Sunday, January 25, 2015

History Behind the Fiction


“The History Behind the Fiction” is a panel discussion scheduled by the Book ‘Em NC conference* next month (Feb. 28). Patricia Terrell prompts those of us on the panel to think about what research was necessary to get our facts right. “Getting the facts right” has become a hot issue. There’s a spirited public debate about whether historical fiction has an obligation to get the facts right. 

The Guardian newspaper took on the subject and comes to the conclusion that: 
Judging historical fiction is not as simple as 'accurate equals good' and 'inaccurate equals bad'. It depends on whether the inaccuracies are constructive lies or accidental mistakes.**

Most recently movies have made headlines regarding distortions of the truth. “Selma” apparently didn’t follow historical record in its depiction of Lyndon Johnson. There’s been criticism of “The Imitation Game” and its characterization of Alan Turing. “The Hurt Locker” was accused of taking liberties in its portrayal of wartime. Could the Guardian be right when it says:
Too much attention to factual detail is undoubtedly an impediment to literary art.**
Novels have been criticized in like manner, including best sellers such as The Pillars of the Earth, Shogun and Wolf Hall. Historians themselves speculate about the past by way of interpretation. Historical fiction writers concoct even more creative speculations. However, at the bottom lies a core of facts that have withstood authoritative examination. To dirty the fact line may well take risks impacting our sense of culture and justice. In spite of the “fiction” label, some readers know too little history to separate out falsehoods.

Of necessity, historical fiction writers lie. The question becomes a matter of degree and/or impact. A single falsification can have great import, for instance, a novel portraying Frederick Douglas as a white man. Or one giving Custer a victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Even at that, there are those who defend inaccuracies of any magnitude as long as they generate dynamism and an interest in history.
I would argue that when we go too far adrift from legitimate historical interpretation, we risk attracting a nasty little bottom-feeder called propaganda. And when inaccuracies are shown to school children for their instruction (as “Selma” was), this is cause for concern.

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