TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. Juni 2010

Sektion 7.3. Journeys back in Time: Historiographic Metafiction and after
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Vorname Name (Ort)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Section report 7.3.

Journeys back in Time: Historiographic Metafiction and after

Ludmilla Kostova (University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria) [BIO]



Many thanks to Nora Tunkel, a participant in this session, for providing the most inspiring venue for it – in the historic heart of Vienna…

The session initially took its name from “historiographic metafiction”, a term central to the work of Canadian literary critic and cultural theorist Linda Hutcheon. In her seminal text Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), she uses it to describe the postmodernist novel’s engagement with history. According to Hutcheon, “historiographic metafiction self-consciously reminds us that while events did occur in the real empirical past, we name and constitute those events as historical facts by selection and narrative positioning" (Poetics 97).

The Canadian critic’s term and the reasoning behind it have been challenged by Amy J. Elias who prefers “metahistorical romance” to “historiographic metafiction” because the former links present-day historical fiction to the earlier genre of historical romance of which Walter Scott was one of the founders (Metahistorical Romance, the Historical Sublime, and Dialogic History, Rethinking History 9:2/3/ 2005, 164). Elias maintains that for the Scottish writer the genre in question brought together “two incompatible ways of looking at history” – as romance or myth revealing “timeless truths about humanity and the world” and as “empirically derived sociological hypothesis” (164). Metahistorical romance maintains this “oxymoronic tradition” (164) in the present without subordinating romance to history (which is what Scott did) or privileging it over it.

Most of the session’s participants took issue with the debate of the two theorists and repeatedly referred to it in their presentations which focused on texts covering a variety of historical areas. Thus, the Chair’s introduction was followed by a commentary on a novel about the medieval Bulgarian heresy of Bogomilism and its implications for the present (Svetla Vassileva). The rest of the presentations ranged from a critical appraisal of a text enmeshing narratives about Elizabeth I and postmodern anxieties over gender roles and sexuality (Elena Andonova), through two readings of fictions dramatizing and, indeed, problematizing conventional notions of the Enlightenment and its literary, scientific and humanitarian practices (Ludmilla Kostova and Vesselin Budakov), to interpretations of US-American and Canadian metahistorical experiments (Madeleine Danov and Nora Tunkel), and, finally, the session winded up with an examination of  what appeared to be a “high” modernist (rather than postmodernist) account of pre-1989 life in Bulgaria (Lubomir Terziev). The diversity of remote and proximate “pasts” represented in the novels (or romances) selected by the participants and the session’s venue, the Roter Salon in Vienna’s Hofburg, resulted in a spirited exchange of – sometimes controversial – remarks and comments.

The essence of the discussion is best conveyed through the following questions posed by the participants:

  1. What happens when nationalist content is conveyed through a stylistic repertoire that would be identified as postmodernist in other contexts? Are we still on postmodernist “ground” or do we need a different taxonomic descriptor for a text combining such contradictory features? Could such a combination reflect the romantic-nationalist origins of historical fiction?
  2. Can historical fiction ever be strictu sensu realist? Isn’t it more “realistic” to assume that the distinctive characteristics of realism   are being pastiched in a historical novel (or a metahistorical romance)?
  3. Why do metahistorical romances exhibit such a persistent fondness for imagined anti-heroes rather for “authentic” historical figures? What happens when present-day writers opt for “real people” whose lives have been repeatedly documented in/through biographies?
  4. Does postmodernist writing really play an emancipatory role in certain contexts? What contexts are those?

Providing tentative answers to those questions was part of the dialogue in which the session’s participants were engaged – in the full knowledge that it wouldn’t lead to any definitive conclusions about the nature of (meta)historical fiction. The dialogue was deemed valuable nevertheless insofar as it provided positive proof of the importance of history in the postmodern present and of the need to go on interpreting the fictional narratives attempting to make sense of it.

7.3. Journeys back in Time: Historiographic Metafiction and after

Sektionsgruppen| Section Groups| Groupes de sections

TRANS   Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  17 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Ludmilla Kostova: Section report 7.3.: Journeys back in Time: Historiographic Metafiction and after - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

Webmeister: Gerald Mach     last change: 2010-06-06