". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Historical Fiction -- The So-Called Sixties!

On her excellent  blog, Reading the Past, Sarah Johnson describes herself as:
Reference librarian, readers' advisor, avid historical fiction reader, NBCC member. Book review editor for the Historical Novels Review, Booklist reviewer, and NoveList contributor. Winner of ALA's Louis Shores Award for book reviewing (2012). Blogging since 2006.
She frequently hosts guests, who write about various aspects of historical fiction. Her recent guest is Richard Sharp, with an essay about which perhaps not that many authors have contemplated previously, The Sixties: The New Frontier for Historical Fiction. Sharp's essay is of interest equally to the historian as it is to the novelist.

In the last few years I've seen the occasional feature show up in a variety of venues that regularly discuss fiction, describing why it's not possible to write the Great American Novel of the 60's.  The reasons given is that supposedly all the aspects of that era were covered beyond extensively in the contemporary journalism and sociology of the time -- the time that also hosted the "new journalism" that employed the techniques of fiction for big feature stories.*

Sharp thinks otherwise, since he's not thinking of the Great American Novel, but rather of dealing with the profoundly various matters that collectively we think of as "the 60's" in terms of writing historical fiction.

For me, so far, the best fictional treatment of the period isn't a novel at all, but the short-lived CBS television series, Swingtown (2008),that starred the wonderful Molly Parker (whom most of us came to via her role as Alma Garret on Deadwood) -- and -- which you can see clearly from the clothes and hair, it was set in the early 70's.  This seems to me to be what has happened with most of the fiction, whether on the page or on the screen -- it's really set in the 70's, not the 60's themselves, which were in so many ways, a very different set of very brief years: 1965-1966 -- 1969-1970.

While Swingtown gave the adults most screen time, it wouldn't have mattered, I wouldn't be remembering it with such vivid detail if it hadn't provided equal respect to the children of these suburban couples, and their reaction to the political and social upheaval of the era. Even more convincingly the children range in age groups from adolescents down to middle-school, to toddlers and babies. Each age cohort experiences and perceives the upheavals in a different way.

The upheaval contained and compressed in that brief half-decade was like bomb going off throughout the U.S.  -- so much so that my own parents divorced and re-married other people, in a rural world where nobody got divorced, NOBODY, ever  -- and particularly not upstanding community and church members who were my parents! In the context of who they were, where they came from, and where they remained, what my parents and the people they remarried did was far more of a revolution than anything most people under thirty did in that brief half-decade.

I still haven't read a single novel set in the era that is in the least convincing though.


*  My personal opinion about this is profoundly affected by how much of that was written by ignoramuses, who, one would think, as adults, should really have known better.

To get a sense of what I mean, just watch - listen to the insulting inanities the so-called reporters and journalists throw at the Beatles and Bob Dylan, in the television and film clips of the era, or in Pennebaker's 1967 documentary of the Baez-Dylan tour, Don't Look Back, 

and even in the Beatles' Help! (1965). In fact, that's pretty much the premise on which Help! is hung. It's a mystery how these artists managed not to start shooting into the press pool.

In the meantime this enforces another of my deeply held opinions that for history, popular music is the treasure chest for historians, cultural or otherwise to dig into, as well as for fiction writers.


Sarah Johnson said...

Thanks for your comments about my blog, and on Richard Sharp's guest post. It's true, it's on a topic that I haven't seen discussed at length, but which I think we'll be seeing more of as more novelists begin seeing the '60s as a setting for their work.

I posted the link to the essay in the Historical Novel Society's Facebook group and received a recommendation for Rashad Harrison's Our Man in the Dark. I found a description online, and it doesn't claim to be the Great American Novel of the '60s but one that places readers in the center of the fight for civil rights. I've also been meaning to read Stephen King's 11/22/63.

Swingtown is new to me (I don't watch much TV) but I see it was on not too long ago. Maybe there are episodes I can rent somewhere. Most of the television I remember watching back in the '70s, interestingly, was set in the '50s.

Foxessa said...

In the meantime, many more thanks for your website and and the other enormous energy you put into the Review and Society and everything else you do!

It's complicated, isn't it?

This is all connected in some way why I go GGGGRRRRRRR when Jane Austen's novels are put into lists of historical fiction!

Love, C.

Richard Sharp said...

Hi, Foxessa,

I enjoyed your comments on my Sixties post on Sarah Johnson's blog. I agree with your observation concerning the paucity of decent fiction on the Sixties and would like to offer you the opportunity to check out my novel, Crystal Ships, as perhaps an early indicator that we have reached enough distance that a wave of thoughtful historical fiction may be on the way.
Richard Sharp

Richard Sharp said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Foxessa said...

Richard S. -- the removal of your comment is a complete mistake, and entirely my fault -- and I didn't intend to do that!

I am looking for your book, and I thank you again for your essay!


Foxessa said...

The thing is -- so much went on all at the same time, and was all covered in the mass media at the same time.

It's hard, very hard, to write honestly about what happened to Our Boys in Vietnam at all, because there were so many different experiences -- not to mention the women over there -- and then, all the sex drugs and rock and roll and Vietnam protest and Civil Rights -- that 5 years was an amazing condensation of what the United States has always been, starting with who started the War for Independence and all the rest.

Keep working - writing!

Love, c.