What can historical fiction do that history can’t?

Bavardess has just revealed herself as another historian who either wants to or is actually attempting to write historical fiction rather than ‘straight’ history. The rising cultural importance of historical novels is reflected in the recent Booker prize shortlist, and History Today in Oct 2009 had an interesting discussion of the topic (unfortunately pay-walled). I’ve talked before about the uneasy relationship between the two genres of history and historical fiction, but I want now to go back and look at it from a slightly different angle. What do authors or would-be authors of historical novels think that writing fiction allows them to do that more conventional historical forms don’t?

1) Gain a wider audience
The fact that they reach wider audiences is an issue that sometimes gets raised by novelists who write literary historical fiction, but in a surprisingly superficial way. For example, in the History Today article, Sarah Dunant comments: ‘What I do is to sink my reader into feeling and sensation, but to slide real history in with it so you never know you’re reading it – and sell books in numbers and to people that most historians can only dream of’. But the question with any ‘published’ work (including TV and films) is not simply the size of the audience it gets. Otherwise you would simply have to conclude that JK Rowling or Dan Brown are better authors than Hilary Mantel or Sarah Waters, because they sell more novels.

Academic books do largely have tiny audiences because they discuss specialist topics in technical ways. And they do that for a reason: in order to advance original research. If you cut out the footnotes and the detailed discussion of the sources, you may get a wider audience, but you also make it harder for your fellow specialists to assess the reliability of your argument. To suggest that every history book should be accessible to a general reader is no more realistic than to suggest that every article in the British Medical Journal should be.

The standard complaint that most academic historians don’t write for a wider audience is unfair for two reasons. One is that most academic historians don’t have the time to do that. What they are paid to do (and it normally takes up well over their official working hours) is do original research and teach students. Writing more popular history is something that has to be squeezed into the edges of their time (which is one reason why blogging, which allows more popular history to be written and disseminated very easily, is potentially so useful for academics).

The other problem is that some areas of historical research are intrinsically more likely to interest a wider audience than others. One friend of mine wrote a thesis on ‘Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages’, another on ‘History and Coinage in Southumbrian England, c. 750-865’. Which one do you think is more likely to get a best-selling book out of their work, regardless of the merit of either work? Most of the books by academic medievalists/early modernists which do find a wider audience are either on conventional kings and battles topics or are lucky enough to have found sources/archives which contain a lot of information on a small group of people (such as the inquisition records for Montaillou).

2) Make it more vivid
The biggest advantage that a historical fiction writer should have over a historian is the ability to write vividly. The quality of novelists, after all, is predominantly judged by their writing style, not their accuracy (the reverse is true of historians). I liked the comment of Stephanie Draven on my first post: ‘I think the job of the historian is to tell what really happened. The job of the historical novelist is to make a reader care enough to find out what really happened.’

A good novelist or writer of a screenplay can produce memorable images and scenes that most historians struggle to depict. I don’t have the kind of visual imagination that Mary Stewart clearly has, nor do I have the skills at dialogue writing that allowed Dorothy Dunnett to create early medieval characters who can joke as well as make noble speeches. I’m not convinced that historians should try to write like novelists, because it takes a lot of skill not to end up with purple prose when you try ‘fine writing’. But there are simple methods that can make any writing flow better, and it makes sense to try and learn them. (I find, for example, that I can best get a decent rhythm to my sentences if I say them in my head as I write: that’s very useful for preventing thoughts getting too long and complex).

3) Make things up
One of the most obvious things that writing historical fiction allows you to do is to make things up when you don’t know them. Particularly for earlier periods, this is an advantage that shouldn’t be underrated, because it allows writers of historical fiction to write about lives which historians can only tackle with extreme difficulty. You can’t write ‘history’ about Scara Brae, for example, but there is a well-regarded children’s novel on the subject. And writing fiction allows you to imagine the interior lives of the less powerful (women, peasants, Jews etc) in a way that historical sources rarely can.

The problem, of course, is that making things up also tempts you to bend history to the way you would like it to have been, rather than it actually was. You want a bogus anti-English story? You can write it. You feel that the clash between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots isn’t dramatic enough because they never meet? Make it so!

Katya Maddison, responding to my earlier post, asked: ‘Does it matter if we confuse our Catos?’ To which the honest answer is: if you start with that, where do you stop? What limits do you choose and what ethical implications are there? If you want to say that historical fiction is just entertainment then it’s fine to have Queen Victoria as a demon hunter. But increasingly historical novelists are claiming more than this. As Sarah Dunant puts it in History Today: ‘I want to sink the reader deep into the period, to say, “Have the confidence to follow me because I know what is true”’. Or as Hillary Mantel adds: ‘It proposes a version, but a version that comes with a guarantee: “This could be true” ‘.

4) Tell the truth?
Can historical novels, then, tell a historical truth that is inaccessible to factual history? It seems to me that there are three implicit claims being made by writers of historical fiction. One is that they can make historical conjectures that are more plausible than those of current historians. Another is that they can portray the culture of a period more truthfully than a historian. A third is that novelists can provide more psychologically acute studies of historical figures than historians can.

On the first issue, I wouldn’t deny that writers of historical fiction may sometimes be able to show that academic historians are wrong and that their conjecture on a particular issue is better. However, I suspect that most of the discoveries they make are relatively minor points, such as corrected chronologies. I don’t know of any major discoveries about medieval history that have first been developed by novelists and that have subsequently stood the academic test. (If anyone knows differently, please tell me). In contrast, there are significant viewpoints whose profile has been greatly increased by novelists, such as Josphine Tey’s effect on views of Richard III.

Can novelists portray particular historical cultures more truthfully than a historian can? I think this idea confuses vividness of writing with accuracy. A good novelist can create metaphors and images that make the essence of a culture linger in your mind: when I read academic discussions of the ritual significance of early medieval British kings, my mind still flashes back to the blind king in Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Mark of the Horse Lord. But these insights will normally have already appeared, if in less condensed and lapidary forms, in the works of the historians that a novelist draws on. A novelist can invent or be historically accurate: but they can’t invent and be historically accurate.

I’m also dubious that historical novelists as a group have more psychological insights into character than historians do. Again, it seems to me to be confusing quality of written expression with quality of analysis. Some novelists (whether writing historical or contemporary fiction) have an admirable ability to provide convincing characters who are not like them (of a different sex, class, race). However, even some celebrated authors don’t have this: there are few things more dismal than reading Charles Dickens’ heroines. Academic historians too, vary in their sensitivity to thinking about historical mentalities, but increasingly there are many who focus on these aspects. I’m not convinced that any novelist could provide a better psychological reading of Charlemagne than Jinty Nelson has in several of her studies, and you’d be hard pushed to find a novel that matches Michael Clanchy’s study of Abelard for insights.

I certainly wouldn’t claim to be in that league, but I have read and pondered a large number of early medieval sources, and I would expect to understand more about the people who wrote and read them than a novelist who hadn’t done that kind of extensive research. The challenge for me and other historians is to express what we have learnt from such study clearly; the challenge for historical novelists is to take what they learned from us and express it in their own compelling and idiosyncratic way.

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5 thoughts on “What can historical fiction do that history can’t?

  1. Yes, I’ve outed myself! Although as I said in my post, I see my fiction writing as purely recreational, and as a way to relax and escape the rules and conventions of academic and business writing (I’ve always made my living as a writer in some form or another). I also find it quite useful as a way to get myself ‘unstuck’ if I’m struggling with a piece of academic writing that isn’t flowing well. But I don’t have any aspirations to do anything more serious with it as this point.

    You raise some really good questions here, and I wrote a comment in response but it got so long that I ended up making it a linked post on my blog. http://bavardess.blogspot.com/2009/11/debating-history-as-fiction-and-fiction.html

    In brief, I expressed my concern that writing skills seem to be a neglected aspect of teaching history at the university level. I also believe that well-written academic history has the ability to both tell ‘what really happened’ *and* make people care about that at an emotional level. This is something that I think is particularly important for historians of the marginal and the previously unconsidered, but it also opens up the whole question of whether history should be (or is by its very nature) political.

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    • FWIW, I started reading this thread here but wound up posting my comment over at Bavardess’s blog, since it followed on most immediately from her question about how much historians are taught how to write.

      My (short) answer: quite a bit, but not necessarily in a way that makes history more like a novel.

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  2. One friend of mine wrote a thesis on ‘Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages’, another on ‘History and Coinage in Southumbrian England, c. 750-865’. Which one do you think is more likely to get a best-selling book out of their work, regardless of the merit of either work?

    Knowing both of these people, as will anyone who wants to Google the titles I guess, I would have agreed with you except that I know that the former’s publisher printed only 250 copies of their (prize-winning!) book. I have my guesses about what will happen to the latter’s, which is only just a thesis, let alone a book, but I suspect that it will manage at least that but little more; similar things have. So oddly, the answer appears to be: they are equally likely to get a best-seller, i. e. not at all, but somehow numismatics has identified its target audience better than medieval magic! That said, I assume that at some point the former work will get a paperback reprint, because I can’t believe that there is no demand for it!

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  3. One friend of mine wrote a thesis on ‘Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages’, another on ‘History and Coinage in Southumbrian England, c. 750-865’. Which one do you think is more likely to get a best-selling book out of their work, regardless of the merit of either work?

    Knowing both of these people, as will anyone who wants to Google the titles I guess, I would have agreed with you except that I know that the former’s publisher printed only 250 copies of their (prize-winning!) book. I have my guesses about what will happen to the latter’s, which is only just a thesis, let alone a book, but I suspect that it will manage at least that but little more; similar things have. So oddly, the answer appears to be: they are equally likely to get a best-seller, i. e. not at all, but somehow numismatics has identified its target audience better than medieval magic! That said, I assume that at some point the former work will get a paperback reprint, because I can’t believe that there is no demand for it!

    Like

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