Rewriting (and Righting) History: On Alexander Manshel’s “Writing Backwards”

By Andrew KoenigFebruary 28, 2024

Rewriting (and Righting) History: On Alexander Manshel’s “Writing Backwards”

Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon by Alexander Manshel

LOOK AT THE main display in any American bookstore these days, and you’ll notice that a certain genre of novel predominates. It is “multigenerational.” It is about “the wounds of history.” The book jacket features a portrait of a figure, usually nonwhite, often in silhouette, sometimes obscured. The book in question intends to surface buried histories, in prose that is backed up by historical research. Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (2020) is a recent example. Before that, there was Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (2017). And before that, there was Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015). (All three, incidentally, have been adapted for television.) These titles typify historical fiction’s unstoppable ascent in American literature.

When did this shift take place? According to Alexander Manshel, whose new book, Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon, reflects on the historical turn in contemporary American fiction, the shift occurred roughly sometime during the 1980s. Contemporary American fiction can be divided into two periods, according to Manshel: before Beloved, and after Beloved. Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel marked a sea change in what was considered suitable subject matter for modern novelists: it set the tone, and modeled the form, of the contemporary historical novel—experimental yet readable, based on a true story, trained on the horrors of American history, self-consciously literary and decidedly unpatriotic. Beloved is, therefore, the natural starting point for Manshel’s investigation.

The stated aim of Manshel’s book is to show how “the past came to supplant the present in contemporary American fiction.” What he calls “the historical turn in American literature” is hard to deny. As Manshel puts it, “it is safe to say that historical fiction now stands at the very center of the American literary canon.” Why else is it that every other award-winning novel, from Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (2006) to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) to Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family (2021)—and this is just to list a handful of recent prizewinners—is about history?

If the phenomenon itself is inescapable, the question of why this shift has occurred is still under debate. The story of historical fiction’s resurgence is, in Manshel’s telling, explained by the advent of institutions—namely, the academy, literary prize committees, and creative writing programs—that have endorsed historical fiction as the foremost literary genre. The title of Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 novel, Salvage the Bones, may as well be a motto for the contemporary historical novelist. Bring the dead back to life—it’s the surest road to literary stardom.

It makes sense, then, that historical fiction has become important for nonwhite writers. This is the second piece of Manshel’s argument, and it is one he undergirds with both statistics—the fact that virtually all prizewinning Native American novels, and most African American, Latinx, and Asian American ones, dwell on historical subjects—and literary analysis. Manshel persuasively argues that the default assumption that nonwhite writers ought to write historical fiction has created imbalances in literary culture. As he puts it, “this program of inclusion has become so successful that it may now work to circumscribe minoritized writers, even as it consecrates them.”

Furthermore, as Manshel points out, the vast majority of American historical fiction revolves around the same set of events and the same time periods: the 1960s, the Civil War, and World War II. If we’re getting our history from novels, the history we get is going to be quite limited. As novelists take on the prerogatives of historians, they start to shoulder the historian’s burdens—doing justice to the facts rather than giving free rein to the imagination. Manshel devises various turns of phrase to describe this process—“the archival imperative that marks contemporary American fiction” and the “new historical sincerity” being two of the more memorable. Sometimes, Manshel seems to be reaching for language adequate to describe this phenomenon, a problem for any book that is identifying and diagnosing a trend. Certain trends-within-the-trend, such as the “recent historical novel” (e.g., 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina narratives), don’t seem as obvious or convincing within the book’s larger contention that a turn towards history is afoot in American fiction.

Manshel builds his argument by looking at better and worse examples of contemporary historical fiction. His exemplars are Colson Whitehead, who, “to make sense of this moment[,] […] travels more than a half century into the past,” and Viet Thanh Nguyen. Manshel is a sensitive reader of both, and his willingness to dive into the institutional background and literary prehistory of their careers is admirable. As he puts it, “moving forward means writing backward into the past.” These authors do that, and they do it well.

Manshel goes on to show how both the critical reception of works and the institutional forms of recognition tend to pigeonhole minoritized writers. In the first chapter, “Contemporary Fiction in Reverse,” Manshel compares two works of fiction that proceed in reverse chronological order, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow and Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (both 1991). It’s an ingenious pairing. Among other insights, Manshel highlights the nonwhite author’s tacit obligation to salvage histories of harm. Compared with Alvarez’s reverse tale of assimilation, Amis’s project tunnels back to an outlandishly wicked origin story—the protagonist of his novel, a perfect American suburbanite, is in fact an ex-Nazi. Anxieties over ethnicity and whiteness permeate these respective works, and Manshel cleverly shows how the reception of Amis’s book has focused almost exclusively on its form, whereas Alvarez is lauded above all for giving voice to Dominican identity.

In the second chapter, “The Making of the Greatest Generation,” Manshel examines the outsize importance of World War II to the American historical imaginary. Manshel’s analysis of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977) retreads some familiar ground, but his main point, that the novel is not widely viewed as a World War II novel, is well taken. Similarly, Manshel offers a welcome analysis of Clay Walls, Ronyoung Kim’s 1986 L.A.-based novel about a Korean family, to show how the conventional World War II plot isn’t readily available to Asian American authors, for whom the war was fought and experienced largely on the home front.

Manshel’s next point—a more contentious one—is that World War II has become a port of call for white writers hoping to mine a heroic period in American history, as well as a space for Jewish American writers to explore the Holocaust and its legacy. Some of his claims are not entirely convincing. World War II may well offer novelists instant cultural cachet, legibility for a mass audience, and film and TV options. But in this chapter, Manshel sometimes vacillates between the assertion that World War II is the province of “white writers” and that of Jewish writers. Manshel writes, “World War II remains largely peripheral in historical novels by writers of color, as if the segregation of the mid-twentieth century is effectively segregating the literary field of the early twenty-first.” Fair enough. But the examples he cites—Michael Chabon, Anthony Doerr, Jennifer Egan, and Jonathan Safran Foer—are all Jewish authors writing about the war and its aftermath. By now, these transhistorical tales, whose titles—e.g., Everything Is Illuminated (2002), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)—say a lot about their rosy view of the power of fiction to redeem the past, are ubiquitous. As Manshel himself admits, “it is not entirely clear whether what we are seeing is the appropriation of techniques common in Jewish American historical fiction or the coalescing of a common white aesthetic.”

This relates to a larger problem regarding the place of Jewish American writers within the field of multiethnic American literature. When Manshel claims that “World War II appears as a kind of last outpost […] for narratives of white heroism, valor, and innocence,” I mostly agree, but I do wonder whether something is missed here in the elision of whiteness and Jewishness. The claim about a coherent white aesthetic is rather less convincing than the empirically backed claim that writers of color are incentivized and pressured to write historical fiction. Writing Backwards does make the important point that the race to recuperate history is, well, about race. If one considers the major literary-fiction-to-TV adaptations of the past several years, many of them (e.g., Pachinko, The Underground Railroad, The Sympathizer) are historical and authored by writers of color, whereas the nonhistorical ones—e.g., Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018), Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble (2019)—tend to be about white people having romantic difficulties. Manshel is onto something, and he is right to point out the undue burden that has been placed on writers of color to tell history and represent an entire people in the space of a single book. The maximalism of so much historical fiction speaks to an unreasonable expectation that one book and one writer can do it all, by writing an entire ethnic history in 300 pages, with pathos, humor, wit, and profitability to boot. Too often, these historical fictions have a straight-to-TV—not to mention straight-to-syllabus—quality.

Manshel reserves his strongest criticism for Yaa Gyasi’s 2016 bestseller Homegoing in his fourth chapter, “Reading the Family Tree,” which takes aim at the multigenerational historical novel. Gyasi’s book covers so many historical periods, and so many characters, in its march through generation after generation of a Ghanaian family, that the reader becomes fatigued by the sheer onslaught of history. The run on the market of multigenerational family sagas bespeaks a certain fatigue in contemporary writing. Manshel diagnoses the genre as being overly concerned with covering every twist and turn of history, at the expense of meaningful character development and exposition. Although Homegoing is something of an easy target, Manshel’s critique of it is incisive, pointing to an aesthetic that has become firmly entrenched throughout the publishing industry. Multigenerational family sagas sell, and they are safe bets for diversifying publishers’ catalogs. Fiction, nowadays, seems to be split into autofiction and hyper-exuberant historical novels like Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise (2022). The idea that writers might choose autofiction in opposition to the mandate to telling a history with a full cast of characters is one worth exploring, perhaps in another book.

The least persuasive piece of Manshel’s argument comes at the end, where he theorizes the “recent historical novel,” by which he means novels about 9/11, Katrina, COVID-19, and other semi-recent historical events, which transmute the 24-hour news cycle into prose. Although Manshel is careful to state, in his introduction, his intention of not lumping everything into the category of “historical fiction,” he mostly feels that anything that is not “contemporary realis[t]” fiction (or futuristic/dystopian fiction, which goes unmentioned) is ipso facto historical fiction. Although it’s an interesting claim, the notion that Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) is “historical fiction” because it is, in part, about the Madrid bombings is not wholly convincing. Moreover, that book has dated in the decade since it was published, which gives it a historical “feel” it may not have had at the time of publication. There are also a few assumptions baked into Manshel’s book that could use some prodding. Why is the cyclical structure of Margaret Sexton’s A Kind of Freedom (2017) better than the linear structure of Homegoing? Plenty of good novels are told in a linear fashion. Mention might also be made of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1867), which is, after all, the multigenerational historical novel, or of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), which is an interesting counterexample of a book that tells history while also taking place in the present.

Towards the end of Writing Backwards, the definition of “historical fiction” becomes rather overbroad. If Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014) and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (2013) count as historical fiction because they are about Hurricane Sandy and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, respectively, then I am not sure what wouldn’t count as historical fiction. Even Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts (2021) is offered as an example of “recent historical fiction” because it takes place during the Trump administration. Although Manshel acknowledges that it takes time for novel manuscripts to get published, by which point contemporary events have become semi-historical, I fail to see how novels about “recent events” qualify as historical fiction. But if the book’s aim is to expand our ideas about what historical fiction is, then breadth is necessary. As Manshel puts it, “fictional representation of the historical past is not a binary matter (i.e., a book either is or is not a historical novel), but rather an issue of degree.” But redefining the genre as a spectrum runs the risk of broadening the category to such a degree that everything counts as historical fiction. Manshel concedes that “[e]xpanding the ambit of historical fiction does not mean enlarging it to the point where every novel falls within its scope,” but sometimes this is exactly what happens. Ultimately, he argues that “it seems less accurate to describe it as a single, monolithic genre than as a kind of contemporary literary mode.”

In his concluding pages, Manshel writes that “institutions have at times mistaken historical recovery for a form of historical redress.” But it is not entirely clear to me what historical redress apart from historical recovery might look like. After all, writing novels does not really salve historical wounds. Even a very great novel like Beloved can’t bring the dead back to life. The problem of the historical turn is not so much its failure to effect change in the present—novelists are notoriously bad at doing that—as its recourse to easy answers and stale formulae, and the overall move away from the present as the province of fiction.

Manshel finds this an alarming development:

[O]ne of the consequences of literary fiction’s overwhelming turn toward the historical past over the last five decades is that the present itself has sometimes faded from view. The imperatives to uncover, explore, experience, feel with, and learn from history […] have at times displaced the urgent questions of contemporary life.

The “overwhelming turn toward the historical past,” as Manshel calls it, poses risks. Historical fiction has left a kind of vacuum when it comes to novels about the present. Have we lost interest in the present day? Why have we become so fixated on the past? Are there better and worse ways to write/right history? Manshel suggests that the answer to this last question is yes, and he is at his most interesting when he is most polemical. Although it raises even more questions than it answers, Writing Backwards does clearly diagnose a trend—the historical turn in new American fiction—while smuggling in an aesthetic judgment. Manshel is refreshingly candid about where his allegiances lie. He looks askance at pure good-versus-evil narratives like Schindler’s List (1982), as well as overly straightforward attempts at “recuperation.” Coming right out and saying that a linear march through nine generations of family history is, actually, exhausting, and that the vogue for historical fiction threatens to leave us without a sizable body of literature on what it’s like to live now, in 2024, is refreshing. Once upon a time, a novelist could write a book titled The Way We Live Now with the expectation that it would sell, and people would be interested. Now, I’m not so sure.

Not every book has to do everything. Manshel’s preferred authors, Whitehead and Nguyen, do interesting things in their work—they joke around, play with the facts, and defy readers’ expectations with flair and wit. The exhaustion of historical fiction in the last several years might be worth it, after all, if it can yield books like The Underground Railroad and The Sympathizer. But the loss of interest in the present as a suitable subject for novelists is startling. Speaking for myself, I badly want to read a novel about right now, without any reference to a Grand Historical Past. But if Manshel has proven one thing in this work, it is that historical fiction is here to stay.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Koenig is a PhD candidate in English at Harvard University. His essays have appeared in Harvard Review, the New Haven Independent, and The New Criterion. He lives in Los Angeles.


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