Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Window Into the Past?

There has been a lot of controversy about a recent decision to withdraw from publication a work of historical fiction described as "A romantic novel."

There have been a lot of discussions about why the subject matter of this particular book caused offence (see here, here and here for very long threads at the Smart Bitches) and I don't see any need to duplicate them here, but I would like to highlight one issue which was raised as part of that conversation, namely the issue of historical accuracy in works of historical fiction.

The author of the novel in question, Sherry Jones, seemed to be emphasising the historical accuracy of the novel and the extent of her research when she wrote that "It is not a romance novel. It's historical fiction with a 29-page bibliography." However, in later comments she added that "with historical fiction—you alter the details, when needed, in service of the story" and "Please do remember, everyone—this is fiction! If my intention was to remain completely true to the historical record, I would have penned a nonfiction book. The story is the thing!"

Historical fiction, it seems, performs a balancing act between the need to entertain and provide a good story, and the desire to remain relatively true to the known historical facts. Diana Wallace has written about historical fiction's complex relationship with history that
Any historical novel is related to history in at least four ways: in its choice of period setting; in its engagement with the moment of its writing; in its relation to the literary history of the genre; and in its relation to the biography of its writer. While reviews often tend to focus on the first of these, judging a historical novel on the 'authenticity' of its period setting, any attempt to historicise the historical novel needs to consider the complex inter-relations between these elements. The way in which any chosen period is represented, for instance, frequently tells us more about the historical moment of writing than about the period the author is portraying.
Philippa Gregory has also had some interesting observations to add on the topic of history and accuracy in historical fiction, and in the process she's rather dismissive of romances:
a good historical novel has characters whose basic humanity engages our empathy and whose convincing circumstances remind us that the past is, indeed, another country. This is the opposite of romance fiction which is drawn to historical settings: not because it aims to explore how people are affected by the society in which they live; but because it depends on the imaginary glamour of the past: the long frocks and big hats, horse drawn transport, and high jeopardy. Romance fiction has no interest in different times and cultures, in the worst examples, its stories are told in a vacuum.

All but the very best romance fiction tends to deploy a limited number of character types: the heroine: vulnerable, pure, loving, the female villain: manipulative, sexual, heartless, the male villain: aggressive, uncontrolled, cruel, and the hero: loving, but often mistaken. The cardboard characters come ready-made, they are not forged by their particular experiences, by their history or by their society; nothing interrupts them working their way through their story to the happy ending.

High quality historical fiction is not like this. A good historical novel tells of characters who are entirely congruent with the known conditions of their time, and yet sufficiently independent in thought and action to stand out from the crowd, and for the modern reader to identify with them.
I haven't got any profound commentary to add, but I'd be very interested to learn your thoughts about historical fiction, the balance to be struck between accuracy and entertainment, and whether it's necessary to be more careful when writing about real people rather than fictional people in a historical setting. Does historical fiction open up a window into the past in a way that's accessible, or does it really tell us more about contemporary attitudes and beliefs? How much can we learn about history from it, and how often do you think it misleads readers?

The image is of "One of the embrasures, or window alcoves, of the Hall of the Ambassadors in the Alhambra at Granada, Spain," and I found it at Wikimedia Commons.

35 comments:

  1. I have had many exchanges with Talpianna and others about two types of modern fiction that disturb me deeply, but that evidently do not trouble most other readers. Both are relevant to the lively controversy about Jones’s book.

    The first has to do with imaginative works featuring ancient deities, and I won’t dwell on it for too long, but it makes me very angry indeed to see, for instance, members of the Graeco-Roman pantheon treated as figures of comedy, or even as characters of any kind, in modern fiction. This is not because I, personally, worship them, but because many people in the past did worship them, and treating anyone’s deity(ies) flippantly is a gratuitous insult. The fact that the worshippers are no longer alive makes no difference. It may well be that decades of immersing myself in the culture of Classical Antiquity has helped me to understand how, and why, that is so offensive, and of course, fictionalised treatment of historical figures in Islam impinges directly on devout modern Moslems (I shall use the traditional spelling I have used all my life), whose reactions will be predictably strong.

    The other element is about the recreation of history, whether in the form of academic treatise or fiction. These are givens:

    (1) total detachment and objectivity are unattainable aims for human beings;
    (2) full knowledge of what took place in the past (or often, the present) is another unattainable aim;
    (3) each and every one of us is a product of his own culture, and there will be elements of other cultures, past or present, that we simply cannot grasp.

    So far, so good. But the fact that it is impossible to achieve the desired detachment does not mean that we shouldn’t try! The fact that we will all die in due course does not mean that we do not fight illness, and try to deflect the final accounting as long as we can. Perfection cannot be achieved, but we should still strive towards it; it should still be our ultimate standard.

    The traditional type of historical novel (including good historical romance), in which the author tries to recreate an historical setting as accurately as possible, can be immensely valuable in firing an interest in the past in its readers and also in providing a basic factual framework. Most of us would sooner read a good story about individual characters set in the past than a scholarly analysis of the same historical period. If the chief characters are completely invented (as in Heyer’s books, for example), the facts and settings are as accurate as the author can manage, and any real historical personage makes only brief appearances, I see no harm in the genre, but only good. I am not sure I admit Gregory's distinction between 'historical novel' and 'historical romance' at all. The conventions of the romance do not, in my view, preclude a responsible attitude towards history.

    But a fictional biography of a real person from the past is another matter. So is any work that plays fast and loose with the accepted facts of history or real people in history (yes, I know those ‘facts’ may not be accurate, but if we want to correct errors, fiction is not the method we should employ), let alone a work that takes a fantasy view of the past, and paints a Regency England in which ‘magic’ flourished. The potential for misleading the reader becomes much, much greater. It is being done all the time now, in television as well as published books, and I think it is pernicious, leading us back, away from the rationality of the Enlightenment into the superstition of the Middle Ages. If someone writes an ‘alternate history’ (the word should be ‘alternative’, of course, but I understand that ‘alternate’ is what many aficionados call it) of a place and period that the average educated Brit or American knows something about, they will know that it is not an attempt to be ‘real history’. But what if it is about 3rd-century BC China, Mughal India – or, as in this case, 7thC AD Middle East? How many of us know enough about these periods and places to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff? Not many. The reader may go away with some serious misapprehensions.

    I think history is immensely important. Humanity is, to the best of our knowledge, the only species that is able to learn something about events that took place before the lifetimes of its individuals – and to profit from that knowledge. Yes, fiction and storytelling are important too, because they are ancient human traditions, and so is freedom of speech, in more recent society. But when the study of history is so fraught with difficulty, when it is incredibly difficult for any of us to see history in a balanced, let alone a complete, way, it is positively perverse to distort it deliberately.

    One thing that always makes me see red is that statement, ‘but it is FICTION’. Yes, there is a difference between invention and lies, but there is no problem about writing great fiction, contemporary or historical, that does not misrepresent reality.

    Okay, I’ll have offended quite a few people by now. I’ll stop.

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  2. I am not sure I admit Gregory's distinction between 'historical novel' and 'historical romance' at all. The conventions of the romance do not, in my view, preclude a responsible attitude towards history.

    What I find ironic is that, if one accepts your distinction between the novels with a factual framework and those which are fictional biographies, historical romances may, in general, be more responsible in their use of history, because they generally don't cast real historical figures as the central protagonists. It's works like Gregory's which deal with real, historical people and ensure that they are depicted in a way which renders them "sufficiently independent in thought and action to stand out from the crowd, and for the modern reader to identify with them" which, I think, may be more likely to lead the reader astray.

    I know that my view of certain historical personages is irrevocably shaped by the fiction I've read. Despite the fact that, if I think about it logically, I know that some of the most poignant details or touching scenes must be ones which emerged from the novelist's brain and not the historical record, they can nonetheless be the ones which have the most emotional impact.

    I know historians aren't always able to resist the temptation to fictionalise and fill in gaps. Just recently I read this assessment of Macaulay by David McKie which I found amusing yet insightful:

    For some time now I have regularly writhed, inwardly howled, and, even at moments on trains when the onslaught was at its most merciless, clapped my ancient hands over my ears at the constant reiteration by young people addressing their friends or yabbering into their mobes of the once inoffensive word "like". "I was, like ... " they keep saying, a formula which has now superseded "I went ... " as a replacement for the boring traditional form "I said". Until a few days ago, I thought of this practice as unpardonably careless and slovenly. Then, while reading the works of Thomas Babington Macaulay, I came to see it was justified - even admirable.

    One has to worry about Macaulay when, for instance, he writes in his account of the battle of Sedgemoor, that the king's commander, the odious Louis Duras, Earl of Feversham, heard firing, got out of bed, adjusted his cravat, looked at himself in the glass, and went out to see what his men were doing. How did Macaulay know about the tinkering with the cravat? Had Feversham's batman noted it down in a diary? Macaulay's chief delight was in telling a story, and sometimes he could not resist the temptation to slip in a detail or two which more rigorous writers would shun.


    It's when historical fiction seems most accurate yet in fact contains inaccuracies and inventions in a believable guise that readers are most likely to be led astray, I think.

    That's perhaps why I'm not particularly concerned by stories which, for example depict "a Regency England in which ‘magic’ flourished" because the presence of magic, vampires etc generally signals very clearly that the story is not intended to be read as historically accurate in any of its particulars. I suppose it might be argued that they should really be labelled "fantasy" rather than "historical."

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  3. The only book by Gregory I've ever read is THE WISE WOMAN, and from what I remember about it, it did not exactly "tell[] of characters who are entirely congruent with the known conditions of their time." (Women giving birth to babies made of wax, anybody?)

    As you probably know, Laura, I've just given a workshop on historical accuracy and anachronisms at the Romance Divas' Not Going to the Conference Conference. :) I do believe that authors of both historical fiction and historical romance should strive to get their details right. Yet there are times when you should happily embrace anachronisms, e.g., when it comes to diseases (how likely is it that in times of sheep-gut condoms Regency rakes sleep with half the women in the whole of England and then some more on the continent, and never ever pick up some interesting STDs?), personal hygiene (rotten teeth, anybody?), and, of course, language: "Lemman, love me al atones, or I wol dyen, also God me save" might have worked for Chaucer, but it works less well for a 21st-century writer.

    Does historical fiction open up a window into the past in a way that's accessible, or does it really tell us more about contemporary attitudes and beliefs?

    It's a little bit of both, isn't it? Good historical fiction of any kind can indeed open up a window into the past and rouse the reader's interest in history (Rosemary Sutcliff certainly did it for me). Yet in order to make the story accessible for the modern reader, the author also has to include some sort of common denominators. Furthermore, an author cannot shake off her own cultural background or her own time's view of history.

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  4. leading us back, away from the rationality of the Enlightenment into the superstition of the Middle Ages.

    No, no, if anywhere, the mixture of history and fantasy is leading us forward into the realms of Romanticism.

    That's perhaps why I'm not particularly concerned by stories which, for example depict "a Regency England in which ‘magic’ flourished" because the presence of magic, vampires etc generally signals very clearly that the story is not intended to be read as historically accurate in any of its particulars.

    In some of its particulars. I can show you a slug onna thorn in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. (Actually, that's how I learnt the word slug.) And a bullock's heart stuck with nails and thorns for witchcraft purposes. It used to be right next to a rather interesting and utterly disgusting black object that used to be a toad. I'm going to use that one in my next novel.

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  5. "Women giving birth to babies made of wax, anybody?"

    Mary Tofts, in 1726, said she'd given birth to rabbits (I've linked to a quick summary but there are more links here).

    I've just given a workshop on historical accuracy and anachronisms at the Romance Divas' Not Going to the Conference Conference

    Yes, I did, but I'm a bit intimidated by websites/groups which require me to sign up before I can read the content. It also means remembering yet another username and password.

    there are times when you should happily embrace anachronisms, e.g., when it comes to diseases (how likely is it that in times of sheep-gut condoms Regency rakes sleep with half the women in the whole of England and then some more on the continent, and never ever pick up some interesting STDs?)

    Neither the anachronisms nor the rakes sound very appealing to me, so if possible I'd rather not embrace either of them. ;-)

    a bullock's heart stuck with nails and thorns for witchcraft purposes

    I take your point, and I should have been clearer in what I was saying. Of course witchcraft and magic have been, and still are, considered real by some people, so you could get some details accurate inasmuch as they'd reflect those beliefs and practices. But if the Duke of Wellington were to be depicted as a magician, or Lord Nelson were transformed into a vampire, there's not a lot of chance I'd make the mistake of thinking that the source of what I was reading was non-fictional historical accounts.

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  6. Conscripted Cherry11 August, 2008 04:32

    Good historical fiction of any kind can indeed open up a window into the past and rouse the reader's interest in history

    And this is why I'm an historian. My sixth grade teacher read "Rifles for Watie" by Harold Keith to our class. I think it was the first time it really struck me that people in the past were just people who happened to live before I did.

    I love well written fiction no matter when it takes place: past, present, or future. I do NOT like making real historical figures the lead in a piece of fiction. I like even less those who say they are writing non-fiction and then put in dialog and actions that have no "truth" and are "in keeping with the person."

    I must agree with AgTigress in regards to deities of the past, the basic rule is don't do it. One of the most heated discussions I have engaged in was with a woman who used Kokopelli as a decoration for her Christmas tree because they were "cute."

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  7. I take your point, and I should have been clearer in what I was saying.

    No, sorry, that was my mistake. Your point was absolutely clear the first time around. I should have made it clearer that my tongue was firmly stuck in my cheek when I replied to your post and mentioned the bullock's heart and the slug-onna-thorn, both of which make an appearance in Bewitched.

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  8. Cherry, I'd not heard of Kokopelli before, so I looked him up, and it seems he gets put in a lot of unexpected (and no doubt debatably inappropriate) places, including one company that makes blinds and shutters. They say that "Kokopelli’s flute playing chases away the winter, and brings the spring planting season" so I suppose at a stretch, if someone had that in mind, it might make sense to put him on a Christmas tree, sort of, if they were thinking of Christmas as a winter solstice festival.

    I suspect quite a lot of people think of Christmas as primarily a present-giving-and-food-eating festival which is rather "cute" because it involves a baby and sparkly decorations.

    Good historical fiction of any kind can indeed open up a window into the past and rouse the reader's interest in history

    Sandra, you may have mentioned the bullock's heart in a tongue-in-cheek way (hmm, that sounds disgusting! ;-) ), but it's a valid point that some aspects of your story were derived from historical artefacts. What was your motivation in doing that? Was it just because you were interested in for its own sake and thought you might as well include the details, or did you think that maybe your readers would be motivated to learn more about the history of magic?

    I can see how historical fiction might "rouse the reader's interest in history" but I do wonder how often it does so while also

    (a) creating nostalgia for a supposed "golden age" in which things were different, better, more romantic, more principled etc. I'm thinking, for example, of versions of the medieval aristocracy which focus on the ideals of chivalry, but rather ignore or try to overlook the reality that most nobles could be thought of as the equivalent of modern career politicians.

    or

    (b) smoothing over the real differences between the historical characters and the modern readers in order to make the belief systems, way of life etc of the past seem more similar to those of the modern reader (though of course not all modern readers have the same cultural background).

    In the latter case I wonder if the reader is encouraged to think of exceptional individuals from the past, who are depicted as "sufficiently independent in thought and action to stand out from the crowd," as being similar to the modern reader, who may not be very independent in thought at all. I wonder if that subtly (or not so subtly) reinforces the idea that some people have of history as a record of humanity's supposedly inexorable march towards progress.

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  9. High quality historical fiction is not like this. A good historical novel tells of characters who are entirely congruent with the known conditions of their time, and yet sufficiently independent in thought and action to stand out from the crowd, and for the modern reader to identify with them.

    As most of you have pointed out, this statement is flat out encouraging the creation of fiction, one way or another. Because, get real, most historical characters don't stand out from the crowd. Writers have to make them do so by creating their thoughts and feelings and sometimes even actions to resonate with readers the same way fiction writers do. Oh, yeah, sometimes they have a real life stating point to work from but that still doesn't make some of it any more or less a fabrication of imagination than the other.

    What gets me about historical writing, and I personally stick to biographies and autobiographies for exactly this reason, is that we do know exactly how most of them end - in death. There is absolutely no way to avoid it. With real people that is the inevitable end. Which is the major problem with the logic of the individual quoted above when they speak about romantic fiction:

    The cardboard characters come ready-made, they are not forged by their particular experiences, by their history or by their society; nothing interrupts them working their way through their story to the happy ending.

    Uh, yes, exactly, but then again, I don't already know they're going to ultimately die either. I do know they're going to get together. Deal with it.

    Sounds almost crazy, doesn't it? And yet, it is that very suspension of disbelief which separates most popular fiction from most non-fiction and other fiction for that matter. Readers willingly do it in most cases. That's why it sells. It's not about realism or reality. It's not about historical accuracy, technical accuracy or any other kind or accuracy. It's about being willing to accept for a short period of time that this is the world that the author has created and I'm going to immerse myself in it.

    Sometimes it just happens to have a strong resemblance to certain eras on Earth, regardless of genre. Heck, sometimes it has a strong resemblance to certain eras on Earth even when it isn't even Earth. We are after are human beings. We like familiar things. Tweaked a little, admittedly.

    What is wrong with letting imagination rule instead of logic at times, people?

    And I ask that quite seriously because when one deals with fan cultures this is a question that comes up quite a bit - realism vs. fantasy. (fantasy there being non-realism/reality) There are fans in any fandom who are sticklers for total realism, whatever that might be. People tend to either be rule-makers or rule-breakers. It gets ridiculous when they might even be talking about magical realism. How does one even attempt to define magical realism when we're dealing with the imagination of authors? That's what I'm talking about.

    So, anyway, yeah, historical accuracy is important to me. OTOH, it's not more important to me than the story being told. However, if the story being told is of a real person, then I'd expect the facts to be right and then it gets sticky. Why? Because I'm not going to sit there and read a listing of facts. Someone better tell me a story.

    Plain and simple.

    And around and around we go. ;)

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  10. but it's a valid point that some aspects of your story were derived from historical artefacts. What was your motivation in doing that?

    I put them in purely for my own entertainment. :) Ever since I saw these charms at the Pitt Rivers I've wanted to include them in a story. All research I do is first and foremost for my own entertainment: I've always been interested in people's life in the past, and reading folklore has only worsened this particular affliction. Finding an early 19th-century recipe for bergamot drops can make me quite giddy with excitement. I don't think of the readers at all when I use stuff like that for my fiction.

    I'm thinking, for example, of versions of the medieval aristocracy which focus on the ideals of chivalry, but rather ignore or try to overlook the reality that most nobles could be thought of as the equivalent of modern career politicians.

    This is a nice description of Victorian medievalism, which was perpetuated even after WW I and II, e.g., in Baden-Powell's (non-fictional) scouting books. I just love the beginning of "Chivalry for Others" in Scouting for Boys (Boys' Edition, 1953):

    "In days of old, when knights were bold," it must have been a fine sight to see one of these steel-clad horsemen come riding through the dark green woods in his shining armour, with shield and lance and waving plumes, bestriding his gallant war-horse, strong to bear its load, and full of fire to charge upon an enemy. [...] In peace time, when there was no fighting to be done, the knight would daily ride about looking for a chance of doing a good turn to any wanting help, especially a woman or child who might be in distress.

    That bit with the waving plumes always reminds me of the description of Lancelot in Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott." Needless to say that the picture Baden-Powell presents of the past, has absolutely nothing to do with reality. The past simply becomes a vehicle for a certain ideology.

    In historical romance there's probably a tendency to glorify the past in a less extreme and less ideologically driven way: as most protagonists are members of the nobility or at least of high society, authors usually present only the nicer side of life in the past (but with some adventure and drama thrown in, of course).

    When I made this statement about historical fiction of any kind being able to rouse the reader's interest in history, I was thinking of my childhood favourites, especially of Rosemary Sutcliff. I'd say her characters are true to their time and setting as much as fictional characters can be, but as friendship features strongly in all of her stories, I'd say the common denominator between characters and readers can be found on the level of basic human emotions. Does that make sense?

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  11. The first has to do with imaginative works featuring ancient deities, and I won’t dwell on it for too long, but it makes me very angry indeed to see, for instance, members of the Graeco-Roman pantheon treated as figures of comedy, or even as characters of any kind, in modern fiction. This is not because I, personally, worship them, but because many people in the past did worship them, and treating anyone’s deity(ies) flippantly is a gratuitous insult. The fact that the worshippers are no longer alive makes no difference. It may well be that decades of immersing myself in the culture of Classical Antiquity has helped me to understand how, and why, that is so offensive, and of course, fictionalised treatment of historical figures in Islam impinges directly on devout modern Moslems (I shall use the traditional spelling I have used all my life), whose reactions will be predictably strong.

    But are there any living cultures that would be offended by use of these ancient Graeco-Roman deities in literature?

    To me that is the question. And it's an honest one. There's too much mythology in this world that's ancient and, yes, from dead cultures. If we don't talk about it, it will absolutely die out completely. Which is the worse crime? To put a long forgotten deity into a work of fiction for a reader's enjoyment or forget they ever existed entirely?

    Another question would be when is use of a cultural deity inappropriate? What if the story was set during a time when a specific people actively believed in interacting with their gods? Or a time travel? Or one a fantasy on location that dealt with invoking a deity long-thought dead and buried? The list is endless. And not always humorous.

    One other side issue to this one is the modern literary equivalent to the pantheon of the gods of the ancients - the modern superheroes of the comic books. In many ways, they are our way of evoking the same qualities that many mythological pantheons share. The problem is that most of them are owned by corporations that don't like to share them with writers. Mythological deities aren't copyrighted.

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  12. "But are there any living cultures that would be offended by use of these ancient Graeco-Roman deities in literature?"

    No. But I do not care to insult our human ancestors. They were people, like us, and they deserve to be treated with the same courtesy that we accord our contemporaries. What difference does it make that they are dead? I don't see death as that important, frankly: the past is all around us, and we stand where we are today because of the choices our ancestors made, the paths they travelled. Each of us makes a mark on the world, and on the generations that follow. That mark is not erased by death or time.

    If you had a much-loved and much-respected grandmother, now dead, who was an admired celebrity in her own time, how would you react if someone wrote a frivolous comic book about her, full of scurrilous lies about her life, making fun of her? Would you not feel offended on her behalf, even though she was no longer on this plane of existence?

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  13. Heck, sometimes it has a strong resemblance to certain eras on Earth even when it isn't even Earth. [...]
    What is wrong with letting imagination rule instead of logic at times, people?

    And I ask that quite seriously because when one deals with fan cultures this is a question that comes up quite a bit - realism vs. fantasy.


    I don't think there's anything wrong with fantasy, and if one's trying to understand readers' fantasies and ideals, the very fact that it's invented can sometimes make it easier to analyse than more realistic fiction. The way some common romance plots are played out in paranormals, and the possibilities for characterisation, can be fascinating. It's also really intriguing to see when that "strong resemblance" to reality that you mention makes its appearance, and to think about why it does so.

    I wonder if what you mention about fan culture and "realism vs. fantasy" is in fact a debate about internal consistency in both world-building and characterisation.

    I just love the beginning of "Chivalry for Others" in Scouting for Boys (Boys' Edition, 1953)

    It's hilarious, particularly the bit about

    In peace time, when there was no fighting to be done, the knight would daily ride about looking for a chance of doing a good turn to any wanting help, especially a woman or child who might be in distress.

    It really makes me wonder if someone had read some chivalric romances and thought they reflected historical reality. It seems an excellent illustration of how misleading historical fiction and even "fantasy historical fiction" can be!

    as friendship features strongly in all of her stories, I'd say the common denominator between characters and readers can be found on the level of basic human emotions. Does that make sense?

    I think so, although it's not as though "basic human emotions" aren't filtered through culture. I'm not sure how much ideas about friendship have changed over the centuries, but ideas about love definitely have, and while I don't think that will necessarily affect the hormonal, bodily responses involved in falling in love, it must have some effect on how people think about what's happening to them and what they do about it. Sense and Sensibility, in which two sisters both experience the same emotions but respond to them very differently, could be seen as a fictional case study which explores this:

    Austen wrote this novel around the turn of the eighteenth century, on the cusp between two cultural movements: Classicism and Romanticism. Elinor represents the characteristics associated with eighteenth-century neo-classicism, including rationality, insight, judgment, moderation, and balance. [...] In contrast, Marianne represents the qualities associated with the emerging "cult of sensibility," embracing romance, imagination, idealism, excess, and a dedication to the beauty of nature. (Sparknotes)

    Bev, regarding ancient mythology and your statement that

    If we don't talk about it, it will absolutely die out completely. Which is the worse crime? To put a long forgotten deity into a work of fiction for a reader's enjoyment or forget they ever existed entirely?

    I think there's quite a bit of middle ground. First of all, we can write about these myths in non-fiction, and secondly if a work of fiction is "set during a time when a specific people actively believed in interacting with their gods" one could include descriptions of those people's beliefs and practices in the same way that in a contemporary romance you might include characters who pray, go to a church/mosque/synagogue etc. I think that would be quite different from creating pseudo-myths in which the gods are cast as main or secondary characters.

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  14. I wonder if what you mention about fan culture and "realism vs. fantasy" is in fact a debate about internal consistency in both world-building and characterisation.

    Oh, absolutely, they can be. Quite a few of them are in point of fact. That's not to say that there aren't those that don't have quite a bit in common with the historical accuracy debates, though, in the sense that they're about what's canon and what's not within a particular fandom. That's where things get blurred because fandom canon is "historical" record - written and rewritten many times over depending upon the fandom. Boggles the mind. That's where one can get literally get down to the nitpicking and wanting to bang one's head against a wall because there's simply no way to end some of the arguments. Notice I didn't say win. ;p

    I think there's quite a bit of middle ground. First of all, we can write about these myths in non-fiction, and secondly if a work of fiction is "set during a time when a specific people actively believed in interacting with their gods" one could include descriptions of those people's beliefs and practices in the same way that in a contemporary romance you might include characters who pray, go to a church/mosque/synagogue etc. I think that would be quite different from creating pseudo-myths in which the gods are cast as main or secondary characters.

    This is very true but I can't help wondering how the fact that the ancient Greeks themselves or at least some of the later storytellers featured many of the Olympian pantheon as extremely interactive characters plays into all this. I mean it's not like they kept them on a pedestal and never let them have contact with the lesser beings who worshiped them after all. To me, modern writers are only carrying on the tradition.

    But I could be wrong.

    If you had a much-loved and much-respected grandmother, now dead, who was an admired celebrity in her own time, how would you react if someone wrote a frivolous comic book about her, full of scurrilous lies about her life, making fun of her? Would you not feel offended on her behalf, even though she was no longer on this plane of existence?

    Hmm, but we were talking about pantheons of mythological deities, weren't we? Not actual people who lived and worked in ancient Greek and Rome? Or any other ancient culture. Nor am I talking about my grandmother. That's a big jump to equate the two.

    I've already said that I think historical fiction about real people should be as accurate as possible but is anyone going to tell me that even modern day Greeks think the ancient Greek gods weren't, um, interesting personalities as portrayed in their own literature and carvings of the time?

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  15. So, Bev, what's your stand on the literal interpretation of the Klingon translation of the bible? *evil mole grin*

    (No doubt some people think I'm kidding about this. Har.)

    Sandra, back in the very early days of the Society for Creative Anachronism, when their fanzine TOURNAMENTS ILLUMINATED was still produced on a Gestetner, I wrote an advice column for it under the name of "Dear Abbess." I got my answers from such sources as The Golden Bough,, Andreas Capellanus's The Art of Courtly Love, and Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft.

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  16. So, Bev, what's your stand on the literal interpretation of the Klingon translation of the bible? *evil mole grin*

    (No doubt some people think I'm kidding about this. Har.)


    I'm sure it would make for some fantastic reading. If I could read Klingon, that is. Their take on angels and devils alone would be interesting in the least. A-hem.

    Those Klingon's are notorious storytellers, you know. And love to relive their mythology. Over and over again. Of course, their operas about it give me a massive headache. (rolling eyes here :D)

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  17. Bev, I was quite serious. There actually IS a project to translate the Bible into Klingon; and they ARE arguing about literal interpretation. It was written up in LOCUS years ago.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klingon_Language_Institute

    Personally I prefer to live my life according to THIS scripture:

    http://www.lolcatbible.com/index.php?title=Genesis_1

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  18. "Hmm, but we were talking about pantheons of mythological deities, weren't we? Not actual people who lived and worked in ancient Greek and Rome?"

    I was talking about insulting people, not deities. I do not believe in the existence of deities. Intelligent, well-educated people at all periods of human history have believed in gods; although I think they were, and are, mistaken, I would consider it extremely rude to make mock of what they hold dear. When we make fun of those gods, we make fun of their worshippers' beliefs, and thereby insult the latter. If we invent a silly, modern fairy-tale version of ancient deities, we do, quite directly, insult all those human beings who venerated and worshipped them. The fact that those people are now dead makes not one iota of difference. If you can see any truth in my example about a person's grandmother, it is only a case of stretching that back about 60 generations. Truth is not changed by time.

    On a point you made earlier, the recorded myths of the past are in no danger of being forgotten because no modern writer produces his or her own redaction of them! I am not opposed to the re-telling of the ancient stories, nor, of course, to the serious study of them. I am against the characters of the ancient stories being placed into our contemporary surroundings and treated as figures of fun.

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  19. I can’t understand why anyone would think it is all right to insult people provided they are not present.

    Let us imagine A, a rabid and ill-mannered atheist, in conversation with X, a devout Christian / Moslem / Jew.

    A: ‘ I have no interest in your opinion, X, because you believe in a god – some bearded bloke in a white nightie, sitting on a cloud – and you are always rushing off to the church / mosque / synagogue. You must be really stupid’.

    A. has just directly and gratuitously insulted X’s beliefs, and arising from those, his intelligence, right?

    Now A. is talking to Y:

    ‘ I really don’t care what X thinks about it, Y. The man is an utter fool – all that religious nonsense. I have no respect for his intelligence’.

    A. has again gratuitously insulted X., hasn’t he? Even though X. has not heard the comment, and was not even present.

    Now Z. approaches A:

    Z: ‘I say, A., have you heard? Poor old X. died last night – he had a massive heart attack’.

    A: ‘Well, I’m sorry for his family, but honestly, it’s no great loss. X. was a such a stupid, boring fellow’.

    Hasn’t A. just insulted X again, even though the unfortunate man was not only absent, but deceased? The insult does not suddenly become acceptable because its target is dead. Indeed, traditional rules of discourse and good manners are more severe on insults aimed at the deceased (de mortuis nihil nisi bonum), because the dead can no longer answer back – they cannot put their own case.

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  20. Bev, I was quite serious. There actually IS a project to translate the Bible into Klingon; and they ARE arguing about literal interpretation. It was written up in LOCUS years ago.

    And I took it quite seriously because I know fandoms. Why wouldn't I? That one's been around for a long time, too.

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  21. Sigh. Look, AgTigress, I understand your frustration over this issue even if I don't agree with your stand on it completely. And I'm not going to agree with it unless any one of them are still actively worshipped. It may seem like a fine distinction but it's a major one to me regardless. It's one that changes a ancient mythological deity from being part of folklore that their own people only wrote about into being an active part of today's religion.

    And, no, I don't think one person adopting a million deities would help there either. Just for the record. ;)

    All that said, however, I know that the problem you're up against isn't going away anytime soon, if ever, because the Olympian gods, in particular, are simply too popular with viewing and reading audiences for both producers and publishers to want to ignore them. Why should the Powers That Be stop wanting to make money off that?

    It's just not going to happen. Sometimes it will be in good taste and sometimes it won't but that's been happening for decades. Centuries even. Maybe even millennia. Plain and simple, they are available stock characters more human than we are and we love seeing them in stories.

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  22. But I don't see any fundamental difference between religions - prehistoric ones, of which we have only the haziest knowledge, historical ones, that we understand better, and contemporary ones.

    The key issue is that these beliefs matter, and mattered, very deeply to the people, alive and dead, today and in the past, who embraced them, and those people deserve some respect and courtesy.

    I know I am out on a limb on this: when you say, 'the problem you're up against isn't going away anytime soon, if ever', you are absolutely right. I know that ignorant, flippant froth with ancient deities treated like characters in a Punch-and-Judy show is considered amusing, entertaining and even sophisticated in some quarters. But I don't have to like it.

    Lack of respect towards other human beings is an important element in the many things that go wrong in human society, and it is not peculiar to our time and place - far from it. Trying to understand and empathise with the feelings of people whose beliefs one does not share is a valuable exercise, as is accepting the fact that, just because someone lived a long time ago doesn't mean that he was stupid. It is surprising how many quite well-educated and intelligent people fall into that error: 'but how could they do that in the Bronze Age, when they were still so primitive?' they squeak. Because they were very clever apes of the species Homo sapiens, exactly like us; that's why.

    I know that my feelings about both history and fiction are markedly different from those of many other people, and of course I don't expect everyone to agree with me, but I still hope that I have managed to explain some of my reasons for my heretical views.

    I shall now dismount my sundry hobby-horses and let them gallop off again.

    :-)

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  23. And I've come across another article, by Julian Baggini, which I think is more than a little relevant to this discussion:

    Why settle for reality when you could do so much better? That seems to be the motto of the Chinese authorities as they manufacture an Olympics to remember. First, they faked television pictures of a dramatic sequence of fireworks that created "footprints" over Beijing. Although the display did actually happen, most of the pictures were computer generated, because, they say, it would have been too difficult to film the real thing.

    Then we discovered that even the crowd's enthusiasm is not what it seems. "Cheer squads" have been bussed in to applaud all teams, and improve the atmosphere.

    [There's also the news that "A pretty girl who won national fame after singing at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games was only miming. [...] the singer was Yang Peiyi, who was not allowed to appear because she is not as "flawless" as nine-year-old Lin."]

    Authenticity is not an on/off switch. The fact that no experience or event is untouched by perception or manipulation does not mean that some are more tampered with than others. How much we are willing to tolerate depends on circumstances. But there is a world of difference between enjoying the CGI effects of WALL-E and being duped into thinking we're seeing something that we're not.


    It reminded me of Jones's statement that "this is fiction! If my intention was to remain completely true to the historical record, I would have penned a nonfiction book. The story is the thing!"

    I think the problems arise not when the viewers know that what they're watching are special effects, or when readers know that they're reading a fantasy, but when they're led to expect historical or other accuracy/reality, and instead are given a manipulated version.

    I realise that, rather naively, I've tended to have the expectation that authors of historical fiction were being true to the known historical facts, particularly if the lives of real people were being fictionalised. I expected that they would have to invent some things, particularly conversations which wouldn't have been recorded, and of course there isn't consensus about many events in history, but unless the author provided a helpful endnote explaining when/where they deliberately took liberties, I would have naively assumed that other details were accurate, just as when I saw the coverage of the Olympics I thought the fireworks were being filmed in real time, and the little girl in the red dress was actually singing the song.

    In both cases the manipulation of reality may have made a better spectacle/story, but I still feel tricked. I suspect that in future I'm likely to be more cynical.

    It's not as though I read a lot of "historical fiction," though I do read quite a lot of "historical romance," where I know that the people are inventions. However, if I do read "historical fiction" in the future I'm going to wonder about its veracity and feel that I should double-check and corroborate the facts as I make my way through the novel. Sadly, that will almost certainly affect my suspension of disbelief and so the very tampering with history that was supposed to enhance my enjoyment of the story will, indirectly, diminish it.

    Of course, one might be able to derive a different sort of enjoyment from trying to spot special effects in seemingly realistic events, and one could have fun double-checking everything in a historical novel to make sure it's real, but it would be a very different sort of enjoyment from the one to be derived from suspending disbelief and immersing oneself in the story.

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  24. But I don't see any fundamental difference between religions - prehistoric ones, of which we have only the haziest knowledge, historical ones, that we understand better, and contemporary ones.

    The key issue is that these beliefs matter, and mattered, very deeply to the people, alive and dead, today and in the past, who embraced them, and those people deserve some respect and courtesy.

    I know I am out on a limb on this: when you say, 'the problem you're up against isn't going away anytime soon, if ever', you are absolutely right. I know that ignorant, flippant froth with ancient deities treated like characters in a Punch-and-Judy show is considered amusing, entertaining and even sophisticated in some quarters. But I don't have to like it.


    I think part of the flaw in the reasoning here is in assuming that because these deities are treated as characters they are automatically being disrespected. I'm not at all sure that's the case. Was that the case when the storytellers of old included them in the great epics? I mean they didn't always come off well in those either.

    As I see it, part of the problem is most people today have no knowledge of how these ancient gods were worshipped - except through original the practice of oral storytelling in the first place. Yes, nowadays we have archeology to give us more information but the stories already exist and have existed for centuries in one form or another. As stories. We've already absorbed them into our collective consciousness and that's a big thing to overcome in terms of what you're asking, AgTigress. This is true not only of the Olympian gods but of many mythic figures around the world. Their traditions have already passed into storytelling folklore. Once that happens, they are fair game for writers, regardless of format.

    And I'm not sure it should be any other way because we didn't start the tradition. The ones who originally worshipped and revered them did. They considered it right and proper to create stories about them and their adventures. Would they really want them to be placed on a shelf after all this time?

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  25. Bev, I accept that you simply do not understand what I am saying. I'll repeat just one thing, and then we should probably drop it, because we are going round in circles and beginning to repeat ourselves. (Also, this was not the main topic of discussion here - I alluded to it only en passant in my original comment.)

    I do not object to ancient deities being cited in modern books, including novels. I do not object to their ancient stories being re-told. I do not object to their all-too-human weaknesses, cruelties and inconsistencies being pointed out. Like real historical figures (and this is where the link comes in), I believe they should only be represented as they were, to the very best of our knowledge, not as they were not.

    What I object to is their being represented as ridiculous figures of fun, lightweight comic characters that could only have been worshipped by people who were scarcely in possession of their senses. There is a great deal of difference between leading a horse onto a stage, and leading a pantomime horse.

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  26. Bev, I accept that you simply do not understand what I am saying. I'll repeat just one thing, and then we should probably drop it, because we are going round in circles and beginning to repeat ourselves. (Also, this was not the main topic of discussion here - I alluded to it only en passant in my original comment.)

    Actually, it is exactly the topic of this discussion - the distortion of historical fact in the presentation of works of fiction. Don't make the mistake that because I don't agree with you, I don't see your point of view. I do. I simply don't believe that there is any way to overcome centuries of exactly the types of misrepresentations that you're talking about with regards to these particular sets of characters. They are unique. They aren't simply any ordinary historical figure that can be protected.

    Have the gods been accurately portrayed every single time? Probably not. And I'm not talking about just in recent times. OTOH, modern writers undoubtedly have access to much more accurate information and research than their predecessors ever did. Whether they use or abuse it or not is up to them.

    But no one is going to stop storytelling in any format nor or they going to stop the imagination. That as much as anything else is another issue that Laura is getting at, too, when she mentions the manipulation of images such as what came out of the Olympics opening ceremonies. No one would say they weren't imaginative. The problem is that big parts of it were presented as a movie rather than a stage show when it was supposedly a live event. Big difference.

    Of course, one might be able to derive a different sort of enjoyment from trying to spot special effects in seemingly realistic events, and one could have fun double-checking everything in a historical novel to make sure it's real, but it would be a very different sort of enjoyment from the one to be derived from suspending disbelief and immersing oneself in the story.

    It all sort of goes back to the old thing about being able to tell fantasy from reality. Where we get into trouble is when the storytellers are intentionally trying to fool us by breaking the rules, a la Orson Wells and War of the Worlds. Seems to me that if they play fair, though, readers and viewers can generally keep up. And have a tendency to call them on their mistakes, too. ;p

    CGI and IT being what it is nowadays, one does have to wonder.

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  27. 'Have the gods been accurately portrayed every single time? Probably not.'

    Of course not. It was in the interests of Christians, from the earliest times, to represent pagan deities as ridiculous; if I remember rightly, Tertullian, writing around AD 200, was one of the EC apologists who based many of his rants on vulgar sneering at the members of the Graeco-Roman pantheon for their flawed, human antics. Christians believed (believe) that they knew the full and universal truth, and that other religions were both perverse and foolish, so it was superficially helpful to them to emphasise any silliness or inconsistency they observed. But that is neither here nor there. We should be more enlightened. As you say, we know more.

    I am not suggesting we can 'overcome centuries of exactly the types of misrepresentations that you're talking about with regards to these particular sets of characters'. Of course we can't. We can, however, try to do better now, with our greater knowledge and insight.

    I wish I could remember the title and author of a truly abysmal novel (British author, female) of which I read part a few months ago, in which some of the central Olympian deities were depicted as living in a London flat, in reduced circumstances. Aphrodite, I recall, was running a phone-sex service. This kind of dreck is considered amusing, witty and so forth. I consider it embarassing. If an author has the requisite creativity and skills to invent completely imaginary characters and a plot, then why the *^%£ should she hijack the names of either real people who lived in the past, or ancient deities whom our ancestors worshipped? I find it completely mind-boggling, infantile, rude and silly. Anyone know the book I am talking about? There are plenty of others, of course, but this one was the most recent that I came across.

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  28. Got it: Maire Phillips, Gods Behaving Badly (2007).

    I found it a complete disgrace, silly, embarrassing and about as entertaining as a funeral. I know it forms part of a long tradition, but we should have long outgrown such childish 'humour'. Most sophisticated adults are not, for example, huge fans of farting jokes: they like something with a bit more originality and wit. It is a fair parallel.

    What is wrong with inventing the whole damn thing, including the characters? I am not objecting to fiction, to story-telling, for goodness' sake! I greatly admire those who can create stories! I am objecting to laziness ('ah, here are some handy ready-made characters') and rudeness ('never mind the worshippers - they're all long dead').

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  29. I'd just found Gods Behaving Badly by Googling. To give other people a bit more of an idea of what it's like, it's described as a novel in which

    the Greek gods and goddesses [are] living in a tumbledown house in modern-day London [...]. Apollo [...] has been appearing as a television psychic in a bid for stardom. His aunt Aphrodite [is] a phone-sex worker [...] Artemis-the goddess of the moon, chastity and the hunt [...] has been working as a dog walker

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  30. You are obviously a skilled Googler, Laura!

    ;-)

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  31. You are obviously a skilled Googler, Laura!

    I like to tell myself that Google is a vital investigative tool for an academic and that it's important to be able to use it successfully. I prefer not to think of my Google-skills as an indication that I spend far too much time online ;-)

    It all sort of goes back to the old thing about being able to tell fantasy from reality. Where we get into trouble is when the storytellers are intentionally trying to fool us by breaking the rules, a la Orson Wells and War of the Worlds.

    Another possibility, similar to the one you mention, but different in intent, is deliberate propaganda/attempts to shape public opinion. Some of Shakespeare's history plays can definitely be read that way.

    Then there are the authors who like the legitimacy that writing about real events/issues give them, but also want to make them into an exciting story which will sell well. If the author's not careful, those novels could end up as the historical fiction equivalent of the current spate of fake autobiographies.

    Gregory wrote that the historical novel should be about characters who are "sufficiently independent in thought and action [...] for the modern reader to identify with them." That reminds me of another sort of shaping of the facts which is mentioned by Browder, who suggests that fictional autobiographies have had such appeal because

    Readers usually prefer memoirs that tell them what they already think they know. Accordingly, abolitionist-penned slave narratives were sometimes judged by reviewers to be "more authentic" than the life stories of actual slaves. (Browder, in an article about the long history of fake autobiographies)

    In addition I can imagine it's possible that some authors may get a bit carried away by the creative process and become so involved with the lives of the real historical characters they're researching that as they fill in the gaps in the historical record they may even come to believe that their guesses about the characters are so well informed that they're almost as good as the commonly-agreed facts.

    And then there are the subconscious biases which shape all writing, fictional or non-fictional.

    Of course there can be lots of benign reasons for confusion, including naive readers who don't know enough about history to know when something's more fantastical. And since the novels are works of fiction, but also drawn on history, there's always going to be some blurring of the lines as fantasy/imaginative recreation is blended with bits of research (such as the bullock's heart that Sandra included in her novel).

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  32. Interesting link, Laura - thank you. I like this comment:

    '...we love comforting fictions more than we love the truth.'

    Yes indeed, and when we factor in all the problems about getting anywhere near the truth - unconscious bias, incomplete evidence and so forth - well, why bother? Just make it up! Much easier - and often more artistic. Hah!

    It won't do. We would all squawk loudly enough about the importance of the truth if we were falsely accused of a crime, if witnesses had blithely invented the evidence on which we might be convicted.

    Our attempts to get at the truth will always be imperfect, but we have to keep trying. And deliberately blurring the line between both dishonest and immoral.

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  33. That line above should read, 'deliberately blurring the line between truth and fiction is both dishonest and immoral.'

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  34. I've blathered elsewhere about a variety of reasons that I defend both wallpaper historical romance and fiction that plays with historical figures. (Defend in the abstract, that is; I'm happy to slam particular works). I'll just make an experiential argument here.

    Some of this argument sounds like an extension of the idea that romance readers can't tell fiction from reality. As a child I fell in love with history via Roger Lancelyn Green, a fictionalized biography of Mary Queen of Scots (author's name escapes me), and Barbara Tuchman. Even at that age, reading Green's Knights of the Round Table didn't really make me think "the knight would daily ride about looking for a chance of doing a good turn to any wanting help". I wrote a story in which Sir Gawain woke up grumpy, didn't feel like helping stupid peasants, dropped his helmet on his foot, kicked his brachet, and was made fun of by all the anonymous knights who weren't invited to the Round Table.

    Tuchman's historical fiction is the sort that puts thoughts in historical figures' heads, and some historians despise her, but her books fostered a lifelong interest in history. As an adult, what I retained from Tuchman wasn't spurious detail about personalities and inner thoughts, but interests in WW I (Zimmermann Telegram) and the relationships between England and France (Distant Mirror) and the U.S. and China (Stilwell in China). Those books didn't freeze my understanding of history; they spurred me to read more.

    In the Gregory quote, I appreciate her point about critics' arbitrary abandonment of pre-War fiction. However, her argument falls apart when she throws romance under the bus. She draws a strong parallel between the genres, but ignores her own logic:

    "All but the very best romance fiction tends to deploy a limited number of character types ...

    High quality historical fiction is not like this.
    [Hasn't she just said high quality romance fiction isn't either?]

    Elsewhere in her intro, she continues to scrape from the bottom of the romance barrel: Romance fiction has no interest in different times and cultures, in the worst examples, its stories are told in a vacuum.

    That was my exact complaint about Julie Anne Long's The Secret to Seduction; the story fell apart when it had to draw on the outside world. However, the problem is not with the genre. It's with that book's weak setting. I'd have been more satisfied by either a work of romance fiction that stayed in its vacuum with a tight focus on the characters, OR one more grounded in its historical setting.

    'deliberately blurring the line between truth and fiction is both dishonest and immoral.

    I agree when what's produced purports to be fact. But when it's clearly labeled fiction, I think it falls under the category of "what if", i.e. speculative fiction. That may not be your favorite genre, but I enjoy it and get a lot of intellectual stimulation from it--not as bogus history but as a goad to the imagination.

    Here's a fairly recent, non-religious example. Reading Sophie Gee's The Scandal of the Season, I thought she fictionalized Alexander Pope quite well. That doesn't mean she got it "right" (how would I know?), but the character she gave him corresponded to her reading of his works, and the combination fleshed him out into an interesting character and interesting "what if?"

    I don't feel reading the book taught me about Pope's personality or fashion sense, but I'll never again forget that he lived during the Jacobite uprisings.

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  35. Some of this argument sounds like an extension of the idea that romance readers can't tell fiction from reality.

    I could be wrong, but I've always had the impression that when that allegation's made, it's usually implying that the readers can't tell the difference between the reality of their own time/place and what's in the fiction.

    I think that's quite different from what we're discussing here, namely the situation which arises when readers lack the detailed knowledge of a particular period of history that they'd require in order to be able to tell when the author is (a) using known facts (b) is inventing conversations etc to fill in gaps in the historical record or (c) is deliberately ignoring known historical facts in order to produce what she/he thinks is a better story or (d) is making mistakes because she/he hasn't done enough detailed research.

    But when it's clearly labeled fiction, I think it falls under the category of "what if", i.e. speculative fiction.

    The trouble with "historical fiction," though, is that the label seems to imply some relationship with history, and authors are, in fact, often keen to tell readers that they've done a lot of historical research. But, as you point out, it is fiction, and labelled as such. So one can certainly be left speculating about which bits are based on the historical record and which bits aren't.

    I wouldn't go as far as saying it's "dishonest and immoral" because, as you say, RfP, the works are clearly labelled as at least partly fiction. But I do think it has the potential to mislead, because a reader could guess wrong about which bits were inventions and which weren't. Also, I've read some medieval chronicles, and there's quite enough stuff in them to give plenty of scope for speculation without the need for a modern author to add in another layer of fiction!

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