Recently I have read a spate of disappointing historical novels, and I appear to be a few chapters into yet another one (although there's still time for this one to pull it out of the fire), so I'm going to vent about unsatisfying historical fiction.
What annoys me about historical fiction? More even than preaching, or obvious anachronisms?
When the person doesn't seem to be aware that they are writing fiction!
What seems to happen with some people is that they get enthralled with a particular historical event. So they want to write a book about it. But they don't want to go to the trouble and expense of researching a nonfiction book. So they don't research it, and they call it historical fiction.
The result of this process is basically a picaresque novel: This happened and then that happened and then another thing happened and then something else happened. The End. It's not very satisfying because it's not really about anything--there's no arc of any kind. If you already know about the historical event (and oftentimes even if you don't), it's staggeringly dull.
The other problem is that this kind of writer rarely takes interesting risks with the characters. Either they slavishly follow real life, regardless of whether or not that works in a story, or they create a character...well, a character like Biftad Kennedy.
Who's Biftad Kennedy? He's the character I just created for my historical novel on the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was going to write a nonfiction book about it, but that's too much work! Instead I'll write a novel--wait a minute? Who's going to be the main character?
Oh, it can't be John F. Kennedy or anybody who had any actual responsibility for what went on then--that's too hard. I'd have to do research, and I know whatever I write about someone like John F. Kennedy is going to piss somebody off!
So, I'll invent--Biftad! He'll be a ne'er-do-well distant cousin of the real Kennedys--you know, some loutish Roger Sterling/Paris Hilton-type who never bothered to graduate from prep school because he has a trust fund and plans to just drink his life away. He'll have no influence on anything, ever, because he didn't really exist and I don't want anything in my fiction that didn't really happen. Biftad will just occasionally stagger through the White House and say things like, "Wow, cousin, that looks important. You got any gin?"
This isn't going to be like the movie Dick, where ditzy teenagers bring down a president. This isn't going to be Happy Gilmore Saves the Free World. That would be too risky and too hard. Instead, Biftad will never do anything. The reader's experience will be: I'm reading things I already know, and I'm forced to rehash them through the point-of-view of a completely useless character who just sits around drunkenly scratching his testicles, while two doors down, the world teeters on the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Wouldn't you love 600 pages of that!
The problem as I see it is that these people are writing historical fiction because they think it's easy. They think it's easier than nonfiction, because you don't have to do any research, and they think it's easier than other genres of fiction, because you don't have to be creative.
None of that is true. Good historical fiction does not come about because the writer is lazy. It takes a lot of research, and more important, it takes the exact same amount of care given to story and to character as any other kind of fiction.
Otherwise you get the exact same thing you get with weak fantasy and science fiction: A humdinger of a setting, but nothing to engage you and carry you through the book.