In a piece on her blog, The Disorganised Author, Anita Davison writes about an article she read in a British newspaper about historical fiction. Perhaps, before I get into comments about anything here, I should state that although my Invaders trilogy is set in historical time, it's not strictly "historical fiction". I say this, despite the fact that I've always wanted to write a novel set in medieval England, so that's what I ended up doing. And I've tried to make the history as accurate as possible, given there's not much "on the ground" in the period I'm writing about. Still, I feel some obligation to at least try to get the basics right.
I should also remind readers that I've written several blog posts criticizing what I thin as excessive attention to "historical accuracy", and claims about generalized "mindsets" for given historical periods. I just don't think there is any such thing as an overarching "mindset" for any given historical period, nor do I think, as some authors appear to, that you can accurately reproduce actual conversations of actual historical personages, unless these were written down somewhere, and I doubt very many of them were. I also have my opinions about the techniques some writers use to gain this supposed accuracy, but that's a story I won't go into here.
However, my complaint is really about the article in the Guardian newspaper. You see, it didn't take me very long to realize that Anthony Beevor, the author of the article, is basically another one of the, in my opinion, excessively large tribe of literary snobs who feel that people "really" shouldn't be reading anything but "fine" literature of the type they profess to prefer. Beevor apparently thinks writers of historical fiction are doing historical periods and characters some sort of disservice by writing fictionally about them, simply because they are writing fiction. Wow! It also didn't take the article very long to clue me in on this; the moment he suggested that if writers of historical fiction wanted to write about a real person, instead of writing about the actual person, they should write a "roman a clef"! Another wow! This is just literary-speak for "write a tell-all set in historical time, but don't use anybody's real name. And the arrogance of suggesting such a thing pretty much floors me.
I have suggested elsewhere in my blog, some reasons why I, myself, won't be writing any biographical fiction. I find a lot of rather "episodic" and basically not too interesting. But that's just me, I suppose, and I've read some exceptions. And I certainly wouldn't try to stop anybody from writing biographical fiction about some historical character, provided they do reasonable research into the period, and the life of the person they write about. Most readers probably will read such a novel primarily for entertainment, as Beevor pointed out(and so did several comments on Ms. Davison's blog). They won't be "fact checking". Even if some readers get very interested in whatever period or person the writer is writing about, these readers themselves are perfectly capable of making the distinction between fiction and "historical fact". But Beevor seems to think people are so stupid that they just can't do this. Maybe some people can't, and there are some authors who apparently don't care what they put into their historical novels, regardless of whether it's accurate or not. And here, I'm talking about really basic stuff, not just minor details. This is something that really irritates me about Beevor's diatribe. He brings up Shakespeare's plays, for example. Many, though not all, people know that Shakespeare's "history" plays aren't historical, certainly not in the modern sense. Shakespeare was primarily out to entertain the public, and he did a darn good job of it. Besides which, the standards brought to bear on historical writing, as it was understood in his day, were not quite the same as ours, for a variety of reasons. So what is this guy griping about? If Shakespeare's plays aren't history, and half the audience knows they aren't history, how is this different from someone who picks up a book about, say Elizabeth I or Richard III(both fairly popular subjects for historical novels), which is marketed as fiction, any different? Surely the reader knows, on some level, that what he or she is reading, is fiction. Doesn't Beevor understand this? And if so, why not?
I also have a feeling that, in terms of what he thinks people "ought" to read, he is not very far removed from that snobbish tribe of reviewers who trashed the Harry Potter series. J.K.Rowling didn't pretend to be writing a "great" set of novels, nor, obviously, was she writing anything "historical". But her literary crime was to appeal to a vast number of people of all ages, who became very engaged with Harry Potter's story, but whose writing wasn't "beautiful" enough to satisfy some critics, and whose plotline was too "ordinary" or not "realistic" enough to satisfy such people. I think Beevor is basically in the same class, though he aims largely at writers of historical fiction. Well, I'm sorry, Mr. Beevor, but if you don't "like" historical fiction, for whatever reason, if you think most readers are just too dumb to know the difference(or discover the difference for themselves) between fiction and fact, you have another very long think coming. Given the opportunity, most people can, and sometimes do. I'm one of them. I'm sort of a "fact checker" myself, and I've read nonfiction biographies of a number of historical figures, and I've read nonfiction on any historical period that happens to catch my fancy. I may not be a "common sort" this way, but I've done it. And, apparently, so have a number of writers of historical fiction. How dare you try to discourage some potential reader of a work of historical fiction, from doing the same thing? People have minds, you know, and some of us actually use them! Personally, I feel that, although I'm not, strictly speaking, writing "historical fiction", if I hadn't done this, I probably wouldn't be writing what I'm writing.
I think Beevor's advice will probably end up being generally ignored. People will read what they want. Some authors will continue to be "compulsively accurate" and some readers will demand this of writers. Others won't care, but read whatever historical fiction they read, primarily for its entertainment value. Some readers(and writers) may decide they like the kind of "serious" fiction that Beevor himself apparently prefers. Others will not. The important point here is, readers and writers come to any book they read, or write, from any number of different places, and they're all good, in my opinion. The Beevors of the world will pronounce and pronounce on proper "standards", but most people will probably continue to do what they always have when reading fiction: get enjoyment out of whatever they are reading.