5 Reasons Historical Fiction Should Get More Respect
Guest Post by Alexis Bonari
As a young reader, I had no idea historical fiction had a bad rap until I attended my first writing workshop in college. There, my colleagues pursued a heavy-handed line of genre-bashing, citing the following works as archetypes:
• Dear America, those books that they were forced to read ad nauseum in middle school.
• Bodice rippers, historical romances with little literary merit and only mention the characters’ antiquated attire when they’re being removed.
• Books like Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, which some critics accuse of “fooling” readers into believing what more well-informed audiences know are creative freedoms taken at the expense of portraying historical inaccuracies.
Miffed, I pursued my own defense of historical fiction that sounded something like this:
1. If Dear America is the epitome of historical fiction, my high school English teacher would have had us recite Mother Goose rhymes instead of Hamlet’s soliloquy my sophomore year. There are good examples and bad examples within any genre. Some people like Dear America—some get tired of reading gimmicky books about different wars through the eyes of children. Likewise, there are good and gimmicky books in every genre that deal with romance and sex. That historical fiction gets so poorly represented by one of its sub-genres is a shame.
2. If historical fiction hasn’t done it for you, it might be because you’ve been reading the wrong books. (I stress might be. Some people just don’t get into it, and that’s dandy.) There’s a reason Gone with the Wind and War and Peace are classics. My personal favorites include Mists of Avalon and Pillars of the Earth.
3. (Good) historical fiction takes a lot of research. Topics and breadth of research vary from case to case, from studying the casualties of the War of 1812 to how much a condom cost in 1944. Because most historians focus on socio-political trends rather than mundane facts about prophylactics, writers must often go to great lengths to obtain a speckle of information that may amount to a single sentence in their 400-page novel. When I say great lengths, I don’t mean just hours spent on Google; I mean traveling across continents to meet with scholars or war veterans, spending months obtaining permission to access records in government or national archives, and tons of networking. Read about the misadventures of historical novelist/researcher John Crowley here.
4. Truth and fact are two vastly different concepts, and there is often more truth in fiction than fact. Studying numbers and years in a survey history textbook often does nothing for the intellect after the final exam. Historical fiction can not only make history interesting to otherwise uninterested parties, it can also reveal truths overlooked by “factual” books. Having studied WWII extensively and currently working on a historical fiction on the Pacific War myself, I can attest that the history I grew up with was no more than the victor’s version. Historical fiction can broaden minds with varying perspectives from different sides of history.
5. The downside of revealing truth through fiction is that some readers will criticize authors for going halfway on both. Take, for example, The Other Boleyn Girl. Mary is portrayed as sexually inexperienced; history alleges that by the time she begins her affair with the king, she’d already been with Francis I of France. Gregory was skewered by some critics (especially in that writing workshop where I sat fuming) for more of such inaccuracies she told for the sake of the story.
Here’s the thing, though: the spine of the book says historical fiction for a reason. If some readers take everything they read at face value, they’re morons to begin with. If they truly care about history and how its players are represented, they have every opportunity to visit the local library or Google the facts for themselves. Crucifying the author and the genre when they’re waving the white flag of fiction is hardly the way to go.
So, did I get dirty looks from a few students in that workshop for defending the underdog? Yes, but seeing as I got an air high five from the professor, it was totally worth it.