Dave Astor at the Huffington Post wrote a very nice piece the other day about why historical fiction is just great – mostly because of its ability to educate. He specifically cites Stephen King’s new novel 11/22/63, and also mentions other books such as Walter Scott’s.
Although it’s great to hear historical fiction praised in such a way – and one just wishes that other genres such as Science Fiction and Fantasy would get such plaudits too on a more regular basis, but I think that Dave’s reasons for liking historical fiction also raise a number of questions.
- What’s the chances of people actually getting misinformation from works for fiction? For instance Stephen King’s book involves an alternate history scenario where someone travels back in time to prevent JFK’s death. I think in this case most people would know the real history and it would be obvious that the author is changing things, but in cases where history is less well understood the author has a real responsibility.
- How comprehensively should an author actually tell the reader (perhaps in footnotes or an introduction) about how their work diverges from recorded history?
- Should editors and publishers be more careful in what work they accept authors, and should they actually research the historical background themselves? For Alt Hist, I usually do check facts in the stories that I publish in the magazine for instance, and this actually takes up a large part of the copy-editing process.
- Are historical fiction authors the new history teachers?
2 thoughts on ““Hooray for Historical Fiction” says the Huffington Post!”
Historical fiction authors have a duty of care to their readers, plain and simple.
I spent a great part of my teenage years reading Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books, surely classic historical fiction if ever there was some, and in fact his books largely contributed to my choice of degree when I went off to university (I was fortunate enough to meet him once; when I told him that, he replied with “Don’t blame me!” Class act).
The genius of Cornwell’s books is that they cleave that fine balance between historical accuracy and great storytelling; by which I mean, his extensive researching shines through, but he never lets the history get in the way of the story, and that is how it is supposed to be. However, it is his use of an Author’s Note at the end of the book which makes his approach to historical fiction one to copy; any changes he made within the story are rigorously and honestly explained, setting straight any changes he made for the sake of the story. All historical fiction authors have a duty to do this, as their books are educators for the majority of people today. They offer windows into worlds that the education system and most other popular history can rarely cover, and never in such detail. For an author to mislead their readers about their chosen period, even though they may do it with no malice intended, is a serious breach of the trust placed in that author, especially since (as Cornwell shows) it is so easy to rectify.
Absolutely – it’s a big responsibility!