The Curse of Presentism - today's eBook Festival post.

Cover by textile artist Alison Bell

All this week, I'm resident on this year's Edinburgh eBook Festival where I'm blogging about historical fiction. Here's an extract from today's post - but do visit the festival site here, to read the rest of this post. There are four more to follow about aspects of historical fiction -  and a great many good things besides for the whole month of August, including free books and insights from an excellent cross section of writers.

Thanks to Valerie Laws of Authors Electric for helping me out with the term presentism. I wasn’t aware of it, but it neatly encapsulates a point I want to make – and it seems like as good a beginning as any to this residency. Here’s a useful Wikipedia definition: Presentism is a mode of literary or historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past

A quick scan online will reveal plenty of blog posts and other pieces pontificating (with some justification) about anachronisms in historical fiction as well as in film and television programmes. Sometimes they can be deliberate. The judicious use of anachronism in movies like A Knight’s Tale where the fuss and adoration surrounding participants in these Mediaeval tournaments is beautifully paralleled by that accorded to gladiatorial athletes like Ice Hockey players, manages to be both accurate and illustrative of a genuine truth about the times. 

We recognise the parallel and extrapolate from it. It’s also enjoyable and entertaining. There are novels as well as movies where these deliberate anachronisms are used to illuminate some kind of parallel between past and present culture and society. In many ways they involve the opposite of presentism, using present day ideas and preoccupations to elucidate the past.

Casual anachronisms do cause problems for various reasons, the main ones being that they look like mistakes, they look like inadequate research and they can pull readers right out of their willing suspension of disbelief in the world of the book. The trouble is that we come across rather a lot of pieces of historical fiction where the author has been meticulous in excluding all possible anachronisms – and we still don’t believe a word of them. We don’t believe in the world of the book. And that is always going to be a problem for readers, arguably an even bigger problem than the occasional inadvertent anachronism.

You can read the rest of today's post on the Edinburgh eBook Festival site.

For this week as well, there will be a couple of special offers on two of my own historical novels: The Amber Heart, set in mid nineteenth century Poland, and Bird of Passage, in which the story spans the years from the 1950s to the present day. Does this qualify as historical? I think so, since some of the issues explored in the book have a very definite historical dimension. Do feel free to argue with me if you disagree - and if you download the novels, you can decide whether or not I follow my own advice!