Stuck in the past: Why is modern literature obsessed with history?

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Contemporary novelists are so busy writing about the past, they're neglecting the times they live in. It's time to get real, argues Amanda Craig

When the star of The Wire,Dominic West,recently attacked Cranford-style adaptations of classic English novels by the BBC on its Today programme earlier this month, there was a collective sigh of relief. Not everyone is going to find The Wire as easy to watch as Cranford, and yet – how bored we are with bonnets and bustles!

This nostalgia-fest, which would be met with scornful laughter in art, or architecture, or theatre, is also rampant in literature. My latest novel is being published in the same month as AS Byatt, Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters. All of these are very fine writers, and all, it so happens, have written period novels. Anyone who is interested in Tudor England, in Victorian England or in post-War England will probably be buying them, and all are pretty much guaranteed places on the bestseller charts and prize shortlists. Whereas I have set out to take the DNA of a Victorian novel – its spirit of realism, its strong plot, its cast of characters who are not passively shaped by circumstances but who rise to challenges or escape them – to write a big London novel about immigrants, legal and illegal, that is so up-to-the minute that journalists are asking me, a little suspiciously, how I knew the crash was coming.

There are very few literary novelists writing ambitious, realist novels about the present, because few novelists appear to think there is anything remarkable about it. When Tom Wolfe wrote his seminal essay, Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast, in 1989, the points he made were so pertinent that you might have expected a renaissance of Victorian narrative values on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet his complaint that "young people with serious literary ambition were no longer interested in the metropolis or any other big, rich slice of contemporary life" met with outrage from critics and indifference from authors - though some US novelists, from Philip Roth to Jane Smiley, did eventually rise to the trumpet-blast, if not, perhaps, in the way he demanded. Wolfe pointed out that what was lacking from contemporary fiction was the kind of reporting that great Victorian novelists such as Dickens and Zola engaged in, and it was this that he attempted, very successfully, when writing Bonfire of the Vanities.

Indeed, writing about the present is the hardest thing of all to do. You might think it easy because there are so many good writers on newspapers and magazines around, and at its best – in the work, say, of the late Studs Terkel – journalism approaches what fiction can do to illuminate the human condition. Yet to seize the present moment is like trying to capture the moment when a fried egg turns from liquid into solid, as in Velazquez's painting, Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Mary and Martha. What is it now that will have resonance in 50 or 100 years time? What will there be to bring our times to life for the future reader? What are we most concerned about, in the way that Dickens was concerned with education, Charlotte Bronte with the position of governesses or Tolstoy with the structure of Russian society? A good contemporary novel is a perfect time-capsule that will transport its reader a hundred years hence into the preoccupations, tastes, opinions and spirit of the moment that it was written. Yet such novels – unless they are delivered to us from the developing world – are rare. What has remained consistently respectable and desirable are novels set in the past.

Underlying the thirst for historical novels is perhaps a collective feeling that literary fiction and imagination are not enough in themselves to make a novel worth reading - there must be an element of self-education, too. So you're not losing yourself in an imagined world, you're learning about Holbein or Vermeer. If you write a novel about Mrs Dickens or Cromwell or other real historical figures, that becomes its justification for publication - and publicity.

"I suppose the past feels enormously safe, because it's over," says the novelist and former Booker judge Kate Saunders. "Very good historical novels like Byatt's Possession were not only better-written and researched than the average, but anchored in the present, so have the perspective of time. The winner of last year's Orange Prize, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was set at exactly the same distance from the present as War and Peace – that is, Adichie didn't remember the war, but her grandparents did. But historical fiction has always shaded into the romance market, and that's what people turn to in a depression. They want BBC set dressing, not the fact that the past smelt of shit."

We associate the modern literary novel with grit and grime, perhaps for the simple reason that when it is not – as with Ian McEwan's much-maligned novel, Saturday – readers get irked. Why isn't our life like that of Henry Perowne, with his elegant house in London, his enviable gadgets, and the whole paraphernalia of a successful professional life? Material comforts, while totally acceptable when seen through a glass darkly in Austen or Trollope, becomes smug brand name-checking in our own time. (Only the detective story, as written by Kate Atkinson, PD James or Ian Rankin, is permitted to plumb the lives of the contemporary rich and poor, perhaps because death is such a great leveller.) Yet this begs the question: why are so few, if any, modern novelists attempting to use the aesthetic values of the Victorian novel? We may not believe in God, or in God-like narrators any longer; we may have lost our innocence; but we still respond to its narrative values.

The Victorian novel, as conceived of by Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell and Trollope has both breadth and depth. It combines comedy with tragedy, sympathy with satire, archetype with character, realism with narrative. Its richness offers us a world in which to not only escape but, like the fairy tales on which it drew so strongly, confront our own problems. We have lost its mass audience to other forms, such as TV and the internet, but we have also, it seems to me, lost its engagement with the contemporary. Modern life is no less chaotic, comic, strange and fascinating than it was in the time of Dickens, yet paradoxically, while many novelists turn to the trappings of the past for its real-life protagonists or luscious settings, few seem eager to grapple with the present as our Victorian forebears did. When our best novelists do look at modern times, they tend to do so through the lens of the past – by exploring the 1930s, the 1970s or the 1980s.

When Wolfe came to write Bonfire of the Vanities, he identified immigration as being one of the aspects of urban life that influenced it the most; its ambition, scale, energy and acute eye for the contemporary was all underscored by this apprehension. Though America has its own distinct problems and ideology, the most interesting aspect of life in Britain is also its dependence on foreign labour, much of it illegal or black market, living in our midst yet disenfranchised and ignored. Such people are often as downtrodden as Jane Eyre, as manipulative as Augustus Melmotte or as abused and abusive as Nancy and Bill Sykes – and yet the point where the Victorian novelist would have taken off into a portrayal of how fragile status and class are is side-stepped. Rose Tremain's The Road Home, Marina Lewycka's Two Caravans, and Fay Weldon's She May Not Leave all, like my own Hearts and Minds, depict aspects of immigration. Wonderful as they are, these are highly internalised worlds. What I've aimed to do is to take the engine of novels such as Our Mutual Friend and, by showing how five people are connected to each other through work, love, friendship and crime, tried to write the kind of big, panoramic fiction that is part-detective novel, part-satire and all about the way we live now.

How could anyone think that modern life is thin, when so many stories live and breathe around us? We don't need to set fiction in the past to find outsiders and insiders, moral choice, reversals of fortune and violent conflict. It's right on our doorstep. At the height of the boom, you might find your house being painted by a lawyer and an architect; I have had a philosopher as a cleaning lady, an art graduate as an au pair and a musician pruning my garden. The former strength of the English pound and the desperation of people in Eastern Europe fuelled a situation in which professional people could live in a perfect bubble of competence and intelligence, served by other professional people who never left the loo seat up or listened to Radio One. This struck me as an interesting way of exploring the frailty of status, and people's position in society – something else the Victorians were deeply preoccupied by.

The novelist of contemporary life has to research quite as much as the historical novelist does, often at more personal risk because what we seek can't be found in libraries – or in newspapers. I talked to teenaged prostitutes, illegal immigrants, petty criminals and the rest, as Dickens did when he found out about the abuse of schoolboys in Hard Times. It wasn't difficult to find them – I live just round the corner from King's Cross, which remains one of the hot-spots for prostitution and associated criminal activities. Yet investigative reporting, which once used to be a feature of the novel, is rare. Deborah Moggach, whose novel These Foolish Things picked up on the phenomenon of outsourcing our problems to India, says, "The book sprung from my thinking what on earth is going to happen to us all? How are we going to afford ourselves, as the population ages and we live for longer and longer? We can't afford to bring in more labour to look after us, so how about turning the whole thing round – we outsource everything else, why not outsource the elderly? India sprang to mind as it's warm, cheap, there's a deep respect for old people there, it costs less to fly to Goa for a two-week holiday than a first class return train fare to Darlington, medical faciliites are better than in a lot of British hospitals, English is understood nearly everywhere and there's a residual respect for Britain – in fact, parts of Indian towns look reassuringly like Tunbridge Wells in the fifties, whereas to many old people England feels like a foreign country."

The novel, now being developed for film in the wake of the success of Slumdog Millionaire, is strikingly acute about the way the end of Empire is already intertwined with the end of life here, but it was Moggach's historical novel, In the Dark, that was picked up by the Orange long-list. The present seems to make us too uncomfortable – and it holds dangers for the novelist, too. One of the most obvious is how quickly real events can overtake a plot, instead of remaining safely fixed in the past. My novel began when, around the time of 9/11, I noticed how many people in my domestic life were immigrants. It was obvious that London would be attacked next, once we joined in the Iraq War, but no sooner had I written a scene in which a bomb went off at King's Cross – a choice of location chosen because it is near where I live – than 7/7 happened. The setting for my brothel of trafficked women was invented, again because it was local – but no sooner was it finished than I began to notice teenaged prostitutes waiting for men in exactly the place I had imagined. My own violent burglary occurred two months after I had written a scene in which a single mother is attacked, in precisely the same part of her house that I fought a burglar with my husband, smashing up our hall in the process.

In contrast to the praise heaped on the researches of the historical novelist, the writer of contemporary fiction faces considerable dangers even if they are not as unfortunate as Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. I myself was accused of libelling a real-life critic in a contemporary novel I wrote twelve years ago, A Vicious Circle. The novelist who sets their work in modern times is vulnerable to an antiquated law that insists, in the case of libel, that a defendant prove a character is not based on a real-life individual, rather than the other way around. A number of good authors who have fallen foul of this law have had their work pulped and their finances destroyed. Setting your story in the past is a much safer choice. You cannot, obviously, be the madman described in a novel if the character apparently resembling yours wears a top hat.

If you write about the present in the way that Victorian novelists did, then even if you concentrate on the private lives of imaginary individuals, you are going to capture something that can't, at least, be pastiche. For pastiche, really, is what almost all historical fiction is. It is a book made up of other books, not lives that are witnessed and investigated. Yes, of course: it's a brilliant imaginative achievement to convince us, as Byatt does in Possession, that her poet Ash really existed, and it works because we are still obsessed by the Victorian era, and shaped by it. It also works when Sarah Waters recast The Woman in White as a tale of lesbian sexual politics in Fingersmith – perhaps because, in Wilkie Collins's original, the relationship between Marian and Laura, and between numerous other heroines in Victorian fiction is already so suggestively close. There are a number of first-rate historical novels, from JG Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur to Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger which are more than a great yarn with history bolted on to make it respectable.

Of course, I enjoy this kind of thing as much as anyone else, and I am not against the writing or reading of historical fiction. I am simply mystified by the way it dominates the acceptable face of literary fiction quite so much (especially when you consider how its opposite, science fiction, is so derided and ghettoised that JG Ballard, one of the greatest and most prescient writers of our time, was only short-listed for the Booker for his historical novel, Empire of the Sun.) Is it that readers distrust anything that is purely the product of a writer's imagination and powers of observation? Do we only trust stories which are "based on a true story", however this is interpreted? Historical fiction certainly carries with it the tendency to be read as "history-lite"; in other words, if you can't be bothered to read a decent biography of Henry Vlll, and you're too posh to watch The Tudors on TV, you'll buy Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, or CJ Sansom's Matthew Shardlake detective novels.

Shakespeare could set his plays in any time or place, because we believe his people are real; their passions, if not their preoccupations, remain eternal. The way the world works does not change, no matter how much scientific knowledge we have acquired since Tudor times. But by failing to notice or celebrate our own age, with all its eccentricities and agonies, and by sticking our collective heads into bonnets, we fail also to understand what is special about the way we live now. This is the Victorian's legacy to us, and this, I believe, is what we have to rediscover.

Amanda Craig's new novel, 'Hearts and Minds', is published by Little,Brown on April 30. To pre-order a copy for £16.19 with free P&P call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk.

Regeneration

Based on the experiences of officers being treated for shell shock in an Edinburgh hospital after the First World War, Pat Barker's novel (1991) included the character of Siegfried Sassoon, who was based on the real poet and author. The film version, starring Jonathan Pryce, was nominated for best British film at the 1997 Baftas.

Restoration

Published in 1989 and shortlisted for that year's Booker Prize, Rose Tremain's historical novel, which is set in the Restoration period, follows the physician Robert Merivel as he finds and then loses favour in the court of King Charles II. Robert Downey Jr, Meg Ryan, Ian McKellen and Hugh Grant starred in the Oscar-winning 1995 film adaptation.

The Name of the Rose

Umberto Eco's intellectual, historical whodunit is set in an Italian Monastery in the 14th century. It was published in English in 1983 and has inspired a host of adaptations, including a 1986 film starring Sean Connery, a Punt & Dennis parody, a radio play, a Spanish videogame, and even a board game.

The Reader

Bernhard Schlink's exploration of sex, love, reading and shame in post-Holocaust Germany has been translated into more than 35 languages and is used in the German school curriculum. Stephen Daldry's film adaptation of the book, which was published in English in 1997, won five Oscars this year, including best actress for Kate Winslet.

Possession

The winner of the Man Booker Prize after its publication in 1990, A.S Byatt's novel follows the investigation by contemporary academics into the long-forgotten love affair of Victorian poets. Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart starred in a poorly-received 2002 screen adaptation that included major plot and character changes.

Birdsong

Sebastian Faulks's acclaimed, career-defining story of an Englishman's life before, during and after the First World War has been a bestseller since its publication in 1993. A film adaptation has been mooted for years, with dozens of scripts and rumoured leads circulating Hollywood. Working Title recently hinted that shooting might finally begin later this year.

Atonement

The film adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2001 novel, which tells the story of the terrible mistake made by an imaginative 13-year-old girl and the consequences for her family before, during and after the Second World War, starred Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, and won the best film award at the 2008 Baftas.

The Girl With the Pearl Earring

The undocumented story behind Johannes Vermeer's 17th-century painting, known as the "Mona Lisa of the North", inspired Tracy Chevalier's 1999 novel of the same name, a 2003 film starring Scarlett Johansson as the maid in the painting to Colin Firth's Vermeer, and a play that closed in London after slow sales and poor reviews.

Tipping the Velvet

Sarah Waters struck gold with her debut novel, a tantalising tale of lesbian love between a Whitstable oyster girl and a male-impersonating stage performer in Victorian England. Published in 1998, it was turned into a controversial BBC series in 2002, starring Keeley Hawes and Rachael Stirling. A film directed by Sofia Coppola has been mooted.

Simon Usborne

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