Farthing by Jo Walton and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
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Both books are set in an alternate-history 1940s. (Farthing is in 1949 in Britain and The Plot Against America is in 1940 in the United States.) Both have Charles Lindberg elected president of the United States, and both (especially the Roth book) then extrapolate what would have happened based upon Lindberg's real-life anti-semitism and isolationist tendencies.
Farthing has an English noblewoman's Jewish husband framed for murder during a politically unstable time when it looks that British fascists will take over the government. The Plot Against America views events from the perspective of a 9 year-old Jewish kid whose family is affected by the increasingly sinister federal programs put into place against the Jews.
Both books are chilling, realistic, and fascinating. Read Farthing first, and then try The Plot Against America.
This is fascinating! I've read reviews of The Plot Against America, but had never heard of Farthing. When was it published? Could Roth have been borrowing the idea and taking it in a different direction? Or is this a case of two people being indepedently inspired by the same basic idea?
Alternate history novels are such an interesting concept. I've heard about one I'd like to read that assumes the South won the Civil War. Anyone remember who wrote it and/or what the title is?
Actually The Plot Against America was published in 2004, and Farthing was published in 2006, so I think that either Walton (Farthing) was inspired by Roth (The Plot Against America), or they independently came up with the Lindberg idea.
Reading The Plot Against America I was disappointed with the science fiction element of the novel, I'm not really sure why Roth chose this method to explore anti-semitism, often the domestic and the political failed to blend properly. The strength of the novel lay in the evocation of a young boy growing up in the Newark Jewish community of the 1940s.
In recent years, writers have been encouraged to add genre elements to their novels. I don't quite know why, because it seems to me that literary novels have been hitting the bestseller lists far more often in the last few years than for some decades previously. The very fine historical novelist Cecelia Holland has been writing fantasy lately. I can't say whether that's a good or bad development in her case, because I haven't read her most recent novels. But there is an atmosphere in the publishing world lately of chasing after bestsellers at the expense of so-called "midlist" novels, those which appeal to a small but perhaps quite dedicated group of readers, or those which gain appreciative readers only slowly over time as people begin to appreciate their thematic subtleties. At a recent writers' conference I attended, the conference organizers were almost haranguing the attendees to give up the idea of writing literary fiction in favor of genre fiction, in order to sell more books.
I have a roleplaying game sourcebook (GURPS Alternate Earths), written in 1996, which details six alternate histories, one of which has Lindbergh becoming US president. His popularity and pro-fascist sympathies are well known, so I guess people came up with the idea independently.
The Plot Against America is disliked by most fans of alternate history, because they believe the ending is silly and unrealistic. A common comment is that Roth is a good novelist but a poor science-fiction writer.
There are a lot of novels based on the South having won the American Civil War. By far the most commonly owned here on LT is How Few Remain and its umpteen sequels by Harry Turtledove. IMO its a series that is somewhat uninspired and the writing gets sloppier in each book. A book I enjoyed more, on the same subject, is Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore.
In Britain, when authors previously known as "normal" novelists write science-fiction, the last thing their publishers want is for the book to be thought of as science fiction. Their books are always marketed as literary fiction, not science-fiction. I'm sure science-fiction has less appeal to British book-buyers than to US book-buyers. I know that some highly regarded *British* science-fiction authors have had difficulty getting their books published in the UK, even though they sell well in the US (where they are published first, naturally). I would really like to read Farthing, but of course, it hasn't been published yet here in the country where it's set!
Do I take it from your post about genre elements that to you, "historical novel" is not a genre, but "fantasy" is? Are fantasy novels more popular than historical novels in the US? Personally, I'm strongly of the opinion that genre is irrelevant; there are masterpieces and crap in every genre. I'd love to see bookshops and libraries in which all the books are simply shelved in author order - none of this division into "classics", "modern fiction", "thriller" etc. I think labelling books in that way just encourages people to be unadventurous readers, and leads to people missing out on books they would enjoy.
Of course publishers want people to write bestsellers! Why on earth would they want to publish anything that will appeal to a small (but perhaps quite dedicated!) number of readers? I read somewhere that more than 50% of books sold in the English speaking world are romances, which is food for thought. The problem with "literary" novels is that although many of them are very good, they are competing for a relatively small number of readers, so the chances of any one being a success are low.
I am thinking of writing a novel and I am certainly going to write something that's highly marketable and an easy read, rather than thought provoking literary stuff. I want to get published! Once I have been published, and publishers know that I can write stuff that sells, perhaps then I'll think about writing the sort of book I most want to write.
Among U.S. writers, the whole topic of genre is rather fraught. It is often used as a code word for what were once called "potboilers" - highly entertaining (perhaps even exploitative), plot-oriented fiction of no particular literary value. From time to time, a big gap develops between so-called genre fiction and literary fiction. Crime novels, romances, fantasy and so on become more stereotyped and less interesting, while literary fiction becomes more plotless and navel-gazing and also less interesting. Then a good writer emerges from either the genre side - Stephen King, for example - who introduces interesting philosophical ideas and more highly developed characters into a genre novel, or from the literary side to introduce more plot development and emotion into a literary novel, and the edges of the two categories start to blend.
I greatly prefer fiction in the margins between the two areas, and we've been getting a lot of it lately, so I'm happy. With the exception of historical romance, historical novels generally do tend to lie in this blended area, which is perhaps why they're my favorite type of reading.
Thanks for the recommendation of Bring the Jubilee - I'll put it on my to-be-read list.
>>I'd love to see bookshops and libraries in which all the books are simply shelved in author order - none of this division into "classics", "modern fiction", "thriller" etc. I think labelling books in that way just encourages people to be unadventurous readers, and leads to people missing out on books they would enjoy.
I struggled through The Stand on the recommendation of my soon to be wife who loves Stephen King and found myself grinding my teeth the whole way. Just as I would settle into a rhythm an idiosyncratically structured sentence would bring me up short. I can put up with this in small doses or if the writer is doing something artsy-fartsy, but just plain sloppy construction drives me crazy. There was way too much of it. Did anyone count how many linked novellas there were in that book. I want to say five, but maybe more.
I know this was one of his earliest tomes, I hope he got a better editor later. I've never read anything else by him so I don't know.
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