on telling it like it (sort of) was

Yesterday I continued to explore Goodreads.com, a large social-networking site for readers of books. Seeking readers whom I might be able to interest in my own book Truth of the Python, I started looking at discussion groups on the topic of historical fiction. One interesting thread I came across was “History and Fiction: how much of which?” Here I stopped to read some of the posts.

I saw that the topic was important to both readers and writers of historical fiction, and that there doesn’t seem to be much consensus even on the definitions of terms like history and historical fiction. One point made by a number of people was that they liked to include—or see included—an “author’s note” in historical novels mentioning which historical facts had been changed or fudged by the author. They felt that this helps to keep the boundary between “history” and “fiction” clear, lets knowledgeable readers know that the changes are not errors, and lets less knowledgeable readers know which parts of the book they can disregard for educational purposes (for some readers admit that their primary source of education about history is reading historical fiction). But opinion is very divided on how much changing of history is allowable or reasonable in a historical novel. Some want only a strict minimum of change necessary to tell the story; others feel that anything goes if it makes the story better.

Where do I stand on this? One thing I know: I don’t like “author’s notes” in historical novels. For me they add nothing, and only detract from the enjoyment of the book. Why is that? Maybe it’s because I can’t think of any worthwhile motive for having them there. If you’re trying to show the reader how much work you went through to research the book, it’s a piece of marketing, and the reader has already acquired the book. It could be construed as bragging, or maybe complaining, neither of which helps the author’s cause. Sometimes the note points out how little research the author has done, as with Mary Stewart and her excellent Arthurian novel The Crystal Cave. In this case it serves as a kind of apology, and again it’s hard to see what good this does.

In general, I get the feeling that these author’s notes exist in order to pump the authority of the writer by addressing technical matters that are likely to be appreciated only by historians familiar with the period in question. In this case there’s a feeling of shop talk among experts, perhaps intended to let readers know, “don’t worry—I know what I’m talking about.” But this is, at best, redundant, because the reader senses the writer’s authority very quickly and easily from the text itself; even as nonexperts we know when the writer knows what he’s talking about.

But there’s a deeper problem. The very notion that there is a clear distinction between historical fact and historical fiction is somewhat of an illusion, as noted by such authorities as Arnold J. Toynbee and Ludwig von Mises. The Greek word historia is the source of both the English words history and story. Even apart from the fact that historical “facts” are often not as sure as we like to think, history itself is storytelling, and makes use of “fictional” techniques. A good historian is always a good storyteller.

I arrive at what I think is my biggest problem with author’s notes: they imply that, with the exceptions made in the note, the book can be regarded as historically accurate. That’s a big claim, and an implausible one. To me, again, it seems safer to avoid making it. Tell your story, and let the reader be the judge.

My grade 5 classmate Don McCaskell came up with a mnemonic device to keep straight the difference between fiction and nonfiction: one was “bull”, the other was “non-bull”. With historical fiction, the writer is setting out to write “non-bull bull”; who’s to say what the authority of the result is?

The author can hint that most of what he’s written is gospel, but even the gospel writers don’t agree with each other—although they do tell a pretty good story.

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