This week’s topic is about the Debs’ fears when it comes to someone reading our novel and writing about uncomfortable topics–anything from sex to family conflicts, and/or events pulled from real life. How do the Debs handle it?
When I first began researching my novel, FEAST OF SORROW, one of the interesting things that I learned about the world of ancient Rome is that there are a lot of die-hard fans of that era in history. I mean, really die-hard, as in they want to bring back the religion, the government, the general way of life. I worried about these people a lot–on if they would find all the things I got wrong in the book.
I also started to become more aware of the bias that a lot of academic historians have against fiction writers.
Two specific incidents stand out for me when it came to run-ins with academics who clearly thought that what I was doing was inferior, or perhaps bastardizing history. The first situation was in person, with a well-known food historian, who was very polite with me and my questions, but it was clear that he thought that I was barely worth the time to talk to. He had agreed to talk with me because we have a mutual connection. I rushed the interview because I felt so uncomfortable.
The second situation was on Twitter. I followed a classicist who sent me a note to the effect of “Thanks for following me but I don’t read historical fiction.” I thought that was a strange response…I had followed the person because I thought their content was interesting. I didn’t respond but another one of my followers did and what resulted was a conversation, a thankfully civil one, about history vs. historical fiction. The woman had very strong views about people who wrote historical fiction because it wasn’t “real history” and that people read histfic and believe that is the true history (which I heartily disagree with) and therefore it has no place in our world. I was shocked by her cold, condescending response. Historians are telling a “story” actually, based on facts they are piecing together and they often extrapolate possibilities based on what those pieces tell them.
I never imagined that I might have to stand up and justify the need for historical fiction, but my encounters with academics like them have proven me, sadly, wrong.
This type of condescension is common, I have found, and author Jane Smiley herself faced this a couple of years ago on a radio show with conservative historian Niall Ferguson. What she was unable to say on the show, she eloquently discussed in the article:
I do not consider literary forms to exist in a hierarchy; I think of them as more of a flower bouquet, with different colours, scents and forms, each satisfying and unsatisfying in its way, but if there is one thing that I do know about history, it is that it must be based on the author’s theory of what happened. He or she may change the theory as the research is completed, but without a theory, and if the research doesn’t fit into the theory, then the text has no logic, and therefore makes no sense. If it makes no sense, then readers will not read it. A history book is, therefore, a construct. Because of archaeology, because of archives, because of historians, we live in an age where historical novels as a form are having a bit of a boom. Reading Pulitzer prize-winning historical novelist Geraldine Brooks’s list of her favourite historical novels in a magazine this week, I can only marvel at the variety of subject matter: Alexander the Great, the Lewis and Clark expedition, Ovid, the American civil war. Of Wolf Hall, she writes: “Mantel seems to know Thomas Cromwell on the cellular level.” I am sure that my historian-of-the-day would say that such a thing is impossible in a mere novel, but I would say that such a thing is possible only in a novel, because the job of a novelist is to do her (or his) best to see the world through her character’s point of view – to imagine simultaneously what she and her subject are thinking and feeling as human beings, no matter how far apart they are, and also what is different about them – what has changed over the years and therefore indicates the passage of time and the change in the way people perceive things. This can be a challenge for a novelist, but it is also a pleasure, and the reason, after all, to write a historical novel.
Ludwig Von Mises, a leader of economic thought, waxed historical in his book Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution, saying,
“What history and fiction have in common is the fact that both are based on knowledge concerning the human mind. They operate with thymological experience. Their method of approach is the specific understanding of human valuations, of the way people react to the challenge of their natural and social environment. But then their ways part. What the historian has to tell is completely expressed in his report. He communicates to the reader all he has established. His message is exoteric. There is nothing that would go beyond the content of his book as intelligible to competent readers.
Fiction is free to depict events that never occurred. The writer creates, as people say, an imaginary story. He is free to deviate from reality. The tests of truth that apply to the work of the historian do not apply to his work.
Yet his freedom is limited. He is not free to defy the teachings of thymological experience. It is not a requirement of novels and plays that the things related should really have happened. It is not even necessary that they could happen at all; they may introduce heathen idols, fairies, animals acting in human manner, ghosts, and other phantoms. But all the characters of a novel or a play must act in a thymologically intelligible way. The concepts of truth and falsehood as applied to epic and dramatic works refer to thymological plausibility. The author is free to create fictitious persons and plots but he must not try to invent a thymology — psychology — different from that derived from the observation of human conduct.
The theme of novels and plays is individual man as he lives, feels, and acts, and not anonymous collective wholes. The milieu is the background of the portraits the author paints; it is the state of external affairs to which the characters respond by moves and acts. There is no such thing as a novel or play whose hero is an abstract concept such as a race, a nation, a caste, or a political party. Man alone is the perennial subject of literature: individual, real man as he lives and acts.
The work of the historian is necessarily colored by the historian’s specific understanding of the problems involved, but it is still possible to discuss the various issues implied without referring to the historical fact that they originated from a definite author. No such objectivity is permitted in dealing with works of fiction. A novel or a play always has one hero more than the plot indicates. It is also a confession of the author and tells no less about him than about the persons in the story. It reveals his innermost soul.
THIS is what I wished I could have conveyed to that woman on Twitter. I feel for her, never cracking open a novel for fear of tainting history. It is that very “taint” that matters…the ability to step into history and imagine it and see it as another human might have experienced it. And unless you are writing historical memoir, a book of history can’t truly dive deep enough to touch that human experience.
What historical fiction does is take those true facts and puts a human element in the mix. Yes, there is imagination, yes there may be fact manipulation, but it’s extraordinarily arrogant to assume that readers aren’t smart enough to question the fact vs. fiction. I’m 100% certain that every person that read FEAST OF SORROW also learned something that they might never have learned in any other way–unless they too learned exactly what I learned from the history books. I find that when readers read my Authors Note in the back of FEAST OF SORROW (don’t read it till you are done…there are spoilers!!) that tells them what is true and what isn’t, that the readers are fascinated and impressed that I could blend it all so well. And then, some readers have told me that they immediately re-read it to get the new lens on the story.
In April, I wrote an article for LitHub about how historical fiction helps readers of today make sense and to learn from the past. I also asked nine other historical fiction authors including bestselling authors Margaret George, Jenna Blum andStephanie Dray, as well as my fellow Debutante Jenni Walsh and past Debutante Heather Webb, why they thought that historical fiction makes a difference more so now than ever before. Their answers bolster my belief that historical fiction books ARE as important as non-fiction history books.
As for the die-hard Roman history lovers, I have been really fortunate in that I’ve not had readers tell me, “you got that wrong,” by which I’ve probably completely jinxed myself by saying. If mistakes do surface as a result of smart, discerning readers, I figure I’ll take a page from an author I greatly admire, Kate Quinn, who has a page about her mistakes. In my mind, it’s impossible to know everything, so it’s fantastic to be able to learn from readers.
So far I’ve been lucky. I’ve not been vilified like I thought I might be, for getting something wrong. I’ve not been told (at least not outright) that I shouldn’t write what I do. There will always be naysayers. There will always be intellectual snobbery. Ralph Waldo Emerson told us that “Whatever you do you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there will always be someone to tell you that you are wrong.”
Here’s to courage!