“It’s terribly off-putting,” said James Wood, the literary critic for The New Republic. “It would be very odd if Thomas Hardy had put at the end of all his books, ‘I’m thankful to the Dorset County Chronicle for dialect books from the 18th century.’ We expect authors to do that work, and I don’t see why we should praise them for that work. And I don’t see why they should praise themselves for it.”
Traditionally confined to works of nonfiction, the bibliography has lately been creeping into novels, rankling critics who call it a pretentious extension of the acknowledgments page, which began appearing more than a decade ago and was roundly derided as the tacky literary equivalent of the Oscar speech. Purists contend that novelists have always done research, particularly in books like “Madame Bovary” that were inspired by real-life events, yet never felt a bibliography was necessary.
And many present-day writers like Thomas Pynchon, most recently in “Against the Day,” put extensive historical research into their novels without citing sources or explaining methods.
But some novelists defend the bibliography, pointing out that for writers who spend months or years doing research for historical novels, a list of sources is proof of labor and expertise. . . .
Of course some fiction writers have always tacked on bibliographies, as William T. Vollmann has done since his first book, “You Bright and Risen Angels,” published in 1987. Mr. Vollmann initially did it because the book was first published in Britain, and he wasn’t sure how many sources he was expected to cite according to British laws, he said.
But now, Mr. Vollmann says, he does it as a service to readers. “I think it’s nice for a reader to have the information available,” he said. “Let’s say somebody gets interested in a character, or is disbelieving of something I had a character do. He can look in the back of the book.” . . .
I'm with Mr. Vollmann. Personally, I regard a bibliography in a historical novel not as a bid for praise or as proof of labor and expertise, but simply as a tool for the reader who might be interested in reading more about the subject. I don't hold the absence of one against an author (there's none in my own book, although I do include an author's note in the book and a list of further reading on my website), but I do appreciate its inclusion. I certainly don't see its being there as pretentious or as a form of bragging. It's an aid to the reader, which the reader can either make use of or ignore.
Maybe Mr. Wood just doesn't read much commercial historical fiction, because bibliographies seem to have been quite common in it for some time. Jean Plaidy often included them in her novels (The Battle of the Queens, the one closest to hand on my bookshelf, lists 21 titles that Plaidy consulted), and King's Minions, a 1974 Brenda Honeyman novel about Edward II that I finally acquired yesterday after months of forlorn Googling, has a "Works Consulted" page. Even these now-dated bibliographies can be useful in leading readers to long-out-of-print books that may contain relevant information.
So I say, ignore Mr. Wood. Bring on the bibs (and keep the author's notes coming too, please).