16 January 2010

The Spectrum of Historical Fiction

In the recent discussion of the bounds of historical fiction, Monica Edinger wrote:

It seems to me that there is a very long continuum as to what is historical fiction. At one end is the book I’m working on, about a child on the Amistad. In order to make it more accessible to child readers I went from telling the story as nonfiction to fiction; however, it is mostly based on the facts of the time and event. It is in first person with emotions and scenes that I made up. So it is pretty close, as close as I could make it, based on fact throughout.

At the other end of the continuum there are works like [Edward] Eager’s Half Magic where the history is background and serving the tale not vice versa.
I agree that there’s a spectrum in historical fiction. On the one side are authors so scrupulous that they try to make sure that all historical figures who appear in their stories could actually have been in those places on those dates. On the other side are authors who move events and people around for dramatic effect.

When authors make fundamental changes to what’s in the historical record, their books move further toward the second side and eventually, in my eyes, off the spectrum entirely. Such changes include:

The outcome of preceding historical events. There’s a solid tradition of books describing what might have happened if history had gone in a different direction: Booth not shooting Lincoln, the US staying out of WW2, etc. We have labels to distinguish those novels from the strictly historical: “speculative,” “alternate,” “counterfactual,” and “what if.”

Major details of the historical events in the story. On Bookwitch there’s a conversation, somewhat hampered by the fact that it’s circling a book that’s unpublished and unnamed, about how much an author can change:
what the adults did in the real event, has now been done exclusively by the children in the book. What was heroic in real life has suddenly been taken away from the people involved, for fictional purposes.
It’s a huge challenge to find historical events in which young people have any decisive role, as opposed to being victims, spectators, or minor players. That’s why I was so pleased to find the Boston Massacre (though that research sent me off in an unexpected direction). But making children do what adults did historically seems like a fundamental change.

The laws of physics. If a story depends on time travel, magic, extraterrestrials, mind-reading, personifications of scientific phenomena or abstract concepts, or other elements of science fiction and fantasy, then putting them into history is just as much of a change as—probably even more than—the preceding alterations. Life is fundamentally different in such a universe.

This is why I think Half Magic, The Storm in the Barn and other fantasies move off the end of the historical fiction spectrum, even though they’re set in periods well before their composition, even though they address historical themes or events. Just because novelists do historical research doesn’t make their books historical fiction.


ericshanower said...

The Historical Novel Society reviews virtually all books of historical fiction published. They also review historical fiction with fantasy elements, but divide those books into separate categories: Alternate History, Timeslip, and Historical Fantasy & Paranormal.

J. L. Bell said...

I believe that society also gave its annual award of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which falls into the Alternate History category. But of course it’s Philip Roth.