Monday, July 26, 2010

When Fiction and History Collide

History and historical fiction appear to go hand-in-hand; without the former, certainly there couldn't be the latter. Yet in some cases, these two apparent inseparable allies make for uneasy bedfellows. The truth is, not everyone who loves history is going to love historical fiction and vice versa. Some people are best disposed to the history itself, such as original documents, erudite biographies etc. This is the arena where scholars most often dwell; it's a hallowed place yet not one necessarily conducive to reading historical fiction, which, in the final say, remains a form of entertainment.

While historical fiction can inform and inspire an interest in history, and should of course refrain from blatant disrespect, it was never intended to substitute or even augument history itself. Historical fiction is a form of creative interpretation; it utilizes historical framework to relate a fictionalized story based on the past. The most informed readers will often find anacronisms in a novel that others might never notice and find this disillusioning, even off-putting; but we should remember that to be a working historical fiction writer in today's publishing climate, by and large it's often required to steamline characterizations, simplify complex political, social, and religious situations, modernize dialogue, keep the cast small and the pacing crisp. In sum, most commercial editors at major houses want writers whose books can be enjoyed by all potential readers, regardless of their particular background.

History is not an easy subject; historical fiction, when done well, can help to relieve the most intimidating aspects of history and make it accessible to those who believe the past can't be exciting or fun, with all those pesky dates and titles to remember. A scholar approaches history from an extremely detailed perspective; while such knowledge can inform the reading of historical fiction and even make it enjoyable, it can also by contrast curtail the ability to suspend disbelief, which is an essential requirement for fiction, regardless of the genre.

We read novels because we want to be entertained; we read nonfiction because we want to learn. And while the two may cross and, in the best of cases, even blend, the distinction still exists.


N. Gemini Sasson said...

I like how you've put historical fiction in perspective, C.W. It's a genre which is perhaps framed by stricter standards than others. For many readers, well told, enthralling historical fiction will often inspire them to learn more about a particular historical figure or era. I know it often does for me.

Richard Warren Field said...

Historical fiction also allows well-informed writers to take the history a little farther into educated speculation than scholars can. Scholars have to stay with what they can prove, with the evidence available. We all know that what is handed down from the past is usually incomplete, and is often offered by the victorious. Authors of historical fiction can craft a story-line based on fact, but that goes into areas that may be beyond the reach of scholarship. This can also be entertaining beyond the usual elements of a novel such as plot and character.

C.W. Gortner said...

I agree, Gemini and Richard. The genre should inspire an interest in history and offer speculative entertainment.

Anonymous said...

Great post, CW! It was surprising to me at first to realize how squeamish a lot of the hard-core historians were with historical fiction. I recall a professor to whom I showed my first novel thumbing through it and stammered, "B-but it has DIALOGUE!"

Judith Schara said...

Your comments are so true. And it becomes even harder to bridge the " historical novels can only present what the textbooks show us as truth. When you write about historical women, as you know so well,they are usually characterless phantoms, if they are even mentioned at all. I loved Juana in The Last Queen. You made a great intuited character in her historically correct setting. Judith