Our patrons, I’m sure,will know that books still have–and will always have–the power to change and challenge the world, but last week was an especially fruitful one for books in the news: we were treated to the awarding of the Man Booker Prize, as well as the announcement of the National Book Award nominees; but we also encountered some controversy.
It all began last Monday on the BBC Radio 4’s morning program, Start the Week. The show’s guests were both authors whose books had recently been released: Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley, whose book, Golden Age rounds out her Last Hundred Years trilogy, and Professor Niall Ferguson, whose latest release is the first volume of his authorized biography of Henry Kissinger. Things were going pretty civily, overall, until Smiley began to articulate what she saw as the difference between history and historical fiction: “history and memoir tell us what happened, but novels tell us or have a theory about how it felt”.
On the whole, this seems to be a perfectly sensible statement, and one that also allows the existence and necessity of both genres. Her statement, however, didn’t sit particularly well with Professor Ferguson, who immediately launched into a defense (mansplaining?) of non-fiction history, sadly, at the expense of historic fiction.
I’ll let the resulting debate, as recorded by The Telegraph, stand for itself:
“Historians are as much concerned with how it felt – the difference is we are actually basing it on research rather than our imaginations,” Ferguson said.
An affronted Smiley replied: “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t base it on research? I didn’t realise that.”
But Ferguson continued: “It seems to me that whether you’re reading Tolstoy or Jane Smiley, people who write historical fiction are telling you what it must have felt like. But that’s not what it felt like, because essentially they’re projecting back, in this case early 21st century ideas, on imaginary characters.”
Smiley: “How do you think that I discovered what it must have felt like? I did research and read what people said it felt like.”
Ferguson: “But your characters are imaginary, Jane. Not to disparage what you do, but we need to recognise that it’s different because these aren’t real people. You’re just telling us what these imaginary people must have felt…Historians are in the business of reconstituting past experience but from primary sources, from things that people wrote down. We’re not allowed to just make it up.”
Smiley, ultimately, had the last word in this debate, however, when she published a letter in The Guardian
addressing both Professor Ferguson’s comments and elaborating on why she writes historic fiction:
“I do not consider literary forms to exist in a hierarchy; I think of them as more of a flower bouquet, with different colours, scents and forms, each satisfying and unsatisfying in its way, but if there is one thing that I do know about history, it is that it must be based on the author’s theory of what happened. He or she may change the theory as the research is completed, but without a theory, and if the research doesn’t fit into the theory, then the text has no logic, and therefore makes no sense. If it makes no sense, then readers will not read it.”
As a historian, as well as a reader, I would just like to state here and now that “what happened and how it felt” are, generally speaking, two totally and completely different things–neither are ‘better’ or ‘worse’–they are just very, very different.
It’s probably fair to say that getting injured in war hurts, regardless of whether it’s 1148, 1916, or 2015–but I would never conjecture to tell you how it hurt. Even more importantly, I would never, ever, ever, put on my Historian Hat and presume to tell you what it felt like to watch the Titanic sink, or what, precisely, goes through a person’s mind as they wait for a battle to commence, or watch a sunrise. One can infer a good deal by virtue of being part of the same species, and generally be afraid of things that might kill you, or interesting in colorful, shiny things, but I think it’s fair to say that is as far as one can go.
And that, as Smiley notes, is part of the beauty of historic fiction. By virtue of being fiction, these stories can go where history simply can’t–into the moments that don’t make it into the archive, into the minds of people whom history didn’t remember, and into the hearts of those who didn’t record their feelings to paper. By virtue of the research performed by their authors, they can bring a period of time to life in a way that history has neither the space nor the time to do. A straight-up history of the First World War can describe uniforms and trench conditions, but historical fiction can take the time to linger on details–the scratchiness of wool tunics in the July sun, the smell of sweat and carbolic power, what men experienced putting them on… What to history might be some atmospheric detail is the stuff of life for fiction. And because of this, they can serve as an ideal compliment to history, feeding our imaginations and hearts, as well as our brains.
Don’t believe me? Come in and check out these sensational historic fiction books for yourself!
Vlad: The Last Confession: I’ve gone on (and on) about how this is one of the greatest books ever, so I’ll spare you today. C.C. Humphreys, however, originally intended to write a biography of Vlad Dracula. However, when he couldn’t find any new sources, he decided to write a fictionalized biography, using all the details he learned to create a fully three-dimensional world and an enthralling portrait of a man who was both a monster and a hero–and what it was like to love and hate him.
Speaks the Nightbird: Though Robert McCammon’s tale of witchhunting is set in the Carolina colony in 1699, this is still quite a timely suggestion. The sights, smells, fears, and superstitions that fill the world of this book are completely transporting, and makes the battle of laws and wills that ensues over the fate of an ostracized widow in the community that much more intense. McCammon may be a bug name in the horror genre, but this book, and the resultant series, proves he can tackle historical fiction with equal aplomb.
The Return of Captain John Emmett: Speaking of the First World War, Elizabeth Speller’s debut novel is an evocative and occasionally stunning pieces of historic fiction that captures, in heartbreakingly simple prose, what everyday life was like for those who survived the war. Though not as successful as a mystery, the stark descriptions of grief, loss, and utter bewilderment that her characters endure helps readers understand the true impact of the war on an individual, as well as a collective basis.