Is Historical Fiction Just One Big Lie?

The Guardian Book Blog (bless the Guardian’s heart for having such a thing) has a very interesting article called “The Lying Art of Historical Fiction.” The gist of the article is that historical fiction isn’t as, well, honest as it might be. He also mentions that there’s a boom in “historical fiction”; after all, lots of books happen to have settings that are in the past, making them historical fiction.

The question is: how accurate is historical fiction? The Guardian (I can’t find an actual person’s name to use) brings up Braveheart and The Da Vinci Code. Braveheart is a film and if you want accuracy from a movie (especially historical accuracy) then you’re pretty much insane, because you should never, ever believe the Hollywood version. The Da Vinci code, while a book, is not historical fiction, which is duly noted. It’s a thriller based on a conspiracy theory. And if you’re looking for historical accuracy from a conspiracy theory, you are probably looking in the wrong place. In my opinion, most conspiracy theorists work backwards: they come up with an idea and fit the evidence to the idea.

Books are, at least generally, much better than their celluloid counterparts. Partly, this is because of the constraints of movies. I do grudgingly forgive some inaccuracies because movies have to visually portray a story whereas a book is just ink on paper (or e-ink on an e-reader). This is going to inevitably restrict them in some things. Movies also have to tell the story in 2 hours of screen time. Books have a hundred thousand words to do it in.

Books don’t always tell the truth, either. The Guardian calls these lies, but they really aren’t lies. “Lies” has a negative connotation, though the writer clearly distinguishes between purposeful “lies” (telling a story that isn’t exactly backed up by historical fact) and careless mistakes. Most careless mistakes are, for me at least, forgivable. Unless the error is so glaring that I laugh until I cry, I can usually get over it.

All fiction is a lie. That is what fiction is. Historical fiction, depending on the brand of historical fiction, is a lie, too. It is simply a slightly different breed of lie. Instead of creating people and giving them a story in our own world, we put them in a different world, but a world that existed, a world inhabited by our ancestors. If the characters are real people, then the writer is writing about real lives, real people’s pain and anger and joy. The art of the writer is to make those emotions come alive, to make us identify with and understand the people who came before us. I think historical fiction serves a unique purpose in that respect; it gives us insight into the people who came before us and helped shape our world.

No matter how hard a novelist tries, though, we don’t actually know what these people felt and thought. Even if they left first-hand accounts, we may find those accounts are garbled, un-detailed, or are just plain old lies. Take for example my favorite story of ancien-regime greed and credulity. Jeanne de La Motte-Valois left several accounts of her life, and one would be hard-pressed to believe a word she says.

That is, if there are accounts. The 19th century is well-documented, the 18th century rife with memoirs, but further back than that and the records get progressively sketchier. And there’s plenty of history beyond the confines of Europe, and in places and times where there were no records at all. There are enormous gaps in even well-documented stories. The assassination of JFK was extraordinarily well-documented, and yet there are still certain gaps of  information; conspiracy theorists have a field-day with that.

A novelist, in a way, is a conspiracy theorist. They just have to convince their reader that their conspiracy is plausible. The novelist fills in the holes in the records with what they think happened or might have happened (there’s a difference–you can choose to write about one possible theory, while believing rationally that another theory is the correct one). This is artistic license, the workings of the imagination, not “lies”. If a thousand different things could have happened, and three things probably happened, then it’s not a lie to suppose that one of those three things really did happen. Sometimes, it makes dramatic sense to twist timelines slightly to bring together characters, or put a character in a certain place where he never was in reality. These are the tools of a writer, and must be used skillfully. No one likes to be toyed with by a writer who thinks they’ll tinker with history, and no one wants to read a story where the writer uses history awkwardly or out and out screwed up.

It is necessary to lie, when we’re talking about a historical story. As the writer of the piece pointed out, modern people would not be able to understand language of other times (you tihnk Shakespeare is bad? try Mallory in late Middle English). A novelist is forced to write in modernized language, even if they were able to write authentically like someone from another age (that’s much, much harder than it sounds). The novelist also has to makes assumptions about some things, especially where the record isn’t complete. The novelist also has to make the ideologies and society of another time accessible. That can be very difficult, too; the Guardian is spot on there. So, the writer has to, in essence, lie. It’s just the nature of the beast, so to speak.

The trouble with all this is that no one reads nonfiction except history geeks like me.  People believe the plausible stories that the writers (or moviemakers, God help us) come up with. Few people check the facts. It wouldn’t be so bad if people knew their history a little better. But then again, a good story is a good story, and who’s to say that “history” is correct? History is written by the winner, isn’t it? The record is biased because only certain bits survived. Maybe history itself is fiction (not to be cynical).

The Guardian ends by giving a shout out to The Bard:

Shakespeare is a good rule of thumb in this respect. He knowingly conflated historical characters in historical plays. He deliberately misnamed others. Sometimes he gave them attributes that were the very opposite of their real characters. And yet he made the drama of their lives meaningful for us, so that we remember who they are. No one is likely ever to accuse Shakespeare of historical accuracy, but who has written a greater work of historical fiction about the later Plantagenets

*Stage whisper* I think he’s talking about Richard III.

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