Reader Request: History and Fiction

This is the first in a series of reader-requested blog posts!  See, I told you I’d get there.

This blog is prompted by historian (!) Maurice Mottoulle.  Maurice writes:

As a Historian,I appreciate your efforts to inform people.Andi have a suggestion of topics for you.Why people seems more and more in the incapacity of realising the difference between reality and fiction in works of creation? I hope it will interest you.

Thank you for this one, Maurice.  It greatly interests me.  This is a topic that, without trying to be snarky about it, I wonder about all the time.  Some of my conclusions are worrisome, at least to me.

I can’t speak for the whole of the world, or even for the Western hemisphere, but I’m fairly certain I can speak on behalf of the United States.  Maybe in highlighting this aspect of it, similar ideas can be identified across the globe.  Here in the States, especially in the last couple of generations, we’ve become more focused on specialization in higher education.  This comes at the expense of what is classically termed as a liberal education.

When it comes time for people to plot out their futures and choose their majors, they invariably look at what’s going to sustain them in the future.  That’s obviously the right thing to do.  The “problem” comes from this misbegotten idea that to be competitive in science, engineering, medicine, law, or anything else that will keep a person out of the poor house, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.  When a person can’t attain a university level education for any number of reasons, the fast track to success is the almighty specialization certification.  It comes down to ultimately having a piece of paper that proves to someone else that you do in fact know something that will contribute to the profit margin of whichever company you seek to employ you.  When looking forward, history is one of the things oft ignored, and always at the long term peril of a culture.  The old adage rings true that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.  The entirety of a state can degenerate and collapse, but hey, at least we’ll have nukes and iPads.

If you’ve not read Fareed Zakaria’s book In Defense of a Liberal Education… do so.  It’s a short book, filled to bursting with enlightened reason and passion.  Well worth everyone’s time.  This man is a beacon in the dark so far as I’m concerned.

As an academic discipline, then, history has suffered alongside the majority of the arts.  But here’s the thing about humans: at the end of the day, we still love a good story.  Before we knew anything at all about science and the arts, we made up stories to explain anything and everything around us.  You could make the argument that this is how the sciences and arts were born.  What’s beyond that horizon?  There was a story for that.  Why does the sky grow dark and drop water on us?  There’s a story for that too.  What happens after death?  You guessed it… stories abound.  The basis of all human imagination starts with the need to tell a good story, and that need is born in the twin forces that drive us: fear and wonder.  Those who don’t want to tell stories, odds are they enjoy having one told to them.  It’s who we are as a species.  The stories we have in common define our social circles.  The ones that contradict define our opponents and antagonists, and sometimes we even learn where we stand in our own way.  As we learned about sciences and arts, new stories were told, or more often than not, old stories were adapted to our new understandings.

It stands to reason that if we accept these ideas as axiom, the historians aren’t going to be the only ones telling the stories.  Historical fiction is practically a human institution with its origins in religion, mysticism, and politics.  History has been written and rewritten time and again.  Somewhere in the past couple of generations, it stopped being an exercise in morality and became the clinical study of “just the facts.”  We’ve all had that history teacher for whom history is simply a recitation of names and dates.  Gone are the personalities, the understandings, the conflicts.  Gone are the causes and effects.  As history grew colder, general populations quit being inspired by it.  So when a fiction writer comes along and makes history interesting in ways the masses recognize to be so, it’s only natural that people are going to be inspired by it.  Historical fiction then becomes entertainment, a genre unto itself.  The problem isn’t so much historical fiction as a genre.  That’s been there since before Herodotus.  The problem is when such fiction is taken as historical fact, a problem that’s also existed since at least Herodotus, if not earlier.  The difference is that in his era, we can overlook his problematic history precisely because there are few surviving records to contradict him.  It’s taken a lot of archaeology to poke holes in his stories.

Related to this, it’s a tragic irony to me that we currently live in an age of overabundant information, yet fewer people seem to be curious enough to continue the learning process… or so it would seem.  I blame this as one of the side effects of abandoning a liberal education.  It’s disheartening the number of people I personally know in my own life who absolutely refuse to pick up a book, and of those who do, they will rarely read anything that isn’t a genre-wrecking cookie cutter reproduction of the last four dozen books in that same genre.  Some read only fantasy.  Some read only a specific style of science fiction.  Some read only bodice-ripper romances.  These people understand depth insofar as it relates to their chosen topic, but they seemingly know little about breadth.  I’ve noticed as I’ve connected with people on the internet that this metric really hasn’t changed much.  People find comfortable niches for themselves and pretty much stay there unless prodded to explore something else.  I’m guilty of this myself.  It’s just that I have way too many niches to keep up with, which sort of validates the argument for specialization.

With the rise of the geek in pop culture, two things have occurred simultaneously.

The first is that those who think they know something now proliferate their knowledge to anyone who’ll listen via the internet, the louder the better.  Blogs just like this one (!) are a dime a dozen, to say nothing of videos and message boards, Facebook and Twitter, etc., all of which dilute or outright bury the factual information from credible sources under an onslaught of noise.  People seem less interested in research; they want metadata that gives them whatever shows up on the first page of a Google search or a quick look on Wikipedia.  If they can make it into a quick meme and spread that across social media outlets, even better.

The second thing that’s arisen is that in order to make everyone feel like they’ve earned their “geek cred,” the industries that drive the entertainments have gone out of their way to dumb down stories of across the board to play to the widest possible audience.  Everybody plays, everybody gets a gold star.  This is why we can look at a film like Braveheart and acknowledge that it’s a good movie, even when it’s a nightmare of historical inaccuracy.  Ditto with TV shows like The Tudors or The Borgias.  As modern successors to Shakespeare or the very best of Greek tragedy, accuracy isn’t the point; the message what matters most.  It’s about the human condition as it relates to us.  History is merely the framework.  The more powerful the framework, the better.  And if you think about it, if you stick even remotely close to the story, it’s almost impossible to make a story about the Tudors or the Borgias boring.  And yet, the wide perception is that the real history is boring, which is why it falls to novels and television to help change people’s minds.  And do people do the historical research once they become excited?  Some do, but it rarely involves picking up a history book.  The truth hurts.

It’s easy to blame film producers and studio executives when it comes to screen adaptations of historical subjects.  These soulless automatons are all about the money.  The subject matter is rarely of importance.  In books, it comes down to the author’s personal style.  The more educated the reader, the less forgiving they tend to be in this regard.  Why?  Because the reader in this case has done the homework and expects the writer to do the same.  For the reader, the point is to dwell within the historical time period and all that implies.  They live for the details, even if they don’t have the facts themselves.  They’ll read what’s in the story and let that inform them based solely on the quality of how the tale is told.  It’s dangerous, but it’s true.  It becomes a kind of mentally holographic immersion therapy to help them escape the classroom or office cubicle.

There was a time when publishing houses acted as the gatekeeper to keep bad writers from publishing.  Writers were actually forced to hone their craft and work side by side with a professional editor whose entire job is to ensure the writer is delivering the best work possible.  Today, self publishing is easier than ever, and people are quick to consume content without being hyper-critical about it in most cases.  Except for geeks.  Count on a geek to have WikiScholar credentials and build their reputations by tearing down the work of substandard writers… or by trying and failing in the attempt.

Let me ask a question at this point.  If history is learned incorrectly from the pages of a novel, is it the fault of the author for perpetuating the myths and misrepresenting the facts, or is it the audience’s fault for being simple minded lemmings?

Until recently, I was fairly hard-coded on my thoughts about this.  I felt that authors had to claim as much responsibility as humanly possible in their efforts to tell the story.  After all, why tell historical fiction if the history doesn’t matter?  To some extent, I still believe this and always will, but at the same time, I think it comes down to the intent of the author and their angle of approach, and I think audiences need to know up front what these ideas are.  A writer has to wear many, many hats to pull off historical fiction.  None of those hats, and none of that juggling qualifies a writer to call themselves an expert on it unless they’ve trained to be an historian, just as writing science fiction doesn’t make you a scientist unless you are actually trained as a scientist.  In the end, the specialization of storytelling makes one a storyteller.  That’s what everyone wants when they invest their time and money into a novel, right?

If the point is to tell a bodice ripper with a time period skin on it (for example, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander), then the audience shouldn’t go into it expecting historical accuracy.  That’s not her point, and it’s not her process.  Philippa Gregory is one I’ve called out many times for perpetuating the most wild myths about the Tudors.  Her defenders point to her Ph.D., but I remind people that her doctorate is in 18th century literature.  That does mean she understands how to tell a story, and the rest comes down to personal taste.  In both of these cases, without being disingenuous about this, these writers play up to those who are looking for the Harlequin Romance experience without it actually investing in a Harlequin novel, and all that implies.  Audiences who want something more historical and less fiction, yet still tell good stories simply have to do a little legwork and see what might be a good fit for them.  Again, start by knowing your author and their intent.  Alison Weir trained to be a history teacher with a specialization in medieval history and abandoned her chosen profession due to her disgust with “trendy teaching methods.”  I’ve not yet read her historical fiction, but it is in my to-read list simply because I admire her history books.  Margaret George’s degree is in literature.  She spends the bulk of her time immersed for years of historical research when she prepares to write one of her novels, and the results speak for themselves.  Her work is fantastic, both as excellent storytelling and as accurate and nuanced history.  For her, the history serves the story she’s telling, not vice versa, nor does it get in the way of the story.  It certainly doesn’t take a degree to do any of this.  All it takes is a desire to do the research and to learn how to write stories.  The rest comes with practice and enthusiasm for your topic.  Much like with anything else, the primary metric of success that we acknowledge is whether or not the audience is throwing their hard-earned cash at the creators and investing their time in their.  Right or wrong, it’s the measuring stick we tend to use.  And just like with movies or anything else, audience taste is subjective.  Always has been.  It comes down to what you want.  If you’re looking for incredibly visceral combat, Bernard Cornwell is probably your man.  If you’re looking for an immersive Celtic experience with a spiritual bent, Stephen R. Lawhead might be up your alley.  Looking for some intimate character portraits from an indie author?  Samantha Wilcoxson is a friend of mine who’s been telling the stories other writers tend to overlook.  Drop her a line, tell her I sent you.

Whatever the case, whatever the taste, it comes down to this.  Book lovers will ultimately seek out those books they enjoy.  Big honking duh, am I right?  I personally hold historical fiction writers to a higher standard of history, but I expect them to be a storyteller first.  I’m one of those people who will not shy away from reading actual history books.  If anything, I prefer doing so because I want the real story before I want someone’s fictionalized interpretation of it.  That’s just me.  The concern of the historically minded like myself, which led to this blog post in the first place, is really less about how authors tell their stories and more about how to get people to engage with history other than just with historical fiction.  Passion and enthusiasm are the chief tools of the trade.  If those who enjoy history can share that, all the better.  No one can force people to engage with history, and it takes a great deal to overcome a bad school experience.  All any of us can do is entice them to change their preconceived notions and give it a look.  Turn teaching points into carrots, not sticks.  And as weird as it may sound, historical fiction is the right tool for the right job when it comes to reaching people in ways that will capture their imaginations, one of many if we’re creative enough to find them.  Any author with intent to do just that, armed with both facts and storytelling prowess, has my appreciation and respect.


Have a topic you’d like me to blog?  Drop a line on my contact page or leave a comment.

12 thoughts on “Reader Request: History and Fiction

  1. You have made so many good points in this post, and I appreciate the mention alongside so many great names in historical fiction! I totally agree with you on education as well. Our current system is not helping students become deep thinkers or leaders, meanwhile some who have great ability to learn and think critically are marginalized for lack of degree.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Our entire educational system needs to be retooled from the ground up, but in our modern climate, I’m not entirely certain how that wouldn’t be a complete disaster. Still, if we can get people curious, the learning never stops. That, at least, is a first step we can take.

      Hey, you earned your spot in my list the old fashioned way. Keep up the good work!


  2. Good stuff! I dont read a lot of historical fiction because I want accuracy rather than a mere historical “skin” and that’s hard to find. One great guy I’ve discovered is Gary Corby and his Athenian mystery series. At the end of the book he always has a few pages describing what aspects of the story are historical, which are debatable (freely admitting when he picked a debatable option for the sake of good story), and which are out of his own imagination.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for your educate reply to my inquiries.I was also a history teacher and the level here is in bad shape also.Your saying about non educated choice of studies and essentially money oriented could be related to the situation,here,in Belgium.Actually,i make research about the relations between people of various power and the narrative arts of fiction in the french speaking area of Europe from the néolithique to ours days.Your comment is particularly interesting and usefull for me.Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy to do it, Maurice. Thanks for the topic! Sad to say, but these days pretty much everything comes down to money. Does little good without some innovation behind it though. Sounds like the research you’re doing is exactly the kind of thing that will help out. Best of luck to you on that front.


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