I stumbled into an interesting debate on the Historical Novel Society Facebook group the other day. It began with the question “what is the purpose of historical fiction?” Someone commented that historical fiction is a good way to learn history. I disagree. As someone who trained to be an historian, I know that historical novels are a terrible way to learn history. As a novelist, I feel that defending the purpose of a novel as a way to learn any factual subject is to devalue fiction.
This was such a superb exposition of this issue - of which I'm aware because I write historical novels - that I'm saving it. However, I'd be grateful for your permission to quote from it or use excerpts when I'm asked to speak to writing groups, schools, etc. (This doesn't happen very often, but your points are so important, and so cogently stated, that I really can't do better myself and would appreciate being allowed to poach yours. Thank you.
Great article. I also write historical fiction. I had a reader complain that my characters, set in 1650s Massachusetts Colony, were unlikeable because of their beliefs and actions were reprehensible. What can I say? Welcome to the past!
Well reasoned and interesting. I am a Canadian though and I was confused by this statement: "Once it was established that free trade led to greater prosperity, imperial powers ceased to defend and maintain their empires, letting some possessions go free and actually kicking some possessions out, as Britain did with certain Canadian provinces that were reluctant to leave. " When did this happen? What provinces were "kicked out" and when?
Agreed. I went as far as to put a disclaimer in the front of my “historical” novel that it was a work of fiction, not history.
Well said! One of the joys of historical fiction for me is its flexibility as a medium. It can serve almost any creative end the author has in mind, as long as we remember it's _fiction_. I'm partial to the stories that don't deliberately distort the views and values of the period in an attempt to please modern sensibilities. I strive for that in my own novel. But I recognize that, even with the best research and intense sympathy, no writer can ever fully know the hearts, minds, or motives of people from another era (the past is a foreign country, etc.) We barely understand our own. In the end, we're all educated guessers.
Only a few, but pointed words - Spot on, brother.
I like this essay. I found myself agreeing with a lot of what you said and there are some pithy statements that I thought were useful. "We have an inbuilt fear of exclusion, since for most of human existence, exile was a death sentence" is one of them. One odd effect of this is you've managed to make me distrust historical novels and academic history in pretty much equal measure. In the final analysis, it seems we can never do much more than intuit the past in a vague sort of way, and it's hard to say, assuming I wanted to know about the Aztecs, if it would be better to read the novel about the Aztec dishwasher or the scholarly study of Aztec temple architecture. One of my favorite subjects for daydreaming is about time travel to observe events and meet people from the past. (Currently top of my list of people: Anton Chekhov.) Based on your essay, I might suggest the closest thing to an accurate (if subjective view) of history is to read what was considered the contemporary fiction of an era (assuming it exists). Of course, even that is flawed. Chekhov didn't write about stuff he thought was obvious to everybody, though for us much of the unstated would be a revelation. Anyway, enjoyed this. And it's true. The civil war reenactors are all wearing modern underpants!