''The sensation of the modern'', a phrase Timothy Murphy memorably used in relation to W. S. Burroughs, is the locus of fiction - in Delillo, Pynchon, Vollman - the writers of the Big Moronic Inferno (to steal another great metropolitan quote, this time from Bellow) use history, Mason and Dixon, Libra, but we do not refer to this as ''Historical Fiction''. The definition, like much concerning the difference between Literary (art) and Genre (reproduction), is all about intentions. Pynchon's Mason and Dixon is not historical fiction because it is not about history, it pilfers from history. Dellilo's Libra is not a biography of Lee Harvey Oswald; it reaps and gleans the times, the media, national reactions, The Warren Report. In the same way Cormac McCarthy is not a writer of Westerns. Good writing transcends its surface subjects.
In the past few years there has been a shift in the short story. On the waves or Carver and his ilk the short story has rarely strayed further than its own century or decade, it usually concentrates on one or a few individuals, but the wide-angle sweep of history has come into its own in recent stories by David Means and Wells Tower, two prodigal New Yorker writers. We have had Viking domestics and 30s FBI stakeouts. In Jim Shepard's Like You'd Understand, Anyway, Russian cosmonauts, Roman family strife, Nazi Yeti hunts in the Himalayas, the first Australian frontiersmen, Revolutionary Paris from the executioner’s point of view and other widely diverse areas are used as the setting for some of the most master-crafted, un-gimmicky, authentic and poignant short stories published in recent years.
Jim Shepard is by no means obscure. His recent story Boy's Town also featured in the New Yorker. But once I read Eros 7 and Ancestral Legacies so much of Wells Tower - such as his celebrated Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned - reads as conceited both of its own design and its use of historical subjects. Part of what makes Wells' story captivating is simply the minor histories, the day to day Viking exploits - but looking any deeper brings no real riches. In stories like The Roof of the World the subject, context, subtexts and plot are inseparable. At no point can you stop and think - Why the Himalayas, why Australia, why Russian Cosmonauts? I did wonder - Why Vikings? And the answer that seemed to come up was: Viking's are cool. Part of this may be because I heard Tower read it in the Guardian books podcast, so perhaps if I read it closely I'd find more to grab onto.
Will Self in his introduction to Ridley Walker said that writers using history are taking the easy way out. For so much fiction - especially novels - this is the case. But when a writer like Shepard can take a character as in so many of these stories and give them a voice so direct, central and significant, without ever resorting to a kind of fiction-fun-fact-finding trope, there should be a division highlighted between 'Historical Fiction' and 'Literary Fiction with a historical setting.' It is essentially the same difference as between Pynchon and Catherine Cookson: one uses history as clay, the other uses history as glitter.
In the New York Times review of Like You’d Understand, Anyway Daniel Handler finds two sides to Jim Shepard's fiction: ‘the realistic kind (in which one of a small quiver of psychological tropes is played out quietly in a few scenes) and the experimental kind (in which an unusual premise or point of view that would grow tiring in a novel is explored, often with a sudden twist).’
Combining The Sensation of the Modern with artfully and dynamically drawn historical settings nudges both the realistic and the experimental into the future, scuffing the dividing line like it was just a rut in the sand.