In an essay defending historical fiction, Allan Massie concludes that
There are essentially two sorts of novel, the open and the closed, even if many straddle the frontier that divides them. The closed novel is self-sufficient, free of the influence of public events. In the open novel, such events become characters in the action. The open novel is exposed to the winds of the world, its characters actors in history or victims of history. Given the difficulty of understanding the confusion and turbulence of the ever-changing present, it is natural that authors drawn to the open novel should turn to the past.
I am always skeptical of assertions that fiction is "essentially" this or that, and I am particularly skeptical of simple dichotomies such as this one.. Although Massie acknowledges that many novels "straddle" these oppositons, nevertheless the clear implication is that novelists are generally faced with an either/or choice: write novels that are open to the "winds of the world" or novels that are closed off, insular, neglectful of "public events." This particular kind of simple-minded classification is frequently used to dismiss overly aestheticized, formally adventurous fiction as insufficiently engaged with the real world, "merely literary," and it isn't any less obnoxious here because Massie finds the winds of the world blowing predominantly toward the past.
The notion that any fiction is "free of the influence of public events" is, of course, absurd, if by "public events" what is meant is "life," "experience," "reality." What work of fiction isn't influenced by "public events" because, ipso facto, the author is a human being drawing on his/her experience of the world? What text could be truly "self-sufficient" unless it generated itself, free of the writer's unavoidable immersion in "reality"? Perhaps my objection is too literal-minded, taking Massie's talk of self-sufficiency and "winds of the world" at face value as descriptions of our perception of certain kinds of novels rather than metaphorically, approximations of the reading experience--"it's as if this novel wanted to be self-sufficient, turned inward into language" or "it's as if this one is trying to take stock of historical circumstances." It is true, after all, that the closed novel is not really self-sufficient, nor is "history" or "the world" really to be found in the open novel. Both are verbal compositions, constructions of words, and Massie is just commenting on the effect some novels sometimes create.
But Massie certainly doesn't give the impression he's speaking metaphorically about the mission of historical fiction.
Why do novelists turn away from the present day to the past, and sometimes, like Harris, to the now far distant past? There is evidently no single reason. The writer may have become fascinated by some historical figure. . .Obsession with a particular period — the First World War, for instance — may suggest the theme for a novel. The author may wish to explore the past for its own sake, or to use it to point up the present.
The writer turns not to the printed page in an exercise of imagination but "from the present day to the past." Historical figures and periods, not language, is the root of his obsession, and he wants to "explore the past" not the possibilities of fiction. Massie seems to be describing someone whose primary interest indeed is in the "world," at least as this can be known historically, not in literary art. The latter is left to the narrower ministrations of those writers less committed to their creations as "actors in history."
It seems to me that Massie's historical novel is actually more "closed" than those stuck in the present and stuck with their author's commitment to art. "The past is more manageable and easier to grasp than the present," he writes. Further, it is "our present uncertainties" that account for "the attraction of the historical novel and the vogue it once again enjoys." That the present is full of "uncertainties" must surely be true, but then again it must have always been true, and it hardly seems appropriate to suggest that fiction's job should be to avoid those uncertainties. It may be that "the past is more manageable and easier to grasp," but since when has it been deemed that the art of the novel lies in seeking out that which is manageable and easy to grasp? The greatest fiction has always opened itself up to uncertainty and portrayed existence as something difficult to grasp indeed. By this measure historical fiction is a retreat not just into the past but away from what should be the fiction writer's most overriding responsibility. It cuts itself off from fiction's true subject.
Some historical fiction assuredly does open itself to uncertainty and doubt. Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones succeeds precisely because it subverts our confidence that we know what Nazis were, that we have adequate explanations for what motivated them. Thomas Pynchon's recent Inherent Vice was an attempt to "capture" the late 1960s in Los Angeles, but while it does surround the period in an idyllic (and marijuna-produced) haze, at the same it shows the idyll to be inherently unstable, setting the conditions of its own dispersement. It is a period that is far from "manageable" in our assessment of its rise and fall. Some novels are set in the past, but do not take the past itself as subject, do not take the re-creation of historical characters and events as a self-sufficient ambition.
But for me the vast majority of historical novels are just an effort at such re-creation, and, given that I am motivated to read fiction for the aesthetic experience it might provide and not to learn about history, they are therefore mostly irrelevant to the consideration of fiction as a literary art. Whether it is an attempt to "explore the past for its own sake" or to use the past "to point up the present," historical fiction is an effort to use the form for a purpose other than, or secondary to, creating an aesthetically credible work of art--ultimately the only purpose worthy of motivating us to designate writing as "literary" in the first place. It can be defended as such, but the reading experience it provides directs our attention toward extra-literary "content" rather than expanding our attention in the present as art is able to do.