I had the pleasure of attending this year’s National Book Festival in Washington, DC, and as a historical novelist, of course I gravitated to the sessions on historical fiction. Hundreds of audience members flocked to hear perspectives from Philippa Gregory and Margaret George in one session and Roxana Robinson and Louis Bayard in another. Most of the readers attending appeared grateful and excited to be there. Their questions were respectful and gently curious: Can you tell us more about your writing process? What’s your perspective on LGBTQ characters in historical fiction? Have you heard from the scholars of the historical figure you wrote about? Do you do mostly primary or secondary research?
And then there was the other guy.
In his question (which he prefaced not as a question, but a “peeve”), he basically challenged the entire idea of historical fiction, saying that “having to wonder what’s real and what’s not” when reading historical fiction “interferes with [his] enjoyment as a reader.” Even when addressing the author who does not deviate from the historical record in any way, only adding dialogue and internal state of mind when fictionalizing the real people and events of her story, he still said, “Why not change the names? You basically made the whole thing up anyway!”
Had I been on stage, I would have responded with a possibly ungenerous answer: well, if you don’t like historical fiction, don’t read it. That’s what nonfiction is for.
But the authors on stage took his question seriously, and their answers were well thought-out. Louis Bayard pointed out that the idea of a single objective “truth” is kind of bunk anyway, and that Shakespeare paid little, if any, attention to the historical record when writing “Richard III.”
It remains an ongoing question in historical fiction — how much of historical fiction should be history and how much should be fiction? — and every author answers it in a different way. Personally, I regard the gaps in the historical record as an invitation, and I love that historical fiction gives us a deeper window into people’s humanity than most nonfiction can provide. As long as the author makes it clear, usually in an author’s note, where they’ve chosen to substantially diverge from what’s documented, I think it’s pretty much all fair game.
Because those documents themselves are often flawed. Scholarship is important and nonfiction biographies of important figures certainly have their place, but one of the most exciting trends in recent historical fiction offers the stories of women — Alva Vanderbilt, Natalia Pushkina, Alma Mahler — whose appearances in the historical record were shaped by misogynist, agenda-driven views of the time. History, after all, is written by someone. True objectivity is pretty hard to come by.
So in that way, telling the reader who doesn’t like to “wonder what’s real and what’s not” not to read fiction wouldn’t help him. History is full to bursting with things that aren’t “real.”
But in the grand scheme of things, if the fictional part of historical fiction isn’t your cup of tea, it’s a helpful reminder: not every book is for everyone! Some people just want to know what happened. Some people just want a good story. In my experience, most readers live in the vast, comfortable space between those two extremes.
Q: Do you read and enjoy historical fiction? Or do you prefer nonfiction accounts that stick closer to the historical record?