|Author Hilary Mantel|
Ester Bloom reviews books for Cheek Teeth. She blogs at Full of Pith and Vinegar.
Hilary Mantel's 2009 breakthrough Wolf Hall was paradigm-changing in several ways. The Booker (and Rooster) prize-winning novel made an old and familiar story--how Henry VIII pried himself free from his wife and the Catholic Church in order to win the affections of small, shrewd Anne Boleyn--into a thriller. It made me retrieve people I long ago put into storage because I learned what to think about them in high school (people like cunning Thomas Cromwell and pious Sir Thomas More) and see them as though for the first time. For me, it also complicated questions of genre distinctions in serious literature.
In 2012, Mantel published her next volume in what appears to be her Tudor trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies. As a reader who took to bed in despair when there were no more pages of Wolf Hall to turn, and who emerged only when the Internet promised that more story would be forthcoming, I had what you could fairly call high expectations. I was not disappointed. Bring Up the Bodies is as compelling as its predecessor and perhaps more approachable (several readers I trust and admire had trouble with the sprawling ambition of Wolf Hall; Bodies benefits from its more limited scope).
Mantel is that rare creature: An excellent writer who is also a genius storyteller. Individual sentences and exchanges of dialogue are as satisfying as the narrative as a whole. Several times while reading Book Two, or what I like to think of as "Thomas Cromwell and the Chamber of Secrets," I had to stop in order to read passages aloud to whoever was nearby. James Wood of the New Yorker seems to have suffered from the same affliction: His review is almost half quotes, as though all he can do is shake his head in wonder.
But Wood calls Bodies "historical fiction," even as he then tries to identify the helium that helps it rise so far above other novels in that genre. He struggles, perhaps, because "historical fiction" is difficult to categorize. By one definition, it tells stories from the past involving real characters through the eyes of a created one (Johnny Tremain), or a lightly-sketched, marginalized one (The Red Tent). It has long been the purview of Young Adult authors, as well as certain middle- or low-brow mainstream authors: Jean M. Auel, Caleb Carr, Phillipa Gregory, Ken Follett. A sprinkling of high-brow authors dabble in it without losing the respect of the academy, including Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose), E. L. Doctorow (Ragtime), and the endlessly creative Margaret Atwood (Penelopiad), who also delves into speculative fiction, feminist dystopia, and whatever else strikes her fancy. In general, however, "historical fiction," like sci fi, fantasy, crime, and mystery, suffers from the literary world's snobbishness about genre, which Arthur Krystal in his New Yorker piece "Easy Writers" is too ready to reduce to a "guilty pleasure."
Lev Grossman at Time has written an excellent take-down of this way of thinking. He argues that the important distinction in literature is not between genre and mainstream but between good writing (and storytelling) and bad:
The writing in good genre fiction is not at all uneven. It’s not easy to find a sentence out of place in Tana French, or to find a work of literary fiction that sparks and snaps at you like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. God knows there’s plenty of bad writing in literary fiction, too, but Krystal never talks about that. The badness tends to be a different kind of badness--slow, earnest, lugubrious prose, or too-clever and self-conscious prose--but bad it nonetheless is. You wouldn’t want to judge literary fiction on the basis of its mediocrities. So why judge genre fiction that way?
Hilary Mantel's books also include a terrific tale of the French revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. Thanks to her high profile, they, like Atwood's forays into genre, are in little danger of being ghettoized. Other authors however are not so fortunate. Despite the quality that Lev Grossman highlights of books like Tana French's In the Woods, too many of them will get shunted aside as "guilty pleasures." Maybe the most important thing Mantel's continued success will do is continue blasting away at traditional notions of genre until all well-written books are taken seriously, regardless of whether the stories they tell involve wizards, detectives, or Tudors.