Gentle Reminder: Making Stuff Up Is Called “Fiction”

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BBC Magazine, September 5:

A point of view: When historical fiction is more truthful than historical fact

“More truthful” are the key words in that headline. An historian would argue that mixing fiction with history is precisely where a great danger lies. However, according to Lisa Jardine, a professor of Renaissance Studies (in the Humanities) at the University of London, and writing at the BBC web site, there is apparently little to worry about:

….For some time I have been researching the lives of a group of scientists who worked on the development of the atomic bomb during World War Two. Although there are several impeccably researched non-fiction works on the subject and a number of biographies, none of these really conveyed to me the emotions and convictions that drove their work – I simply could not connect with the personal principles of the scientists who collaborated with such energy to produce the period’s ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

In my search for understanding the motivation of those who joined the race to produce the bomb whose use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki appalled the world, I eventually decided to turn from fact to fiction. If historians could not fill the gaps in the record that made the knowledge I was after so elusive, perhaps storytellers less shackled by documented evidence might do so….

….Sometimes it takes something other than perfect fidelity to sharpen our senses, to focus our attention sympathetically, in order to give us emotional access to the past. Silence comes between the historian and the truth he or she looks to the sources to reveal. Thank goodness for the creative imagination of fiction writers, who can reconnect us with the historical feelings, as well as the facts.

I am very uncomfortable with that “point of view.” Here’s why.

In the absence of their own words and thoughts, it is perfectly understandable some desire to invent words and thoughts in order to be better illuminate historical figures’ motivations. However, there is a line. Every writer must be cognizant of it.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of two medieval knights.
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of two medieval knights.

If you have seen the John Adams miniseries, you heard dialogue coming from historical figures. As something of a Thomas Jefferson hobbyist, I discerned just about everything the Thomas Jefferson character said on screen was something Jefferson had written at some point in his life. It may have not been written in the exact context used in the series, but Jefferson pretty much said it at some time or another.

Relatedly, coincidentally you may know I just decided to entertain myself with a read of The Winds Of War. Writing about the run up to World War II, Herman Wouk did not use his historical fiction to try to get “inside the heads” of historical figures. Insofar as I can tell, he leaves the “thinking” to the fictional characters he had created and 100 percent controlled.

Both are by far the sounder approaches. For if there are no words, well, sorry, there are no words. To pretend we can “read minds” is a profound disservice to history. I wouldn’t want someone 70 years from now trying to read my mind. Would you?

Oh, yes, when you as an author are giving historical figures dialogue “to focus our attention sympathetically, in order to give us emotional access to the past,” you may know the line. But you’re playing with serious fire. Most readers and viewers probably will be unable to spot the difference between established fact and your storytelling that is, uh, “less shackled by documentary evidence.”

One comment

  1. It is bad enough that, as is much too often the case, there are at least two different “histories”: that told by the victor and the one remembered by the vanquished.
    Now someone thinks that we also need a third one? And what shall we call it, “fant-history”?
    I agree: I can easily do without it, thank you very much.

    Liked by 1 person

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