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Rethinking the Historical Novel: Histories, Controversies, Futures

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Organizer: Monika Bhagat-Kennedy

Co-Organizer: Lily Saint

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Historical fiction, and in particular the historical novel, has long been central to the imagining, interrogation, and subversion of ideas about the past. In his influential treatise The Historical Novel (1962), Georg Lukács posited that mass movements were crucial to the form’s development in nineteenth-century Europe, providing “a sense and experience of history to broad masses.” For him, the historical novel’s rise was coincident with 19th century national identity formations because “The appeal to national independence and national character is necessarily connected with a re-awakening of national history, with memories of the past, of past greatness, of moments of national dishonor, whether this results in a progressive or reactionary ideology” (25). While the many limitations of Lukács’s arguments have been well established, his observations about the connections between literature, nostalgia, history, politics, and national identity resound today. But the historical novel is also being put to new ends in the contemporary moment: both thematically, in its recuperative or speculative work, and formally, in the genre’s continued tussle with the positivist pretensions of realism. Ongoing discussions about the salience of categories such as the “global Anglophone,” “global novel,” and “world literature,” also disturb theories which foreground the genre’s nation-building character, though the worldwide resurgence of nativism and nationalism in recent years, gives this new relevance. This panel invites papers that reflect on the relationship between the historical novel and various articulations of collective self-definition.  It also welcomes papers that seek to address the following related topics:
 

What is the progressive and/or reactionary potential of the historical novel today as compared to earlier periods?  

 


What kinds of utopian and dystopian imaginings does the historical novel enable or prohibit?

 


How do we understand, following the empirically based arguments of James English (2016), that the literary novel has undergone “a radical retemporalization” over the past forty years to gravitate towards noncontemporaneous settings while contemporary settings continue to dominate in popular fiction?

 


What should we make of its tendency to encyclopedic excess, or to put this otherwise, how can we theorize the scale and size of the historical novel?

 


How does the historical novel intersect today with other speculative historiographic genres?

 


Thinking through the arguments of Hamish Dalley (2014) and Greg Forter (2019), to what extent does the category “postcolonial” obtain to describe particular historical novels?

 
And given all of this, how might we begin to posit a provisional definition of the historical novel today?

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