Topical Tuesday: How Historical Should Historical Fiction Be?

I’m going to have to preface this with the qualification that I’m a historian by training, specializing in Judaism, Christianity and comparative religion. This makes me, for all intents and purposes, a little biased when it comes to my opinions on the necessary degree of historicity of historical fiction.

The Benefits of Historical Fiction

But this doesn’t mean I’m not a fan. It actually means I love historical fiction, because I think, when done well, historical fiction can provide a flavor and understanding of a time and place that is missed amidst facts and theories and trying to understand the whys of history. Historical fiction allows us to imagine dimensions of historical circumstances not previously thought about by creating characters with personalities and lives that before were only a series of dates and events.

Moreover, by including a complex story in a finite amount of space the disconnected facts can more easily be visualized as a multitude of simultaneously occurring factors and motivations that coalesced in that which we consider to be the relevant moments. That reflects history better than many history classes can. Though this is often the goal of historians – to properly blend the whys and hows in order to arrive at the historical circumstances in question – historical fiction allows far more people to achieve this outcome and see the beauty of the events as the historian might wish for them to be seen.

Good Historical Fiction

There are some television shows right now that I think do a particularly great job: Mad Men and The Tudors, to name but two (The Tudors is a complicated issue though). One book that I found to be particularly well done historical fiction was The Last Jew. Another excellent one was Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore, written as a lost gospel and the parts of Jesus’ life that are entirely absent in the Bible. Truly excellent stuff.

How Historical It Should Be

That said, I expect an incredibly high level of competence and understanding on the part of the author before s/he undertakes a project of historical fiction. A veritable expert s/he must be. I think it’s fine to invent people that don’t exist and conversations that didn’t happen amongst people that did, and to create new events so long as they don’t distort history. It’s a difficult line to walk.

I think that the characters who were real should reflect all current and respected scholarship on the personality of that character, though interpretive liberties are obviously acceptable so long as the character does not become someone else. If, in the Tudors, Henry VIII were portrayed as a courteous, non-self-centered, timid fellow, I would be pretty put off. Historical fiction should seek to better explain and bolster what we do know and our understanding of the people or era under discussion – as well as to entertain of course. Changing known historical events, which isn’t to say embellishing, is unacceptable.

I also think that all historical fiction should come with an explanation by the author of what’s being done: the goal, what’s being changed and what liberties taken, what’s not, why these decisions were made, and anything the reader should know to be able to differentiate between history and historical fiction. There’s nothing I hate more (hyperbole) than someone with a poor knowledge of history (or religion) reading historical fiction and then thinking that what they read is all true and having no way to differentiate the true from the invented. Case in point, The DaVinci Code.

First of all, horrible book – so bad I wanted to rip my own head off. Worse still, that a friend of mine thought he understood the fine points of Christian theology and the truth behind Christianity and the Church after reading this book. Yes, we are told up front that places and works of art are being described as they are, but I don’t think that helped everyone. Even if it was a sufficient explanation, the book itself sucked: three page chapters with suspense that turns out to be nothing at the end of every one. I thought I was reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps again.

But that’s more than enough from me for now. What do you think about historical fiction? What’s important to you and how historical should it be? What are your favorite works of historical fiction and why?

Check out Chandler’s different take on the matter HERE.

To read some other Topical Tuesday posts, click HERE. To read Fun with the Bible, click HERE.

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3 Responses

  1. […] out Jay’s blog for a very different take on […]

  2. […] another Topical Tuesday topic, click HERE. To read about how Ben Affleck sucks and ruins movies I should get my money back for, click […]

  3. […] – bookmarked by 1 members originally found by REDNECKPEPI64 on 2008-12-26 Topical Tuesday: How Historical Should Historical Fiction Be? […]

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