Saturday, June 5, 2010

Historical Fiction Doesn't Have to be Good For You

Cross-posted from www.stephaniedray.com

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 a cranky adult scolding young children to eat their vegetables and forego cake.

I was particularly struck by the Letters section in which HNS Member Barry Webb 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 single out Mr. Webb or to dispute his right to like what he likes, but to use his comments as an example of two unfortunate attitudes I'd like to discourage in my fellow historical fiction authors. First, we should approach history with far more humility. Second, we should avoid destructive attitudes that undermine the commercialism of the genre.

With regard to Mr. Webb's first point: that detective investigations didn't take place in ancient Rome 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 a profoundly 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 inherently 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 there isn't a single page of that series that could compete head-to-head with Wilbur Smith on an emotional level. 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 its 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!

4 comments:

csmith said...

Well said! (Am especially pleased as I am tentatively poking at something set around the Dutch East India Company which I would like to be ENTERTAINING for people to read. Not that I don't care about the facts, I'll get the as right as I can, but I would like there to be a story other than the historical narrative itself (if that even makes sense)).

Anne Gilbert said...

Yikes! Why does anything have to somehow be "good for you"? I find the attitudes of some people who claim to "prefer" literary fiction much the same. Personally, I write to instruct, but also entertain, and I sure hope what I write is entertaining!

Kilian said...

When I was very young, I had lots of time to read and would read anything that attracted my attention. I read a lot of trash, I expect, most of it forgotten, but I learned by reading what is worth reading and rereading and what is not. I learned by doing, and as long as I had my nose in a book, nobody bothered much about the quality of the book. I think I learned something from every book I read, but that was not the purpose for my reading.

Now I am older, and my reading time is very limited. I am much more choosy, but my ability to choose is based on years of reading many things. I still read many different types of books from Booker Prize winners to one-off "trashy" novels (whatever they are), and all with enjoyment. I am also more willing to stop reading a book and move on.

We are just telling each other stories, and the only criteria I measure a book against is whether it has a good story. Maybe I do read what someone else would label a potboiler, but if the author boils an honest pot, that is good enough for me.

Stephanie Dray said...

And really, I'm not arguing that we should write trash. I care deeply about the facts of the novels that I'm writing. But I also feel that if the writer acknowledges what he or she is doing, we should stop drawing lines in the sand touting one style over the other. Thanks everyone so much for your comments!

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