These days, the quickest way to start an internet pie fight is to bring up the subject of historical accuracy in fiction. The discussion almost inevitably breaks down into arguments about personal preference that masquerade as objective tenets of literary faith.
Certainly, I don’t have the hubris to believe I can solve the matter with a single blog post, but I feel compelled to weigh in. However, this is less of a coherent essay or presentation of an argument than it is an exercise in clarifying my own thoughts through a dialog with fellow lovers of historical fiction.
To that end, it’s helpful to identify the parties to the argument.
First, we have the readers and writers who believe historical fiction should not veer from the historical record for any purpose. I won’t call them purists, because that carries with it a value judgment, so I’ll call them chroniclers. They value fiction that won’t lead them to believe false things about history or force them to look things up to make sure it’s true. In a sense, they want their historical fiction to be a personalized and more intimate form of the biography. (More on that later.)
Another party to the dispute are a group that I’ll call the fantasists. They are the writers who use or abuse history to any purpose, and the readers who love them for it. You might have alternate history, like Harry Turtledove’s which imagines an entirely different world outcome if some key event changed. You have historical figures changed into vampires, like Janet Mullany‘s Jane Austen or Maria Davahna Headley’s Cleopatra. You have Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana Paxson turning legend into a type of pseudo-history in Mists of Avalon series and then there’s Guy Gavriel Kay, turning actual history into fantasy. Some of these stories hew very closely to history and some of them are so wild and wooly that anything obviously goes. In some sense, novels at this extreme end of the spectrum are immune from criticism because they go so wrong that they’re right.
When stories fail on the grounds of “historical inaccuracy” it’s usually because the work fails to meet either the allegedly “high” standards of the chroniclers, or, conversely, fail to be clever enough to earn a pass. In short, the errors of historical fact seem to be unintentional, unacknowledged, or without purpose, literary or otherwise. Readers will forgive a lot as long as the work isn’t sloppy.
But what to do about all the fiction in the middle of the spectrum that offends one kind of reader or the other?
On the one hand, I value historical fiction that doesn’t gloss over the grim realities of the past in order to avoid accusations of glorifying sexism, racism or discrimination. I’m frustrated by critiques of literature that focus on the surface unpleasantness while failing to examine the subtext below. In my opinion, the best books are those that make a reader feel uncomfortable and cause him or her to examine assumptions. That’s one of the reasons I read and write historical fiction, which has a great capacity to educate, to illuminate, and to inspire. So, when chroniclers cry, “Your criticism is invalid because it’s historically accurate” they are defending the inherent value in holding up a mirror either to the past, or to the present. They don’t think it should matter that the reader’s sensibilities have been bruised, because they see an overwhelming social value in the pummeling. I sympathize with that sentiment.
On the other hand, I’m of the firm belief that historical fiction isn’t fiber; it doesn’t have to be good for you. I don’t believe in berating readers for enjoying insufficiently pure works of art, such as Braveheart or The Other Boleyn Girl. I’m frustrated with critiques of literature that overlook superlative storytelling, myth-shaping, or even fun-romps because the work is deemed to be insufficiently weighty. (As if all historical fiction must be anchored with tedious historical detail and cannot be shaken from the moorings of fact–even to keep the reader from being bored silly.) Nevermind that the real lives of historical figures seldom fall into a neat narrative arc and that large portions of a person’s life are spent waiting, frustrated, mired down with meaningless coincidences, and so on. Truly, half the challenge of a good historical fiction writer is to wrestle the biography into a structure that at least vaguely approximates the hero’s journey. And there are a number of Hollywood blockbusters that may well have been saved by historical inaccuracy.
It seems to me that historical fiction writers are not to be confused with biographers or historians. In fact, I worry that strict chroniclers may conflate the art of historical fiction with what should be a more neutral and academic science of biography. (I’ve never been entirely sure why strict chroniclers prefer historical fiction over biography–into which biases may still creep, but which is generally a more neutral and academic approach.) Recently, several excellent historians have turned themselves into historical fiction authors and I have not enjoyed the results–probably that is because of my own literary preferences, which are informed by a steadfast belief that history is written by the victors and inherently unreliable. I’m made uncomfortable by historical fiction masquerading as the truth and nothing but; it’s always an exercise in perspective.
At any rate, though I know more useless trivia than anyone should about Cleopatra, her children, and the Julio-Claudians, my degrees are in Government and Law, not in history. My methodology is not academic but artistic, with an eye to sociology. I wouldn’t presume to hold myself out as anything other than I am. I am a storyteller.
I make choices.
For example, I choose to explore the topic of Ptolemaic incest in my books because I think it’s important for readers to know about this practice and understand its political value in the ancient world. I also explore it because I think it’s a kind of dysfunction that flows naturally from the torments and tragedies that were experienced by my heroine, Cleopatra Selene. (I’ll write more about this choice in another post, for those who are interested, but there are people who aren’t going to like my choices and that’s okay.)
While I weave my story through known historical events and carefully document any departures I make in the narrative, my books are likely to turn off chroniclers. My stories include goddesses, elemental magic, liberated heroines, and hieroglyphics that scroll down the arms in blood. My books are written in the language of allegory.
Even so, they are also works of historical fiction. I know there are genre expectations and I both honor those expectations and strive to meet them. I have drawn lines around my fiction that I won’t cross. I won’t change known outcomes in history. If someone won a battle in the past, they will win it in my books, too. If someone couldn’t possibly have been alive at a certain time, they aren’t alive in my books. (Although, even Gore Vidal has broken that rule.) If it’s a detail I can get right by applying myself to research, I will apply myself. (Though, perhaps my idea to ferment shellfish in my backyard so as to reproduce the process of creating ancient purple dye…is overkill.) In short, I’m not going to change anything about history without a very intentional, and acknowledged purpose. And if I make mistakes–and I will–I promise to admit them.
These are my rules when it comes to historical accuracy, and they matter to me.
But I don’t expect them to matter to anyone else.