Well, I ended up thinking about the differences between old fiction (written decades or centuries ago) and historical fiction (written in the present day, but set in the past) after both reading an interesting horror novel from the 1950s and finding this intriguing Youtube channel filled with old film footage from the 19th and early-mid 20th century.
One of the advantages of old fiction is immersion. Simply put, it is quite literally a direct window into the past and this can be quite surprising. For example, the “realistic” settings of a 1980s horror novel like Shaun Hutson’s “Breeding Ground” are a lot more understated and, well, believable than the stylised depictions of the 1980s you might see in a more modern historical novel, film etc…
Because writers in the past didn’t need to create a “historical” setting (because everyone back then already knew what the world looked like), you can get a much more vivid, detailed and unvarnished glimpse into the past when you read old novels. Not only that, you also get to see how people back then really thought about the world and how they saw the world.
Reading fiction from the past allows you to quite literally step back in time and see the past in a totally different way. After all, people back then read these novels for entertainment in the way that we watch TV shows, play computer games etc… these days. So, you are quite literally enjoying yourself in exactly the same way as someone many decades ago did. After all, although older novels might be reprinted, the basic technology behind them (eg: words on paper) hasn’t changed since they were first printed.
On the other hand, whilst the technology hasn’t changed, the English language has. This is one of the main advantages of modern historical fiction. In short, historical fiction is aimed at a mainstream contemporary audience, so it’ll be written in a way that is more accessible to modern readers. Usually the writing style will keep some historical flavour, but the narration will be a bit more streamlined and a bit less formal than older novels.
Yes, old-school formal narration adds atmosphere to a story but, if you’re just looking for a book to relax with, then modern historical fiction tends to be more readable. But, although older novels might sound “highbrow” these days, it’s important to remember that novels are usually written for the average reader at the time they were published. They were designed for ordinary people (who read more back then and were also used to slightly more formal language, slower pacing etc..) to enjoy. So, don’t let a novel’s age put you off. Older novels can sometimes be more readable than you might think.
Plus, modern historical fiction will often be more realistic than older fiction in some ways. Whilst older fiction gives the reader a direct glimpse into the past, it also had to contend with things like censorship (for example, most of the “grittiness” in Dashiell Hammett’s excellent 1929/30 novel “The Maltese Falcon” is implied rather than shown). So, modern historical fiction can often show things that may not have been considered “publishable” in the past.
Modern historical fiction also looks at the past from a more modern perspective too. Whilst this can result in a much more interesting variety of characters, more gripping drama and stuff like that, it can also suffer from the author underestimating the reader’s intelligence. In other words, some modern historical novels can have a tendency to lecture the reader about social ills that the reader already knows are bad. Then again, older novels can sometimes (but not always) include awkward or narrow-minded moments that haven’t aged well and are a bit cringe-worthy to read today. So, both things can be annoying in different ways.
On the other hand, older novels often tend to have more interesting cover art. Since many older novels were published before the internet was popular, having an eye-catching and dramatic cover that would stand out on bookshop shelves was even more important than ever. Likewise, before photo editing became something that people could do easily with computer programs, there was more incentive for publishers to use traditional paintings for their cover art. So, older novels just generally look better. Here are some examples of 1980s sci-fi/fantasy/horror novel cover art to show you what I mean:
Another advantage of older novels is their brevity. Because longer books were more difficult or expensive to publish in the past, older novels often tend to be a bit shorter and to the point. Yes, the formal writing styles used in the past mean that older novels will often take longer to read, but it is so refreshing to see novels that can tell a full, detailed story in just 200-300 pages 🙂 On the downside, this brevity is sometimes achieved by just reducing the size of the print.
On the other hand, one cool thing about modern historical fiction (and TV shows etc..) is that they can give vividness and life to the past in a way that older things might struggle with. After all, when watching the grainy greyscale footage on the Youtube channel I mentioned earlier, my mind instantly started “filling in the gaps” with things that I remembered from modern historical novels, TV shows etc… So, modern historical fiction can make the past seem a lot more vivid and alive.
Of course, the most interesting type of history-based fiction is historical fiction that was written in the past. This is often an interesting middle-ground between the two things and not only does it give us a glimpse of how people used to think about the past but, due to it’s historical setting, it bizarrely tends to age better than older fiction set in the “present day” of when it was written.
So yes, older and historical fiction both have their fair share of advantages and disadvantages. In short, if you want something readable, gripping and vivid, then read modern historical fiction. But, if you want something a bit more complex that also gives you a direct window into the past, then take a look at older fiction.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂