Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Our groups are discussing a thread at the moment based on two Guardian articles by Gavriel Kay and Antony Beevor as to why Historical Fiction writers shouldn't base fiction on 'real' people. Amongst the reasons given are:

1. Fiction distorts historical accuracy, thus misrepresenting the real character.
2. Invades that person's privacy and distresses relatives or ancestors.
3. Historical fiction can produce 'counter knowledge' i.e. the propagation of false legends.

Some authors who write historical fiction mix well known facts with supposition, and perhaps their readers may be unable to separate them. Beevor says the defenders of 'histo-entertainment' claim that, even if it distorts the material, it gives a taste for the subject -he disagrees, saying this is dangerous as in a film or TV docu-drama, the audience may believe what they see on the screen because original locations and names are used.

Doesn't that assume a low level of intellect in most people? If I pick up a book which purports to be a novel about a famous person, I assume there is a thread of truth in the story, but I don't necessarily believe every word - after all, how can an author re-create a conversation that took place three hundred years ago in accurate detail? [Elizabeth Chadwick excepted, but that's another blog post] It makes sense that some of it will be added to give an authentic atmosphere and to fill in the gaps.

Even historical fiction fans don't dash to the shelves when they read a historical novel to check the facts, although there are plenty of historically accurate books by historians like Hibbert and Schama to set me straight.

How can reactions to what people read be controlled? I don't think they can. There are those who will always believe what suits them, so if the Da Vinci Code appeals to their imagination, no amount of contradictory evidence is going to convince them otherwise.

Is this an ethical dilemma? Does fiction need policing in case it misleads the reader? Or is it simply the literary mafia telling us not to watch or read anything which may be slightly historically inaccurate? And what about the premise that history is written by the victors - so how true is true?

Beevor says: '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.'

What do you think?

14 comments:

kathryn said...

So sorry to learn that PC has crossed the Ocean Blue. I thought I had left that movement behind in the dusty halls of academia during the 80s and 90s. Not that I am against being civil to one another, avoiding offensive language and stereo-types--but to shackle literature in this way is also a kind of stupidity. And anyway, if someone puts out a novel about an historical figure that is loaded with errors--well, that is what critics are for, not to mention that I believe that most readers (especially in this day) of historical fiction are history buffs themselves and have a love of accurate historical detail. And as far as art, well there are beautiful historical novels--The Leopard--comes to mind that read wonderfully and are true to the people and era on which they are based.

Lisa Yarde said...

I'll never forget reading a scathing article on historical figures as being tiresome subjects, and those who write about them should be characterized as lazy and unimaginative. Since I prefer to write about historical figures, I disagreed.

My classic example of historical figures done wrong is Richard III. Shakespeare's play has distorted the image of him for centuries and as a result, it's near impossible to sift fact from fiction about the most maligned king in English history. But it's nonsense to think that just because a writer has chosen a real historical person, it automatically implies any distortion of the facts. Nor does it mean that because the author has chosen a historical figure, it was essentially easier to write about them because their history and the outcome of their lives is known. A dedicated writer immerses themselves in the life and history of that person, to know them as intimately as they might a friend or loved one. Anything less than that will not help a reader understand and connect with the character or why the historical figure was so compelling that the author chose to write about them.

Part of what I love in writing about the real historical figures I've chosen for my works, is that history usually gives the writer the 'who, what, when and how', but what's often missing is the 'why' -as in the motivations of the character. That is something history rarely and can hardly ever record; the driving force that spurred someone to fight a war, divorce his wife, kill her husband. In exploring character motives, the author's imagination opens the window to all possible emotions which may have contributed to a character's decision making, breathing life into a typically long dead figure.
While I admire those who craft all new characters from their own imagination, I think it takes great skill to make a period and the real people who populated it come alive in a reader's mind. And I trust the discerning reader to know when an author's really done their homework.

Anne Whitfield - author said...

Good post, Anita.
I think people forget one important word 'fiction'.
We read fiction for entertainment. Yes, we want the truth as best as the author can uncover it, but if a reader wants pure facts without errors, read non-fiction text books - though be warned, even they sometimes have mistakes - oh my!

N. Gemini Sasson said...

Lisa put it so very eloquently - and I can't think of a thing to add about the ongoing accuracy debate in HF. I often wonder though, if writers/readers of the crime or thriller genres have similar debates about the accuracy of forensics, ballistics, incriminating evidence, the intricacies of law, etc., etc. Aren't we allowed to just read for enjoyment anymore without analyzing everything?

Jen Black said...

Since I got no comments but Anita's on my post on this topic, I'll join in this one and say that if one of my ancestors happened to be maligned in a work of fiction, I'd be upset. Wouldn't you? Does that make any difference to the discussion? After all, our parents lives are classed as history now. I do have some sympathy for historical characters. Shakespeare gave MacBeth and Richard reputations they haven't lived down in 1000 years - how could they? Anne Boleyn has been accused of incest in a recent historical novel - are there really no holds barred in this? Jen

Anita Davison said...

I agree about the ‘why’, Lisa. It’s the reason I chose the character I did to write about. All contemporary accounts describe her in middle age as being domineering, aggressive, ambitious, extravagant and acquisitive. She lived through one of the bloodiest episodes in English history which I feel must have gone some way to mould her character. What was she like as a young girl, a bride, a lover, a new mother. What did she aspire to, dream about and desire? It’s still fiction and I would never pretend it was anything else, because she didn’t write a diary so I can only guess what went on inside her head.

Lisa Yarde said...

Jen, I do agree with you if your ancestors are maligned, it can be upsetting. Beevors was upset because the author had turned Duff Gordon into a vindictive monster. But who's to say she never was that sort of person at any point in her life? Was there never any event in her life that brought out an otherwise unusual or unexpected facet of her personality?

I haven't read Pullinger's work so I can't comment on the specifics of how she strayed from the biographical source. But there is a huge difference between an unflattering protrayal and outright lies. If there's no way to know how historical figures might have reacted to varied situations, as authors we often rely on human instinct to flesh out our characters. Sometimes we can guess at a reaction by how they handled similar events but lacking that history, instincts and the typical reactions of most people guide us. That can lead to a less than flattering portrayal but doesn't take it out of the realm of possibility.

kathryn said...

Re: unflattering portraits. The reverse can also be true--a novel can redeem a historical figure who has been unjustly accused of horrific deeds. One case that comes to mind is that of my husband's ancestor, Suzanna Martin, who was one of the first witches accused and hanged for being a witch in 1669 in Salem. She was a Quaker among Protestants, and three times accused of being a witch. I have always wanted to write a novel about her--the family has given me permission--but I am still trying to figure out to do with the Juana of Castile book.

I will say this: my husband does not take jokes about Suzanna's trial lightly--and I have always believed that that trial is the reason why there are so many lawyers in his family. Generations of them.

Kathryn

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Fiction is fiction, a story. I can so empathise with people being upset when the facts are blatanty run off the tracks, but at the end of the day, it is down to a writer's personal integrity whether they skew the facts or not, and a reader's intelligence/state of mind whether they care. As a reader and a writer I do care and I have shed a lot of angst in the past over novels that have trampled upon the lives and times that I hold dear, but of late as the debate goes round in ever-decreasing circles, I am now at the stage where I say with a weary sigh, 'Do what you will.' I know my road. It's up to others to find theirs and take it.
Anita, I smiled at your comment in para 4. Tomorrow I am finding out in his own thoughts, just how much plotting Stephen of Blois did in the run up to grabbing the English throne. ;-)

Anne Gilbert said...

I came late to this discussion, as usual. I haven't read the articles that prompted this blog, but it sounds to me as if these people are bsically nothing but the same kind of literary snobs who, in another context, took great delight in trashing the Harry Potter series on various grounds, basically that it wasn't "good" or "mature" enought. I have absolutely no time for such people. I have also had the unfortunate expericence of having encountered such a person in a critique group I briefly joined, and I will never forgtet this.

Having said that, my own work is about a mixture of real, historical people, and fictional people, set against real historical backgrounds. I don't try to be "100% accurate", because I don't think you can be. I prefer it this way, but I don't object at all to people who try to recreate the lives of real people, if that is what they choose to do. Unlike many historical fiction fans, though, I"m something of a "fact checker", and sometimes novels about a real historical situation will prompt me to find something to read about it. I gain knowledge this way, not always useful, but it has trained me in "fact checking" before I start out on my own writing. In any case, I don't think it does any disservice to to historical characters to write about them,. pro or con; someone mentioned Shakespeare's "history" plays. While they certainly aren't "history"(everyone going to see Richard III should be given a disclaimer that states that any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental, and the same is probably true of the other "history" plays). But then, Shakespeare wasn't writing history, he was entertaining the public, and the, um, standards of historiography weren't awfully high back then.

To Anita and all, I would say, just ignore the literary snobs. See them for what they are, and keep writing as you wish to write, and don't worry about anything else.
Anne G

Nadine Laman said...

I cannot imagine for one minute that anyone who reads historical fiction misses that it is fiction. Even the best researched biography has some fiction in it, unintended and well intentioned. Seems to me the main point here was to get some press time by winding everyone up, which seems to be the case. Who cares what anyone thinks? Write what you want. If you do a good job of it, the readers will reward you. I simply don't write historical anything because I'm too impatient to do the research. So, from this contemporary fiction writer's keyboard, I salute each of you and say carry on. Ignore the bloke.

Nadine Laman said...

Kathryn,
Listen to the intro to the second song on this YouTube, the introduction is about a famous 'witchfinder'. The BBC cut out the middle of the song, but it says that he 'cut' them with a dull knife to prove they did not bleed - proof they were witches.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BiwOCD-0GA&feature=channel_page

Carolyn Sheppard writes English Folk Songs about historical figures, maybe those should be banned too?

Anne Gilbert said...

Anita and all:

U;ve just gotten through blogging about this. If you're interested, go to The Writer's Daily Grind at http://www.writersdailygrind.blogspot.com, and read all about it. I have my opinions about this!
Anne G

Jennie Pittam said...

Very interesting. When I first started writing my novel I only knew a three-line biography of the real person it's based on so I just invented a story around it. I never intended to claim it as true. Over the next five years I've done a lot of research into the man and visited many of the places he would have lived and visited, as I discovered them. I've now had three quite spooky coincidences, in which I've discovered that things I 'made up' were true, or at least related to the truth in odd ways.

Even my cynical old dad said to me the other day 'he's calling to you down the ages, Jennie'. However I find Rosemary's comment more plausible. Perhaps I hit on something momentarily, which Elizabeth Chadwick has studied and honed as a skill.

There is much that we don't understand about the universe and for me that's part of the thrill of writing historical fiction - you never know what you're going to turn up next.

Best wishes,
Jennie Pittam

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