The value of historical fiction…

Yesterday, whilst rolling my eyes for the nth time over a tome I’m currently reading…

Can I just stop here?

You need to understand how badly this book is written.

We’re talking dessicated prose here.  We’re talking genius of a historian who absolutely cannot write in plain English, who cannot say what he means with anything approaching engagement and relies on words like periphery and atomised and transhumance.  These, I swear to you, are his favourite words.

To say that he has rendered a human story, a story of great tragedy, of loss of life and culture, of oppression and imperialism, bloodless doesn’t begin to tell you how dry this stuff is.

I read a passage or two out to a friend last night and after the initial shock, he collapsed into fits of laughter and said it reminded him of the stuff they write about music theory–where the writer clearly has forgot there’s any music involved.

That’s how bad it is.

Right.  So where was I?

Oh, yes, this book.

Well, obviously, I’m reading the blighter as (no, not torture…) research.  Because there’s a wealth of information to be found therein, though it is rather difficult to separate out the valuable from the excruciating pedantry.  Still.  It’s my job…

And when I’ve done, somehow…somehow, all or some of this information will synthesise into something which I trust will be interesting, fascinating, thrilling, engaging and human–otherwise known as the story for book three.

Which reminded me of a thing which occurred a few weeks ago.

I was at the Chalke Valley History Festival.  And during the conversation between four historical fiction writers, one of them mentioned that she’d been giving a talk at Cambridge University recently and had been asked what she’d thought about Wolf Hall, the Booker-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell, by Hilary Mantel.

She replied that she’d found it quite interesting, etc.

Whereupon it emerged that the dons all hated it.  Loathed it.  Despised it.  And lots more besides.

There were historical inaccuracies found therein, you see.  And how dare a novelist think that she could possibly speak for someone like Cromwell?  How dare a novelist imagine that he or she could possibly understand what a 16th century churchman/courtier thought or felt like?

The ferocity of the reaction surprised this novelist.  As did the academics’ undisguised contempt for historical fiction in general.

She then raised a point to the audience which I have been thinking for some years now–ever since I got a similar brush-off/mouthful from a, er, well, yes, it was a Cambridge don too.

She said she’d wished to say something along the lines of:  “You should actually be thanking us.  You should be thanking Mantel.  Because without us, you wouldn’t have a next generation of students.  We’re the people who engage people with the past.  We’re keeping bums on your seats.”

And that’s exactly it.

The novels of Dorothy Dunnett and Hilary Mantel and Robert Low and Simon Scarrow and Bernard Cornwell and Patrick O’Brian and hosts of other historical fiction novelists are responsible for generations of people getting caught up in the drama, pageantry and disasters of the past.

Historical fiction writers take the works of academics–such as the book I am currently reading, which can only have been intended for other academics–and put the people, the characters, back.  We put the colour back, we tell these breath-taking and brilliant stories, all set in the past.  We keep it alive and vivid and real.  And as a result, people get hooked on history.

And the young ones, many of them go on to university, go on to read…yes, history.

(It’s certainly how I got started down this path…)

(And now I shall go back to the tortured prose of a man–I’m sure he’s a delightful old fossil, really–who needs to get out even more than I do.)

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16 comments on “The value of historical fiction…

  1. Historical fiction…not to be confused with fictional history, which is the dreck I’m forced to counteract almost daily in my classroom because our textbooks are full of it. 😀

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Get them reading historical fiction. Can I recommend a couple of titles? Of Honest Fame, perhaps? May 1812 is another…Ha ha ha. The Battle of Wagram by Gilles Lapouge is rather fine–won the Prix Goncourt, that one did.

  2. One of my history professors said that good history is good writing. You can’t have the one without the other.

  3. Very, very true. If I’d never opened a Sharpe novel I would still be in blissful ignorance of just about everything Napoleonic (not that I’m suggesting I know very much, even now). And I’d have lots more bookshelf space.
    Novels even taught me which historians to avoid. (Stainless steel scabbards in 1870’s South Africa? I don’t think so, Mr David).

  4. Mignon Fahr says:

    O, now, now, Bennetts! It’s obvious if “We’re the people who engage people with the past. We’re keeping bums on your seats,” they’re the ones keeping the nice hard wooden seats for our bums. . .Platforms is what! Good ole’ fossils, indeed.

    Have a collection myself, on a flat plate. Study ’em daily. Full of hard points and holes, they are. Nice little fossils. Just don’t enter their cavernous mouths, is all.

    (Better you than me. Thank you for bravely entering those realms!)

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I’ve been in these realms all afternoon–with a fellow who mistakes arcane political scientific theory for history–you know the stuff with dates, place, people and what they actually DID. Ha ha ha.

      Still, I tell myself this is providing me with several useful lines of enquiry…

  5. Dan Allosso says:

    Your comments on The Historical Society lured me here. Good points (both places). I’ve been wrestling with the decision whether to write fiction or non, about a couple of really interesting characters I’ve found in my grad school research. I, too, got into reading history (at the grad level) via speculative fiction — Neal Stephenson, in my case.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Neal Stephenson is a god in this household. Sits in the Pantheon just down from Patrick O’Brian, he does. And Stephenson must be held responsible for turning at least one member of the family into an all-out Restoration history addict who adorns the shelves with biographies of Wren, Vanbrugh and books by Lisa Jardine.

      As for the decision whether to write fiction or non-fiction…I know of at least one novelist who found himself writing history because it turned out the subject he was researching for a novel, well, there weren’t any non-fiction books written about it at all and his research had made him ‘the expert’.

      • Fiction! Write fiction – much more interesting than (most of)those dusty old NFs.
        But if you do write NF, stick with it. Don’t turn into one of those ‘Well – I’ve written a couple of learned discourses and my publisher thinks I should try a novel,to make him some real money, so why not?’
        Most of the time they just don’t hack it.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        I finished the tome of diabolically tortured prose parading as history just this morning. I did not turn the air blue–I refrained as I was seated in a charming part of a charming hotel on a charming island and would not have liked to offend the very kind lady who had just brought me tea. However, this I will say, ****, ****, ****, ****…

        It was that bad. It drained the life out of the past with a verve unmatched since Christopher Lee last played Dracula.

        So I, I shall be sticking with historical fiction. And you have my word on that.

  6. Ben Bennetts says:

    Here is Bernard Shaw taking the mick out of music “critics” (sic) by applying their “techniques” (sic) to a reasonably well-known line by Shakespeare:

    “Shakespeare, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognise the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends. Here we reach a colon; and a pointed pository phrase, in which the accent falls decisively on the relative pronoun, brings us to the first full stop.”

  7. JLOakley says:

    I write both. I love to write historical fiction, but have, as mentioned like another writer above, written non-fiction pieces because through the research, I’ve garnered some material that just isn’t out there for the public. I was trained as a historian, so I think I have the eye for the organization of the research. Like MM, I’ve read some dreadful academic stuff and actually for my undergraduate thesis vowed to write it so the public could understand it. I got honors.

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