently completed trilogy, located in Renaissance Italy, is every bit as preoccupied with the state of religion, sexuality and fanaticism now, as it is with excavating a story from the past, she says.

"The Birth of Venus is about a theocracy in Florence, its veiled women. How many readers have thought about the oblique link to the Taliban? I don't know why we should not be looking backwards to throw light obliquely on the present." The most absorbing novel is an ageless state-of-the-world or state-of-the-human condition novel, she suggests.

P.S.Carol Ann Duffy has apparently been untouched by the 'writers block' which the poet laureateship inspired in its former incumbent, Andrew Motion. "It affects poets in different ways," she says. "I have a lot of time, normally when I'm travelling, to write on trains, I'm writing as much as I was before this." She's also revealing herself to be an exceptionally hands-on laureate. The Band-Aid style charity poetry gig last Saturday, Poetry for Haiti, attended by 22 poets including Duffy, was an "amazing" success she says. "I'm not sure of final figures yet, but it was well over £15,000 - and there was a cheque for £500 in one of the collecting buckets!" She's due to travel to Venice with a group of sixth formers from Malvern on a creative writing trip as part of nationwide school initiative called GCSE Poetry Live. All highly commendable.