Of the genre: Historical fiction
Reading ‘The Living Reed’ by Pearl S Buck got me thinking about this.
Pearl S Buck lived for several decades in China and so we have reason to believe, most of her depections of the county and her people must be close to accurate. But Ms Buck on Korea? I’m not so sure of the authenticity of the facts presented . But, that should be alright, this is historical fiction. Or is it really alright? I am glad I thought of this now, after having read several books that fall into the said category.
Andrew Graham Dixon, a British art historian says –
The historical novel has always been a literary form at war with itself. The very term, implying a fiction somehow grounded in fact – a lie with obscure obligations to the truth – is suggestive of the contradictions of the genre.
It is not only him, many think, historical fiction is “history told as a story”. Actually, it is not! It is fiction. Some would say “fiction set in the past” which I find more acceptable but, do not completely agree with.
Defining historical fiction is tricky. Many things here are subjective. There are many opinions on how far in the past must a work be – for it to be classified historical rather than contemporary. Sir Walter Scott suggested that “historical” means, at least two generations in the past. More recent authors have suggested that 25 years would be a reasonable amount. Society of historical fiction says, the events in the book must have happened fifty or more years in the past.
Whose past is it? The authors or the readers? Some argue, it is the authors past saying, “The author should never personally experience the era described “. This, for a good reason: most stories are not just vivid imaginations of the authors. They are in fact closely related either consciously or unconsciously to the views of the author on an event. The view is more often than not, more dramatic if the author lived during the era. This bias, tends to distort the presentation of the event, as opposed to an unbiased presentation, that is based on research.
Some would say, it is the reader’s past that differentiates contemporary and historical fiction. I have seen “The diary of a young girl” being categorized as historical fiction. Going by this, all biographies / autobiographies, at some point in the future, would be historical fiction. But if we go with the “author’s past” definition, some very important works that have been long categorized as historical fiction would no longer fall into this – works like story of Wenamun, The Good Earth, etc.
A more interesting question is – does the book not have some obligation to the truth? How much of truth must be there? and, how much fiction is allowed before the book is classified as fantasy? The answer depends on who you ask.
Sarah Johnson, Assistant Professor, Eastern Illinois University defines two historical fictions – one, “genre historical fiction” and another “literary historical fiction”
“Genre historical fiction,” by which I mean historical fiction that simply goes out to tell a good story, has always been popular with readers, if library circulation figures are anything to go by.
In this liberal description, the inspiration is from historical facts which is not necessarily same as truth. To avoid taking off tangentially, let’s just say, history is a body of material that has survived over time and political interests of people. This would let some books bordering between fanstasy and history sneek into historical fiction.
The goal of literary historical fiction is not to show readers exactly what life was like in a historical time period, although it may have that effect. Rather, authors who write literary historical center their tales not on the historical setting but on the plot, which may help us better understand the differences (or parallels) between then and now, and on characters who manage to transcend time and speak to us from their own perspective in a way that we, today, can understand. One definition of literary historical fiction is “fiction set in the past but which emphasizes themes that pertain back to the present.”
This, I think is the upper limit, as in, the border between historical fiction and history text books. Most books I’ve read fall between the two bounds Sarah speaks of. As a reader of historical fiction, what I look for is, truth about established world events. The author should not alter important facts about famous people without research and evidence. However, the author can fill in details, where there are none to give flesh and blood to the story. For instance, we do not know what Tsu Hzi’s food habits were like. So, it is ok if the author says, she likes eating Chinese cabbage / sweet meats or even kimchee. But it is not ok if the author says, she liked pasta. There is a possibility she indeed liked pasta – but that claim requires evidence for, it is not believable. I would not take kindly to an author that gets popular folktales/proverbs wrong. Anachronisms are the worst things in any book – especially, historical fiction. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not a stickler for perfection. Say, you are reading a book set in ancient (200 BC) Greece. If someone uses words like – “debriefing”, “out of the box”, “bounce ideas of each other” and such, would that not disturb you?
What I am not looking for is an accurate and dry account of the event(s). If that was what I was looking for, I would go read history. What I’m looking for is an account of the historical event from within the event – thru the eyes of the protagonist or people who might not have played an important role, but have lived in such times and have been impacted by the larger events. Inaccurate every day activities and people descriptions are entirely unacceptable since that is the story of the people, the spirit of the book – the reason for reading historical fiction. What I’m looking for is the truth of the spirit.