And the story begins with a waiting room. A seminar waiting room, in fact. Last week, while the hustle and bustle of graduate school began, the amount of introductions and new faces flourished. While I waited like all the others, I met up with a old classmate. We exchanged pleasantries and discussed our summers. My classmate relayed that they had been working at popular bookshop and constantly being hounded by shoppers about her views on historical fiction (she's a graduate student of history as well!) She lamented that as soon as anyone discovered her educational path they pulled historical fiction books down and asked her if she'd read them before. This did not please her and I found out quickly she was not a fan of the historical fiction genre. Being an author of that genre on occasion, I didn't share her sentiment. However, it did get me thinking.
I asked her why her dislike of the genre was so intense? She claimed the books were wrongly convincing the public of historical facts that were the opposite, fiction. But as I pointed out, there are advantages and disadvantages to anything with inherent historical context.
Positive: It encourages an interest in history.
Picking up a novel about a famous real-life person or discovering a love for a historical period, can serve as an introduction to historical research. I remember when I was twelve I read The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain and fell in love with Tudor England. It probably spurred on my initial love of English history. Despite the liberties the author takes, you have still managed to become engaged. From then on, you can decide if you want to learn more. And hell, getting kids to fall in love with history is never a bad thing!
Negative: It can be inaccurate.
I have been one to point out flaws in historical novels before. Regardless, I think that novels are not history textbooks. They're not supposed to paint a 100% accurate picture. Even textbooks are far from able to provide all the facts in any 'true' detail. If you enjoy the portrayal of a certain period or era by a particular author, I won't try and convince you otherwise. It's really much in the spirit of 'to each his own' in this regard.
Positive: It can promote exposure to other cultures.
Often we can get trapped in our own little bubbles and forget to realize there are people all around the world who live lives far different from ours. Well, guess what? People from all different times have gotten self-involved and wrapped up in their own lives too. Historical fiction can portray a diverse picture of life in other cultures and societies and relay ways of living that seem alien to the twenty-first century individual.
Negative: Our modern perspective is dangerous.
Not dangerous in the sense that anyone gets hurt, but in a distorted sense. Many times historical fiction inflects character traits and habits of twenty-first century people onto people in the past. But surely people haven't changed that much throughout the ages? In some ways, I'd agree. In others, it's not the case. Taking modern day political or cultural issues and inflecting them on the past can distort the reality of a particular time. Of course, it's hard to separate your own viewpoints (especially if you feel so strongly about them).
What do you think? Are you an advocate of historical fiction? I am definitely standing on the 'yes' side of the room.
P.S. The photo I used is a historical fiction novel by Ken Follet called The Pillars of the Earth which I would recommend if you're like me and love the genre.