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Some Questions About Fiction

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I suppose I could really start this post by complaining about the suggestion that the nation should conscript its eighteen year olds to do things like build roads or teach the alphabet to inner city school children, and part of me really wants to do that.

One of the people you’d have to fight if you tried to get something like that passed is me, because I do not think the state owns me, or my children, and therefore I don’t think it has the right to my labor against my will.  I wouldn’t allow my children to attend a public school that mandated “volunteer” work, at least not any longer than it took to file the lawsuit to get the practice stopped.

This goes back to my absolute bottom line–no person may be put to the use and benefit of another person against that first person’s will.


For any reason whatsoever.

And I know I stated it badly, but I really, really, really mean it.  

And my position here has nothing to do with anybody’s ability to make money or build a lucrative career.

But I really have been meaning to get around to this other thing, and it’s been on my mind for several days now.

Why do people write, and read, historical fiction?

I’m using “write and read” very loosely here.  I want to include television shows and movies as well as novels and short stories. 

But the question is perfectly legitimate, and it’s been brought to my attention over and over again over the past few weeks by a sort of weird confluence of circumstances.

First is the fact that my children have always had some assigned reading from me during the summers.  In the beginning, I let the project go with the readings required by their schools, but as those became lamer and lamer over the years, I started assigning my own.

My older son is now twenty-two and no longer getting my list, but my younger son read the Odyssey last summer, and I decided to have him read the Iliad this time.  So I rummaged around in my office and found my copy of the Illiad, along with a few things to go with it:  a complete works of Aristotle; a complete works of Plato; a history of Greece and Rome; some Cicero.  I don’t expect him to read all that.  He’ll probably mostly stick to the Illiad.  Still, I like having the stuff around in case there are issues an we need some kind of context.

Around the time I dug the books out, three other things happened.  First, my editor sent me some mysteries by Lindsey Davis, whom I had never read before.  They’re private eye novels set in the Rome of Vespasian, just after the  Jewish revolt that led to the destruction of the temple.   Then my older son came home from college, and he had with him a DVD of the movie 300, which is based on a Frank Miller graphic novel about the battle at Thermopylae.  Then the movie Troy started showing up on television, along with Oliver Stone’s Alexander.  I’m not going to talk about Alexander, because I haven’t gotten around to seeing it, and I’m not sure I will.

The others, though, bring up the question that I’ve never had an answer to.  I know why  I do not write historical fiction, and it’s because the process seems to me to be both self-conscious and inauthentic.  No matter how hard we try, we can never really capture the reality of a time significantly before our own.  Even some times that are not that far in the past can be difficult for us to understand. 

In the early days of this blog, I brought up the point that modern men and women are completely unable to understand how the people who came before us viewed death and dying, because we just don’t have the same relationship to it that they had.  The world is a significantly different place, and men and women are significantly different as human beings, when we can plan for our futures in the secure assumption that it’s almost inevitable that we’ll live another ten years.  As late as the middle of the nineteenth century, even healthy young people could not make assumptions such as that.

I suppose that some of the people who write historical fiction are indeed attempting to recreate and therefore understand the way people thought and lived in an earlier era, but most of the people who write historical fiction don’t even seem to be trying.  They write modern people in fancy dress.

Other people who write historical fiction are really giving sugar-coated history lessons.  This explains a lot of James Michener, for instance, and some mystery series over the years.  You get your story, and packed in around it are the facts and figures and events the writer wants you to learn about.  I expect some people read historical novels because they’re interested in history but cannot make themselves read an actual history book. 

If we go far enough back, the writing of hstorical fiction was only tangentially fictional.  When Homer write the Iliad, he probably didn’t think of it as fiction in the way we would.  Instead, he was writing the closest thing to history that the  Greeks possessed at the time.  Later, when Herodatus and  Thucydides because to write deliberate history, with a commitment to facts and to telling the truth, they still found nothing odd in inventing dialogue for people they could not have overheard and speeches they had heard about but did not have the texts to refer to.

Still other people, though, seem to want from historical fiction mostly a staging ground for personal fantasy.  They want to imagine themselves living in a period they seem to have romanticized.   The romanticizing is important, because in this kind of historical novel the past tends to be scrubbed clean of what is really disturbing, and insisting on accuracy can seriously compromise a book (or movie’s) popularity.

And, of course, there are  people who write historical fiction in the same way that some science fiction writers write abou other worlds or the world of the future:  because they can use those other time periods to talk about this one.

Still, the phenomenon puzzles me, and I’m not sure what to make of it.  I’m especially puzzled by the historical-fiction-as-fantasy-fodder thing, of the need some people seem to have not just to imagine themselves in costume, but in costume in a world that has been so thoroughly sanitized that it no longer bears any relation to what actually living in that era would have been like.

Then I run into something like 300, and it stops me dead in my tracks.

Written by janeh

May 27th, 2009 at 6:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Some Questions About Fiction'

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  1. 300 is one of the worse picturs I’ve ever seen. The Lindsey Davis novels have never really turned me on. But try the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters. Set in 12th century Britain.

    The best historical novels that I know of came out in the 50s and 60s. Set in Ancient Greece and written ny Mary Renault. I’m told they are considered to be accurate reconstructions. They got me interested in ancient civilization and Philosophy.


    27 May 09 at 6:37 am

  2. I’ve never seen 300. I’ve been an avid reader of historical novels since childhood, and I suppose I’ve covered at least a bit of most of the sub-genres. I love both Lindsey Davis and the Cadfael books (although I didn’t like Peter’s other books so much). I liked Mary Renault well enough, although they didn’t inspire me to read more on ancient civilizations.

    Now, I’ve no illusions that Falco is a realistic portrayal of a Roman of the period – his voice sounds typically modern to me – but I love the exotic nature of the settings (which I think are more realistic) and the plots. I’ve read other mystery novels set in the Roman era, but I don’t like them as much. One series struck me as a bit too didactic. I liked ‘Medicus’, first in a relatively new series.

    I think the main reason I like historical novels so much is the exotic settings. I like novels set in foreign countries, too, sometimes, but historical settings are both more exotic, being distant in both place and time. I started with books set in medieval Europe, especially the UK. This wasn’t really to the exclusion of history; I read history sometimes too, although I read much more fiction. A novel, especially a children’s historical novel, can make history come to life in the way a history book can’t – even if the novel is not really accurate. They don’t have a lot of children in history texts; well, except princes and princesses, who are very difficult to identify with. I read a lot of Norah Lofts, Georgette Heyer, quite a stream of what used to be called ‘Gothic’ novels (not the real thing, the ones with a distressed woman in flowing robes in front of an ominous castle on the front cover.) I have also read some of the books which are really a vehicle for fantasy about some Highland lord or Viking warrior, with a greater or lesser amount of explicit descriptions of the heroine’s relationship with the hero. The historic setting of these is incidental – the stories are direct descendants of those very un-explicit Harlequin romances of many years ago in which the conquering hero was a Greek shipping magnate or the Chief Surgeon in the local hospital (although foreign was better, or at least more popular). Joan Aiken in one of her early sort of Gothic novels did a nice take on the Greek shipping magnate idea. Anyway, that was a contemporary setting, or at least, it was contemporary 30 or 40 years ago.

    I think, barring the sex fantasy stuff, historical fiction is popular because it is set in a different time and place; it’s exotic.

    I’m not much interested in novels about ordinary people leading ordinary lives in contemporary small Canadian cities. I have a pretty good idea how that sort of life works because I live it. So I read mystery and historicals and some science fiction and fantasy.

    Of course, I don’t know how typical I am of mystery readers.


    27 May 09 at 7:13 am

  3. I read a lot of historical mysteries, and I think it’s mostly because I enjoy seeing a life so different from my own. Like cperkins (Cheryl?), I have no interest in books set in the suburbs of a major city during my lifetime (unless they have really appealing characters or are really funny), because I already know what that’s like. With historical mysteries (or historical fiction in general) I learn something–about that period, about how people might respond to situations I’ve never encountered, and in the best of them, I get a different angle on something in the modern world. I read fantasy & science fiction for the same reason.

    I suppose it’s true that a modern person will never completely be able to get into the head of someone who lived in another era. But that doesn’t seem to me to be a reason not to try. As close an approximation as the author can manage is better than nothing, if it helps me to understand what life was like in that period.

    As to who writes them, judging from the author bios in the books I read, it seems to be one of the main job opportunities for history majors these days!

    I don’t read the romantic, sanitized type, but costume dramas like that seem to me to be almost a romantic daydream, where the reader can imagine s/he’s there, without any of the attendant inconveniences, like a lack of antibiotics & indoor plumbing. And the swashbuckling always ends happily. It doesn’t happen just in fiction. Think of the Disneyfication of so many tourist spots. I grew up in New Orleans, and went back to visit a few years ago (before Katrina). The French Quarter had been so cleaned up it looked to me as if it had been redone by somebody who’d spell shop “shoppe”, and then laminated. (It was a terrible contrast with the rest of the city.)

    There’s nothing wrong with daydreams–we all do it occasionally. As long as you *realize* you’re daydreaming…

    Lee B

    27 May 09 at 10:12 am

  4. I’m always a little suspicious of the historical novel as a source of information. It’s a painless way if it’s well-written, it’s true, but (a) not all historical novelists are sufficiently able historians, and (b) the historical novelist has to serve two masters: he has to both be accurate and to tell a good story. A surprising number combine characters or change the sequence of events for dramatic effect.
    That said, Richard Powell’s WHOM THE GODS WOULD DESTROY stuck very close to contemporary archeology of the Trojan War, Rosemary Sutcliffe was meticulous, and I’ve never caught Georgette Heyer putting a foot wrong anywhere in the 18th or 19th Centuries. Rafael Sabatini is similarly competent. And I can find plenty of contemporary writers rearranging the sequence of events for dramatic effect. Sadly, not all of them are novelists. Some hold public office.

    It’s perfectly true that for the most part the historical novelist never lived in the period of which she writes, and I have seen historical novelists go very far wrong, so nearly as I can tell, on matters of custom and sensibility–but then few of our best crimewriters have been private detectives or policemen, and even fewer, I suspect, members of criminal undergrounds. Many of our adventury story writers haven’t even been soldiers, let alone soldiers of fortune. I think in all these cases, the most we can ask of a writer is that he give it his best shot, and it doesn’t seem to me that the historical novel is inherently more suspect than the crime or adventure novel.
    And, of course, there is always the question in depecting any strange local: does one describe it as it would seem to a time traveler from our age, or as it would have appeared to the natives? Either way is, I think, legitimate, given the author is consistent. (It actually seems to be more of a problem in science fiction than in historical novels, by the way. Heinlein used to be the master of the stray word or clause which told the reader the world he was reading about was not his own.)
    Why write it or read it, though? Would we be better off without THE SCARLET LETTER, WAR AND PEACE and A TALE OF TWO CITIES? I would say that to immortalize an event would be a suficient reason. To comment on our present society is certainly legitimate, and to comment on the human condition likewise. Not all these purposes are well served by novels about the lives of discontented contemporary academics, or by re-reading Silas Weakly’s THE SWEAT AND THE FURROW. And despite years of school assignments, I still accept writing to entertain as a legitimate purpose. In fact, I’ll pay people to entertain me, and I don’t care who knows it.

    The fiction writer–ANY fiction writer, if he’s any good–places his story in the setting that best serves the story. Sometimes that’s here and now. Sometimes that’s recent history. No one speaks of Jane Austen as a historical novelist, but PERSUASION takes place in a very specific time frame already a year or so past when she started writing. Sometimes the best place is the historical past. There’s a reason gothics often take place in the early modern period in the north and west of the British isles, and why so many historical romances are regencies. Certain periods and places lend themselves to certain types of stories.
    And some of those places don’t exist yet. Some never shall. But that hasn’t kept me from walking Old Town Jekkara with a former member of the Martian Archeological Society, sallying from Helm’s Deep, defending Shamla Pass and taking much too small a starship from Pell Station to the Hinder Stars. Historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy exist for the same reason as any other fiction–to take us where we wish to go, and show us what the author wishes us to see.


    27 May 09 at 4:48 pm

  5. When I watched 300 I was not at all influenced to think there was the tiniest bit of historical accuracy there. It was a fantasy, with certain comic aspects. We went around yelling “SPARTANS!!!” at each other for several days and breaking up laughing, mostly at how much spit got sprayed.

    Most readers of historical fiction, most especially historical romances, don’t know enough about the period to spot inaccuracies, so they’re not jarred out of the story there-by. Just like many readers of hard SF aren’t familiar enough with physics to spend their time saying “but you can’t DO that!”, or they just agree that for the purposes of the story, facts are in abeyance.

    Reading a story set in an unfamiliar milieu, whether Regency England or Pell Station, frees the mind for thought experiments in ways that reading about known environments cannot. Like Cheryl & Lee said above, they don’t want to read about someone living a life similar to theirs. I’m pretty sure there are plenty of books about such people on the General Fiction shelves. I avoid them too, unless the people in them are dead, mysteriously.

    As JD said, I highly recommend the Brother Cadfael mysteries. In those, I remember getting a really medieval viewpoint of faith as a reality of life, of death being ever present, no expectation of equal treatment under the law, and of life lived very simply, while the people themselves were not simple, nor did they have overly simplified motives, either. The people, in other words, were not portrayed as modern.

    The best SF writers can give you a viewpoint of what it might be like to not be human…or at least to deal from a human viewpoint with the non-human. CJ Cherryh has built her whole body of work on this exploration. The best mystery writers can give you a sense of what it might be like to be *differently* human..someone who makes choices out of a nearly unimaginable mental landscape. In both cases, it helps one explore and define what’s inside, by exploring what is *other.*

    And in all cases, it helps if they can write a cracking good story at the same time.


    27 May 09 at 10:27 pm

  6. The Brother Cadfael books were used for a TV series and that is available as a set of DVDs. Very good. So far as I can tell, they did a good job with costumes and buildings. Well worth buying and watching.



    28 May 09 at 5:19 am

  7. I’ve updated my display name, since some people know me from elsewhere as Cheryl and others don’t and it seemed to be a bit confusing using cperkins.

    I’d love the local library to get their hands on the Cadfael DVDs. I’m sure they’re great.

    I wanted to add a ‘me too’ to the suggestions of CJ Cherryh – she (along with Lois McMaster Bujold) is one of the few science fiction or fantasy authors I still try to read everything by. Oh, I still pick up the occasional science fiction or fantasy book by other authors if it happens to catch my eye, and some of them I quite enjoy, but if Cherryh or Bujold has something new out, I read it. Exotic locations, great characters (although Cherryh’s seem to suffer a lot more than Bujold’s!) and gripping stories.


    28 May 09 at 6:33 am

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