Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Don't Defame The Dead

Given the continuing surge in historical fiction’s popularity, backlash was inevitable. First, it was an article in the UK Guardian, in which certain historians bemoaned the success of historical novelists, which in turn has lowered historical nonfiction’s profile and their own advances, and even led some to defect to a genre they clearly feel is beneath them. Now, in a recent article in the same Guardian, historian Anthony Beevor makes his case against what he dubs “histo-tainment”, stating: “…when the historical novel is made into a TV play or film the process of faction-creep accelerates. From selling fiction as truth in books and movies to the big lies of counter-knowledge is not such a very big step after all. The key point, surely, is that we play with facts at our peril.”

Earlier in the article, Mr Beevor argues that the trend of fictionalizing actual events in film and, to a lesser degree, books corrupts history and misleads us as a culture. We are losing a sense of our historical past and giving conspiracy theorists the upper hand, as these thrive in a fact-deprived environment. He mentions hearing a young man whisper in the row behind him at the end of The Da Vinci Code movie, “It makes you think, doesn’t it?” and not knowing whether to laugh or be appalled. Well, neither do I – but mostly because Mr. Beevor evidently paid to see the film.

In any event, the article ruffled my fur. First of all, as a historical fiction novelist I strive to remain as true to facts as possible and I know most of my respected colleagues do the same. Some of us even have a saying: "Don’t defame the dead." Yet for years, the lofty gatekeepers of academia have looked down on historical fiction novelists as second-rate hacks who can never fully achieve the illusory veracity of history. Much of their disdain reads like sour grapes; nevertheless, everyone has a right to their opinion. That said, most historical fiction writers do not set out to castrate history; while the words ‘a novel’ are emblazoned on our covers, we take our research very seriously – sometimes, to our editors’ despair, too seriously.

No one can argue that Story is the primary component of commercial fiction, the arena where historical fiction competes for readers; within this vast arena, maintaining factual veracity at all times is not so simple. For starters, history itself is contradictory. Seek out three sources on the Tudors and I guarantee you’ll find different opinions on Henry VIII. The historical novelist’s task is therefore complex: we must research everything there is to find out; distill this unwieldy mass of information into what is relevant to our particular book; and, in the case of contradictory facts, make decisions about what probably happened based on what we know about the era, the event, the character in question—all the while never forgetting the dictates of Story. Factual accuracy is essential. But within a finite amount of words, we know going in that not everything that happened to our Historical Protagonist will make it into the book. And sometimes, painful as it can be, we must modify or alter situations and characters to create a seamless narrative, because unlike the historian or biographer for the historical novelist the biggest challenge is what not to include.

The truth is, our readers and our editors require the same ingredients from us that they require from any novelist: complex, interesting characters; a well-constructed plot, and, above all else, irresistible story. At best, historical fiction draws them into the past and gives them a sense of what life might have been like. If their imagination ignites, they’ll hopefully seek out more fiction and nonfiction on the subject. At worst, historical fiction is just entertainment, on par with much commercial fiction published today. Some writers do it better than others; but it should never be mistaken for History. It is fiction, based on actual events, people and eras, so there is no excuse for sloppy research. A historical novelist worth his or her salt will not show Lucrezia Borgia plugging in the can opener. Still, when it comes to story . . . well, that can depend on who’s telling it.

I believe historical fiction writers bear the responsibility to adhere to known facts and not go hog-wild re-inventing the past to suit their whims; but I also believe that as readers, we bear equal responsibility to not believe everything we read.


Lezlie said...

We can't necessarily believe everything we read in "nonfiction" either, as there is quite a bit of speculation in those also from what I can tell.

I'd love to read more nonfiction history, but, alas, it is often painfully dull going. Keep up the great work, all you historical novelists!


Marie Burton said...

When it is a historian/researcher with a creative pen, non-fiction can be as intriguing as any story.

Thanks for the post Christopher. There is a resistance to the evolution of the times it seems.

Nan Hawthorne said...

When struggling for historical accuracy, it is also important to consider the agenda/motivations of the contemporary reporters of historical fact. Yes, it's true that the victor writes the "facts" of a battle or war. I most certainly will not take my estimation of the status of women from a Church that could not even decide if women had souls. Remember also that historians were at least as classist as people today.

I hope that academic writers are as aware of the unreliability of witnesses as juries and historical novelists are!

Nan Hawthorne

Val Perry said...

"Devil in the White City" comes to mind as an example of well-researched nonfiction that nonetheless crosses the line into speculation, e.g. fiction. It's not that I don't *trust* Larson, exactly, but nonfiction writers seem to be able to get away with much more (and attain a much higher level of prestige) than novelists, simply by virtue of slapping that "TRUE" label on there.

The MFA folks I hang around with seem to feel that things like plot come in far behind character, and even what they like to call "precision of language." *What* happens does not drive the story/book nearly as much as *how* it happened, and how the characters looked, felt, acted, thought, etc. as it did. Thus they enjoy reading and writing literature about a guy hovering just on the cusp of middle age as he stares out the rain-streaked window of a bagel shop and reflects on his parent's failed marriage and wonders what direction he should take now. The end. That's fine and good, just not my cup of tea. I'll take action and true stories (however embroidered) any day.

And not the frocks-and-herbs kind. ;) Give me blood, give me swash!

C.W. Gortner said...

Great comments! Thanks so much. It's interesting how much debate this issue can rouse among writers, so it's wonderful to read your responses.

Jessica James said...

Great post! I have run into many people who understand the value of well-researched fiction in teaching history - or at least as a means to inspire readers to want to learn more.

Unfortunately, I also read a quote from an author recently that said, "I'm a writer, not an historian," when asked about the numerous inaccuracies in his novel.

I guess your last sentence sums it up: authors bear the responsibility to adhere to known facts, while readers bear equal responsibility...

W. C. Whitcomb said...

I've been thinking a lot about this post since I first read it and I like the conclusion and the comments. I tend to treat non-fiction history (biographies excepted) as reference and use the index to find what I am looking for. As lezlie mentioned it's often painfully dull going. But when you find a good writer who is passionate about their subject he/she can make you forget it's non-fiction. I spent a rewarding summer reading Zoe Oldenberg's History of the Crusades. But, in the end, I think comparing fiction to non-fiction is too much like comparing apples to oranges.

Linda McCabe said...


I love your post and agree with most of it. There is one point you made that I have a quibble with though. You wrote:

unlike the historian or biographer for the historical novelist the biggest challenge is what not to include.

Historians struggle with the same challenges that novelists have about what beloved anecdotes slow down their narrative and need to be excised. "Killing your darlings" is something one of my professors drilled into our heads in a graduate seminar. The major difference is that historians have the ability to stuff something in a footnote or endnote that they realllllly love and doesn't work in the overall narrative of their book or monograph.

Likewise, historical novelists can put those "out takes" in their author's notes in the front or back matter if they so choose *or* put it on their website as extras similar to deleted scenes on DVDs.

My novel isn't quite ready for publication, but I have a file on my hard drive with those things that I loved and had to cut due to necessity of narrative flow.

Sharon Kay Penman said...

Hi, Christopher,
This was a very good, thought-provoking post. I think you're right and a certain suspicion and/or hostility exists toward historical novelists in some academic circles. It is a shame, for I think we all share the same passion for the past. And while it is true that some novelists play fast and loose with facts (I am resisting the evil impulse to name names!) I think there are many writers of historical fiction who do extensive research and take our responsibilities quite seriously. I've just started your novel about Juana and it is obvious from the first page that you immersed yourself in her world and are thoroughly familiar with her life and the culture and beliefs of her age.
PS I loved the line about paying to see The Da Vinci Code.

John Vanderslice said...

I'm right now enjoying my first foray into historical novel writing after writing (mostly) realistic fiction with contemporary settings. Boy if you aren't right in your remark that the struggle for the historical novelist is what to leave out. I never realized what a challenge that would be. If you take your researching seriously, you learn a lot about your subject and then on top of that there is the fiction writer's duty to develop scenes, not just pass on summaries. What I've ended up with is: a lot of scenes! It's killing me, but I'm realizing I'm simply going to have to cut, cut, cut. But what picture of my protagonist (Vincent Van Gogh) will I be left with? I can't tell yet!