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?
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