Historical Fiction Doesn’t Have to Be Good For You

June 1, 2010

The May issue of SOLANDER asks why historical fiction doesn’t sell as well as teen vampire books; I think part of the answer is to be found within SOLANDER’s pages. Here, as elsewhere in the historical fiction world, the tone many writers take is akin to that of cranky adults scolding young children to eat their vegetables and forego cake.

I was particularly struck by the Letters section in which an HNS Member takes to task the writers of historical mysteries set in Ancient Egypt & Rome for being set “into a culture where detective style investigations didn’t take place” and then goes on to criticize best-selling author Wilbur Smith.

I cite this not to dispute anyone’s right to like what she likes, but to demonstrate what I think is an unfortunate attitude I’d like to discourage in my fellow historical fiction authors. In my opinion, we should approach history with far more humility. Second, I’d like to avoid attitudes that undermine the commercialism of the genre.

With regard to the point that detective investigations didn’t take place in ancient Rome…that is not a foregone conclusion. While it is true that the Romans didn’t even have the equivalent of a police force until the Augustan Age and that the Romans were untroubled by murders that would demand explanation in the modern world, the fact remains that our own criminal justice system derives, in part, from the Romans. They did have trials. They were interested in justice. And most importantly, the ancient Romans weren’t another species.

We are often struck dumb by the differences between our culture and theirs, when we ought to be humbled at how much we are the same. To insist that no person in ancient Rome could have had an instinct to solve mysteries in detective-like fashion is, to my mind, a presumptuous point of view–one that probably alienates readers and adds nothing to our understanding of history.

To the second point, there are all sorts of styles of historical fiction, and we ought not marginalize the flavors we don’t prefer. I believe it’s destructive to the commercial prospects of the genre to imply that the novels of Wilbur Smith are somehow less respectable than those of Colleen McCullough because the latter hews to an enumerative style and the former combines epochs to create epic stories. Both of these authors have seen commercial success and I’ve enjoyed each of them; their audiences overlap. McCullough may have penned the most scholarly fiction written about ancient Rome, but in my reading experience of them both, there isn’t a page of that series that could compete with Wilbur Smith on an emotional level. Neither is inherently better than the other. Wilbur Smith’s River God enchanted a generation of readers who might not otherwise have ever picked up a book about Ancient Egypt, and he’s to be commended for it, not condemned.

As writers it’s our job to serve up a literary banquet. Some of our guests are going to like asparagus and some of them are going to like sweets, and some of them are going to want some of each. If we want to make the commercial market more viable for historical fiction, it seems to me that we ought to encourage the diversity, not rail against it.

Historical fiction doesn’t have to be good for us. It doesn’t have to be filled with fiber. It’s sufficient that it rouses an interest in the time period. That it teaches a little bit and inspires the reader to learn more. It is fiction. It is meant to fill in all the sweet spaces that history leaves blank. This kind of confection can’t rot your teeth, so let them eat cake!

6 Responses to Historical Fiction Doesn’t Have to Be Good For You

  • Well said! Humans have not changed so much that their likes, dislikes and talents are completely different. It may be as a culture Rome did not investigate murders, but it does not mean they were not investigated. Historical fiction opens up entire worlds, not just because of the excitement of the murder mystery, but also enables the average person to \”live\” in that time, even if just for a few moments. Historical accuracy is nice, but all authors play with the truth. It\’s what makes our stories fiction. If one of my historical books causes a young girl (or young man) to do further research into the topic, then I have MORE than done my job. I don\’t have to be 100% correct, so long as I manage to encourage people to learn more! Heck, I don\’t even have to encourage them to learn more. I just have to encourage them to read. Learning comes right along with it. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Theresa. My feeling is that the use of an Author’s note to explain deliberate choices to stray from current consensus about a historical period should be sufficient!

  • What a terrific article, Stephanie. As a writer of “commercialized” historical fiction, I can honestly say that there is a balance that can be struck – a book can be true to history and still maintain that human element, that emotional component. Human nature isn’t so different from era to era that we in the modern era can’t relate to the ancient peoples. At the very least, our fiction can create that empathy for the sake of the genre and not deviate from the facts.

  • Well said! Writing fiction, no matter whether it is good, bad or indifferent, is a creative process for both writer and reader, engaging the imagination. It is a branch of the arts. And art does not need to obey rules or, as you say, ‘to be good for us.’ The moment any society’s art begins to try that on, it’s done for (and so is the society, most likely, as well.

  • Hear hear!

    I was just reading in the Daily Telegraph that the teaching of history in our UK schools is at the lowest level ever. And that there are whole swathes of the country where there are virtually no students studying it past age 13. We are in a terrible state.

    And I’ve hear Simon Scarrow speak most eloquently on the need to teach history but also on the need to engage the imaginations of our young through historical fiction. (Yes, he got a standing ovation.)

    My children have loved the Roman Mysteries series. (Don’t know if that’s made it Stateside.) But they’ve also revelled in the disgustoid world of Terry Dearey’s Horrible Histories. And though neither of these might suit those who want their historical fiction to be all fibre and prunes, these kinds of books do provide a framework or perhaps even just the framing edge of a jigsaw puzzle, but at least their readers have got something to relate to when someone mentions Caesar or Marie Antoinette or whomever. So that’s fab.

    I think the essential thing about historical fiction and the essential element that many are missing is that history is about people. What they did, didn’t do, shouldn’t have done, made a mess of, succeeded at…And if the people are centre-stage–puzzling over things, resolving things, mucking things up–then that is a historical fiction triumph. But that’s what historical fiction is best at. And we should be shouting it from the rooftops. Because it’s the historical fiction writers who will be and are putting the bums on the seats in history classes.

    • Yes, the human element is what is missing from most history books, and I suppose it ought to be, in a way. But if educators could make use of historical fiction to pull students into history, I think we’d all be better off for it. And what would be better than to discuss what parts of the book were true or diverted from the timeline? That’s a great discussion.