Boyd Tonkin: Novelists of the past need a place in the sun. But when does 'history' begin?

The Week in Books

Not content with sinking sport and drowning music, this summer's Biblical deluges have taken a toll on literature. Last weekend, the English Heritage "Festival of History" at Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire was due to host the shortlist announcement of the first Historical Writers' Association/Goldsboro Crown for a debut historical novel. The heavens opened; the festival never did; the writers went untrumpeted.

But history teaches us that culture can overcome nature – indeed, for those who take the gloomiest view of climate change, that might just be our problem. So the shortlistees deserve plaudits anyway: Ellen Bryson's The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno, set in the showbiz underworld of 19th-century New York; Amit Majmudar's Partitions, with its characters from different faiths torn apart by the division of India in 1947; Hallie Rubenhold's Mistress of my Fate, and its feisty adventuress galloping through the 1790s; Robert Wilton's The Emperor's Gold, which packs intrigue and conspiracy into the shadowy hinterland of Napoleonic war.

Ever since its revival around four decades ago, with John Fowles and JG Farrell in the vanguard, historical fiction has blossomed in Britain on every level from the cheerful Regency or Tudor romp to the high literary achievement of a Byatt or a Mantel. Its roots still need watering, though, which makes the award a welcome addition to the calendar (the winner will be unveiled on 20 September). Manda Scott, chair of the HWA and a judge, believes that "at least two" of the selection "should be on the Booker shortlist". Scott, whose "Rome" sequence has just reached its third volume (MC Scott, The Eagle of the Twelfth; Bantam), thinks "The fact that they are debut novels is little short of miraculous and should kill forever the petty sniping that says historical novels… can't, by definition, have literary merit."

Historical fiction escapes the critical taint of "genre" pretty swiftly as soon as an author with prestige in the reputation bank chooses to practise it. Over the next two months, Jeanette Winterson will revive the Pendle witch trials of 1612 (The Daylight Gate), while both Will Self and Pat Barker explore the First World War and its aftermath (Umbrella; Toby's Room); Ian McEwan revisits the bohemian, and espionage, milieux of the early 1970s (Sweet Tooth), and Rose Tremain returns to the Restoration (Merivel: a man of his time).

No one would dream of marking such heavyweights down for a period setting. And neither should any historical novelist pay a critical penalty. But McEwan's choice of epoch raises a tantalising question: where, or rather how recently, does historical fiction begin? The new award comes up with a thought-provoking answer. Eligible titles must have "all or most of their narrative firmly rooted at least 35 years prior to the date of publication".

In other words, a significant proportion of readers will have no first-hand adult knowledge of the period. That makes a kind of intuitive sense. And the mere lapse of time does not by itself make an era more or less familiar. The British 1970s are a case in point. Myths, clichés and downright fibs about those years proliferate: Life on Mars, indeed. We often get a clearer picture of reality in Augustus's Rome.

Whatever the century that writers select, one factor seems to speed their success. The age must carry unfinished business into the present: disputed interpretations of big events; major upheavals in the state of scholarship; parallels or analogies that tempt us to look into history as (Barbara Tuchman's phrase) "a distant mirror". Of course, in clumsy hands that leads to howling anachronisms; but in skilful ones, to a fertile dialogue between then and now. Over 40 years, the much-missed Barry Unsworth staged just such a conversation with the dead, and with the past. Let's hope that the HWA/Goldsboro Crown will find his successors.

Does updated Jane lack a man's hand?

If a portion of the proceeds of every Austen-themed stunt went to a worthy cause - say, the Memorial Trust which runs Chawton House museum in Hampshire - then the Janeites would be very rich indeed. HarperFiction, for instance, has a series of Austen updates scheduled. Joanna Trollope's modern Sense and Sensibility is due late in 2013, followed by Curtis Sittenfeld's Pride and Prejudice and - the latest commission - Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey. But why this crude gender apartheid? I'd love to read McEwan's Mansfield Park, Faulks's Emma and Hollinghurst's Persuasion.

Barnes breaks his Booker silence

Next week will see the Man Booker long-list made public, with one dead cert already. Sir Peter Stothard and his fellow judges will do much better in their picks than last's year's eccentric and under-powered miscellany. Meanwhile, the Man Booker Prizes (let's not forget the admirable biennial International award) have upgraded their website for the all-singing, all-dancing, and all-tweeting social-media age. Very good it looks as well, not least the video interviews with Booker laureates. Now we can even hear, and see, Julian Barnes in conversation about last year's winner, The Sense of an Ending, with Man's media chief David Waller. That's a bittersweet pleasure for me, given that Barnes – a literary journalist of long standing himself – refused the usual interviews with mere hacks in the wake of his win. Does he feel more affinity with hedge-fund PR managers these days?

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