Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Accurate Fiction

Fellow historical fiction fan Caroline blogged about this article from the Independent, and rather than dash off the world's longest comment, I thought I'd share a few thoughts here.

The article discusses professional historians turned historical fiction writers, and the growing trend for these primarily non-fiction writers to dip into fiction. The author admits that, for a writer used to nonfiction or academic writing, fiction is a horse of a different color, and he was surprised the depth to which he had to research his topic to make it come alive. I imagine any writer or reader of historical fiction would agree with that fact.

What I had a bit of trouble stomaching was this quote:

"Many readers of historical fiction like to be entertained and educated, and the only authors they can entirely trust to do both are historians."

Now, the author doesn't explicitly say that historians make better authors, or more accurate authors, but rather implies it by saying that these are the writers many readers trust. If that is indeed the case (and I have my doubts that it is--I tend not to check a writer's CV before picking up a book, and given the preponderance of historical errors I've found in popular books, I doubt most readers are, either), it is a poorly made assumption. First, there is no gaurantee that a historian can entertain at all, let alone better than anyone else.

But second, and perhaps more importantly, there is no reason that a person with credentials behind their name in the form of a few letters has done more or better research than a so-called amateur. I expect that a writer developping a story set in the past will spend the hours necessary in the library researching the era, answering the questions that make the time and place seem real to the reader. You have to become an expert on your area before you can relay it in an accurate and entertaining way. So I agree--you need to be an expert to be a trustworthy and entertaining writer. Does that involve a university appointment or a PhD? Absolutely not.

Another revealing quote:

Sebag-Montefiore's central character Sashenka is, he says, "totally invented but the history, the details, the background, the real historical characters that all appear as minor characters are all accurate historically".

Well...of course. Yes, that is the point, isn't it? It disturbs me that these concepts are presented as though they are unique to historians-turned-novelists, rather than the anticipated norm across all writers of historical fiction. I have a high expecation of my own accuracy in writing, and extend the same expectation to anyone aiming at getting published. The imagined contract I envision between the writer and reader is that the writer will display the past as accurately as possible, knowing that his or her interpretation may be the only exposure the reader has. I take that seriously--I cannot assume that a reader is going to take a college-level history course or read a nonfiction book to correct the errors I made in writing. I have, by the way, the same outlook on reenacting--it's a place that may be the only exposure outside of required 8th grade history that my spectators get. So it better be not only engaging, but spot-on accurate.

The trouble, as the author of the article put it, is that "We've all faced the charge that our novels are history lite, and to some extent that's true. Yet for some, historical fiction is a way into reading history proper. (Allison) Weir was 14 when she devoured Katherine by Anna Seton in two days and then "had to rush off to the history books in my school library to find out what really happened"."

I don't want a reader to run to the history books to "find out what really happened." If they're inspired to learn more, to find out other perspectives, to form their own opinions, that is wonderful. Historical fiction can be a wonderful gateway into learning more about the past. But it shouldn't be a perspective riddled with errors that we must look to professionals to fix. The answer isn't more historians writing novels--it's a higher expectation and appreciation from all of us, from reader to publishing house executive, of the importance of accuracy as well as a great story.

Stepping off soapbox now--what do you think? Do you trust a professional more than an amateur? What expectations do you have of accuracy in fiction--or is that an oxymoron?


Ax said...

Since history is often written by the winners, and the losers are often bitter and scared, I'd trust the one with a foot on both sides, who didn't benefit from portrayed one or the other more favorably. The fiction writer at least has the balance of understanding human nature on his or her side, while the historian may only have a library. I suppose it depends on the individual, but in any genre, the general reader is only looking to be entertained by a good story. So it boils down to who tells the best story.

Good post, Rowenna!

Sharmon said...

This is a bit of toughie because, gee, I LOVE history, but what I want from my historical novels is a great STORY (and preferably accurate history) vs. a great history lesson (preferably w/ a good story).
And movies are worse. One of my all time faves is Immortal Beloved (not a vamp movie, but a great title, no?)about Beethoven. I found out, after my heart was ripped out and I was in delicious melancholy misery for days after, that the movie was rife w/ inaccuracies. Did I run to the library? Heck, no. Ruin a good story after-burn w/ the facts? Puh-lease!
So I guess that in sum, I agree w/ you; give me a great story w/ some good sound research and I don't care how many letters come after your name or if you're a high school drop out who's a library hound :-).
A surprising number of famous authors were dropouts, BTW.