Saturday, January 21, 2006

Historical Fiction Haters (Rant O' the Week)

Since writing and publishing my own novel, I've noticed that there are people who hate historical fiction. Mind you, I don't mean people who simply aren't interested in reading it. That's their preference, and I respect it. I myself have no interest in science fiction or fantasy, for example, but I don't have any animosity toward these genres or toward their readers or writers. I wish I did like such books, as a matter of fact--there'd be much fewer days when I can't find anything to read.

But the historical fiction haters I've encountered are a rather different breed. They regard historical fiction as dishonest and duplicitous, a deliberate attempt to distort history. (Could I have gotten some more words that begin with "D" in that sentence? Probably, but I'm feeling lazy.)

Part of this, I suspect, is a confusion of historical fiction with historical romance--an assumption that historical fiction is simply an excuse to dress people up in fancy clothes, put them in a castle or a mansion, and let them go at it like bunnies for 300 pages or so. It doesn't help that back in the 1970's and 1980's, mainstream historical fiction was often marketed with covers that appealed to the historical romance reader--ladies with flowing blond or black (never brown) hair being clutched by bare-chested men who often appeared to have spent more time at the hairdresser than the ladies had. Rather than take the trouble to distinguish mainstream historical fiction from the worst historical romances--the type where medieval heroines have names like "Amber" or "Jade"--the historical fiction haters lump them all together. Sheer laziness.

But a lot of the animosity felt by the historical fiction haters is the result of a paternalistic attitude toward the reader. Historical fiction should not be read, the line goes, because the poor benighted reader won't be able to know what's based on historical fact and what's purely the product of the writer's imagination. Now it's true that there are some people who have difficulty discerning fact from fiction--someone must believe those supermarket tabloids, and TV actors who play doctors used to get letters asking them for medical advice. But to assume that all readers are credulous to this degree is to show an enormous contempt for the reading public.

Of course, some people will read a historical novel and never take the trouble to find out what was "made up" and what wasn't. (The same, of course, is true for moviegoers--there's a sizable part of the population that is convinced, from the movie Braveheart, that William Wallace was the father of Edward III. He wasn't, folks. Do two simple things on Google: search for William Wallace's date of death and Edward III's date of birth.) That's unfortunate. But historical fiction is exactly that--fiction. The reader's been put on warning by that classification that some or all of the incidents and dialogue in the book may be purely the product of imagination. If he or she doesn't care to investigate further, that's his failure, not the writer's.

In researching my own novel, I read a great deal of nonfiction books, and I found errors in quite a few of them--most of them minor. I also came across a Ph.D. dissertation so sloppily researched that I could not believe the author was awarded her doctorate. People were given titles they never held; people were confused with their relatives. One man was described as being out of favor at court and therefore "keeping a low profile." Well, he was indeed keeping a low profile--six feet under, to be precise. He was dead at the time of the events described by the author.

Errors in nonfiction are unavoidable; authors get tired, get notes confused, make typographical errors. (To say nothing of so-called nonfiction writers who deliberately mislead readers, like the egregious James Frey.) But the reader of nonfiction, unlike the reader of fiction, has a right to expect accuracy, and unless he's widely read on a subject or the error is so glaring as to be obvious, he's unlikely to catch errors or even to be looking out for them. So if I took the attitude of the historical fiction haters, I'd warn people off nonfiction--all nonfiction--since it too has the potential to mislead readers. That would be quite silly, wouldn't it?

No girl was ever ruined by reading a book. Remember that.