Kate Taylor of The Globe and Mail did this lovely double interview with historical novelists Philippa Gregory and Wayne Johnston, about… well, about how hard it is to make people understand the nature, purpose and rules of historical fiction.
Why, why, why, oh why is it that we have to spend so much time rebutting angry accusations of sloppiness, laziness, too much imagination, too little imagination – or pointing out that it is, you know, a novel? And this is not about historical accuracy, mind, but about the fictional characters and bits we all weave into the historical context…
But do read the interview – tellingly titled Truth and Lies: I’m not sure it really answers the question Why, but it certainly gives fodder for thought.
Davide Mana said:
Historical fiction writers have it easy.
Just go and try writing historical fantasy – that’s the literary version of the Chinese hell-of-being-chained-upside-down.
You go and check your fact, and you are excited at the potential history offers, and carefully shape your fantasy to fit the nooks and crannies of what’s accepted as “historical fact”, and you worry like no one worried before because you set the fall of Knossos almost fifty years later than according to actual archaeological data…
a . you get the guy that makes the bestseller list with a story in which a character wields a frigging rapier in 9th century Caucasus…
b . the guy that writes about Jesuits at the Crusades (!!!) and says it’s ok, “hey, man, it’s just fantasy fiction, right?”
Historical fantasy is hell.
[jokes apart – great interview, thanks for the pointer]
la Clarina said:
And how about the bestselling fellow who had Hannibal Barca greet a character as a prodigal son? Then again, in the same book, Hannibal wrote with quills, and spoke of hordaly, so…
But as I said, this time it’s not about accuracy. It’s because you dare to add in fictional bits – which is, when you think of it, exactly what makes it a novel.
I won’t go so far as to call it hell, but purgatory it certainly is. 🙂
Davide Mana said:
I think we already discussed the thing about the prodigal son.
Was there at the time of Hannibal a concept to express what we express as “prodigal son”?
It’s likely. Something based on the everyday experience of the people of that time and culture, maybe some old story or whatever.
maybe they said “being like the baker’s delivery boy” or “Acting like Clesyphon in Thebes” or whatever.
Now what do I do?
Do I spend six weeks researching the original idiom, then use it and add a footnote?
Do I play fast and loose and make up something that will sound plausible, and then explain it with a bit of exposition?
Avoid the idiom and the simile and keep mum?
Or do I use the modern equivalent?
I think the last choice is not so bad.
I’m choosing immediacy over accuracy – it’s a matter of language, of style.
You can find it grating, but it’s not inherently “wrong” (for want of a better word).
Of course, putting the wrong technology in a certain time period is quite another story – it’s not a matter of language and equivalents, it’s just plain wrong… be it a quill or a rapier 😉
As for people being unable to tell fiction from non fiction – I think there’s special places for them, with nice, soft walls and white jackets laced in theback…
la Clarina said:
Hm… no, I can’t agree – or perhaps in principle, and sometimes, but not on this specific case. The prodigal son is not some generic idiom, it is firmly placed, both historically and culturally. When I find it bandied about by IIIrd Century b.C. Carthaginians, I can’t help jumping and being jarred right out of the story. All else apart, I can’t say there was a consistent policy throughout the novel of using modern idioms for immediacy’s sake – in fact, rather the contrary – so the ones I found were all the more grating, and smacked badly of cultural anachronism. And of laziness as well: there is *always* a way around.
So yes – I’m afraid I consider this sort of thing narratively wrong, as well as historically, or at the very least a poor choice.
Then again, I have been known to start on a rant over much less, when it comes to anachronism in historical fiction… Pet peeve and all that. 😉