Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty and the Question of Historical Fiction

Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual was released last May to considerable praise, unsurprising given the multiple awards received by its predecessor, Golden Hill. This new book is regularly referred to—by the author himself, as well as by reviewers—as the follow-up to his debut fiction novel, though usually with a nod to the nearly two decades of award-winning non-fiction that preceded the 2016 publication of Golden Hill.]

Without wishing to undermine or invalidate Spufford’s own truth, this account makes something of an awkward step-child of his actual fiction debut, 2010’s Red Plenty
Though an experimental work, there can be little doubt that it is, in fact, fiction; and it is precisely the ways in which it stretches the genre that makes this distinction worth arguing for. Rather than an evolutionary missing link, trapped midway between non-fiction and the real thing, for me Red Plenty is an innovative novel developing new tools for solving the perennial narrative problem of didacticism.

In its introduction, Spufford describes Red Plenty as “the story of an idea,” and the idea in question is one appearing frequently in the OLL: the socialist calculation debate. Spufford describes the idea that a centrally planned economy could and would outperform free markets as a Russian fairytale which “began to be told in the decade of famine before the Second World War, and … officially lasted until Communism fell. Hardly anyone believed it by the end.”

Spufford’s interest, however, is with the idea’s beginning rather than its end. “Once upon a time the story of red plenty had been serious: an attempt to beat capitalism on its own terms, and to make Soviet citizens the richest people in the world.… This book is about that moment. It is about the cleverest version of the idea … about the adventures of the idea of red plenty as it came hopefully along the high road.”

Framing the story of socialist calculation as a Russian fairy tale, however, is presented as an alternative to more traditional genres. The first words of Spufford’s introduction declare “This is not a novel. It has too much to explain, to be one of those. But it is not a history either, for it does its explaining in the form of a story.”

This opening dichotomy between (fictional) novel and (factual) history is in keeping with Spufford’s presentation of Red Plenty as a kind of missing link between his nonfiction and fiction writing, and of his experience of “creeping up gradually on writing novels.” But this claim of generic confusion is, I would argue, something of a red herring. Notwithstanding its experimental elements, Red Plenty rests fairly comfortably in the historical fiction category shared by Spufford’s later novels.

To be sure, there is a touch of hyperactivity to the novel’s historicism. Spufford includes a 14-page bibliography, 54 pages of footnotes (admitting, for instance, that for dramatic effect a budget crisis fictionally set in 1963 follows rules not actually in place until 1965), and a note that, in addition to real and imaginary characters, two historical figures have been fictionalized enough that Spufford has given them imaginary names, though he identifies the historical counterparts and discusses them extensively in the footnotes.

But while this elaborate apparatus is surely uncommon, it would be difficult to suggest that Red Plenty is more historical than other models of best practice in the subgenre of historical fiction, such as Hilary Mantel’s recently-completed Wolf Hall trilogy. Whatever one thinks of her reevaluation of Henry VIII’s principal secretary, Thomas Cromwell, Mantel’s attention to recent historical research and reflection on the relationship between history and fiction are clear enough. Though Spufford is right to acknowledge that Red Plenty is not history, it is a novel of historical fiction, though a somewhat idiosyncratic one.

Perhaps more instructive than these generic labels is Spufford’s emphasis, in those opening lines, on explanation. What I have been describing as the book’s introduction is, more strictly speaking, the introduction to its first part; and each of the six parts of Red Plenty feature a return of Spufford’s narratorial explanation, setting the stage for a new chapter in the story of socialist calculation.

As all readers know, nothing spoils a fiction more than the sense of being lectured to, or of feeling a story’s arc bending to its author’s will instead of flowing naturally from the actions and reactions of the characters. Typically, authors avoid didacticism by removing themselves from the reader’s view. Necessary explanation is carefully cloaked through the tools of exposition, while characters are made psychologically rich enough to ensure that they are more than just the heroes or villians of a discernable ideology.

Spufford is masterful at the second of these traditional approaches. His soviet economists, scientists, and black market facilitators—even some of his apparatchiks—are well-developed, and for the most part well-meaning, characters. The 1962 Novocherkassk Massacre, for instance, is opposed by principled members of the Politburo as a betrayal of socialist ideals.

But far from disappearing, Spufford’s introductions announce the author’s presence and point of view throughout the book. Because the idea of his story is an argument—perhaps all ideas are really arguments, but the socialist calculation debate unquestionably is—Spufford’s explanatory introductions lay out the steps of that argument. Rather than hiding his views, Spufford foregrounds them in an act of transparency, arming his readers against himself and daring them to give him the lie. It’s a brilliantly counter-intuitive method of guarding against didacticism, though one requiring an absolute confidence in the power of one’s story-telling.

It is not the Russian fairy tale, then, but the argumentative essay which provides Spufford’s novel with its most innovative structural qualities. While doing its arguing in the form of a story does disqualify Red Plenty as a work of history, it is also what makes it an innovative and absorbing novel, even for readers who don’t yet know they are interested in the socialist calculation debate.