I came to this topic listening to an interview with Markus Zusak. Now what follows is not a review of The Book Thief. I have not read The Book Thief, but I understand from others who have read it that it is a very good book and I don’t mean to cast any shadows on it. But, it was the spark of this essay and I think I need to start with honesty of thought.
What started me thinking about this was this: as Markus described his novel I found myself thinking: oh no, not another literary novel set against a world war out of desperation for tension. That thought made me immediately reflect. There has now been a very long trail of literary fiction set during one or the other of the world wars. I suppose I would trace it to The English Patient, and then draw a thread through Captain Corelli’s Mondolin, and onto more recent examples: Warhorse, Atonement, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Book Thief and maybe even at a stretch Kavalier and Clay. I began to wonder, have literary stories set in the world wars transcended mere setting or the generalised area of historical fiction and become a genre unto themselves?
First though, how would these stories – I’m going to call them Wartime stories – differ from the more traditional War Novel? Well, if we take stories like War and Peace, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms or MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, which I would classify as War Novels in the traditional sense, the War Novel is usually about someone’s experience of war, how war changes and challenges the human condition the relationship between a human being and the state of being in a war. Usually, though not always, they are written by someone who directly experienced the war, although if no direct experience is involved, War Novels are usually written by someone contemporary with the war in question or they are using the historical (or future) war as a proxy for a contemporary conflict. Under this definition works like Joe Halderman’s The Forever War or David Drake’s science fiction war stories would also fall into the category of a War Novel. Gone With The Wind on the other hand would not. Gone With The Wind is merely set during a war. It has little or nothing deep to say about human beings and their relationships with conflict. The War Novel is intended to be a commentary on the overarching nature of war and the human psyche during conflict.
In contrast, Wartime, seems a much lighter affair. Quite often the concerns of Wartime are not the war itself, but are the usual concerns of literary fiction: relationships with others, including finding love, and relationships with the self, including acceptance of self or finding one’s path in life, or learning life lessons. The war is ratcheted in as a background that adds tension and drama, but the human relationship with the experience of the war is not deeply explored, if it is explored at all. I am tempted to think that the trend towards placing literary stories in the world wars is because literary fiction is now so depauperate of ideas, that drama has to be drawn from somewhere and the world wars have become an acceptable setting for that purpose.
Now whether or not Wartime is a genre requires a bit of digging. Usually, genres are publisher determined and are for the purpose of putting like books together in such a way that if a reader of Book A might enjoy Book B, then Book B is easy to find. Science Fiction and Fantasy are not the same genre at all, but they share an audience so tend to be shelved together. Horror is often not shelved on its own, but the black and red covers clearly mark the category. Covers are one way to check whether a genre has either developed or is developing. It is not an exact science and it is rather subjective, but I took a rummage around Wartime covers, both those I could think of offhand and using the customer’s suggested or customer’s also bought links at the bottom of online bookseller pages for the Wartime novels I’ve already mentioned. What I tended to see was this:
– Old-timey photography used on covers
– Sometimes an old-fashioned painting replaced the old-fashioned photo
– Usually an image of a single person alone dominates the cover
– Sepia or old-timey colour photography colours dominate
– When the cover is not sepia it will be blue, blue-grey or steel coloured
These trends tended to break when the author had a strong branding themselves, so that Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay didn’t fit this mould at all, although perhaps that book isn’t a good example as it does outgrow the second world war and then grow and grow and grow until it is so much more than a mere story told against a wartime painted backdrop. And that’s perhaps I think my irritation with this nascent genre – the feeling of a mere painted backdrop. The tragedy and horror of war is being used for drama, and rather thinly. This is irritating enough when the work is juvenile and transparent, be it a Rambo film or a Commando comic, but these literary books present themselves as being something more thoughtful than a mere sophistication of Commando, where the story is now about housewives and children rather than soldiers, but the drama is just as voyeuristic and just as detached from the actual sorrows of war.
To sum, I don’t know if my initial question is properly answered. There are no shelves for Wartime in bookstores (at least not yet) and though the books in this category do have covers of a similar colour palette with similar themes (old timey-photography in particular) they are not as starkly genred as, for instance, the covers of supernatural romance, or crime or horror. At any rate, there does seem to be something of a genre growing here and it perhaps bears considering whether the genre is doing more than setting familiar stories of various literary stripes against a setting of dramatic novelty.