Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Have you heard the one about the historian who no longer reads historical novels?

No, I didn't "hear" that one, I saw it, here!  In some ways, I can't blame her.  If you're a historian, I guess you're going to be able to pick out what you think are "anachronisms", "modern" thinking in historical times," etc., etc.  But when it comes to things like words for "mother", "father", "mama", papa", etc., what's going on here?  It's interesting that many languages have "pet" names for mothers and fathers and other close relatives, and a lot of them sound like "mama" and "papa",especially when coming out of young mouths.  But Magistra et Mater isn't a linguist, so presumably she wouldn't be aware of this. 


It seems to me that what she really wants, and what I've complained about elsewhere is "total" accuracy for whatever period she's reading about.  Even in periods where there's an abundant amount of material that can be mined as research, this simply cannot be done.  As for as "modern" attitudes go, well, I kind of wonder.  If, for example, my heroes had completely "early medieval" attitudes, they would probably be totally unsympathetic.  That doesn't mean I don't recognize that such attitudes existed, it just means that at least some of the people are exceptional in some ways(besides, it's "romantic science fiction set in medieval England", not a history treatise, nor a "pure" historical novel.  And it has "anthropological" material in it, or I wouldn't otherwise be writing about Dauarga/Neandertals as some of my central characters. 


The real problem here is, a kind of academic snobbery, not unlike some "literary critics" who moan about "popular" works like Twilight and  the Harry Potter series.  These people want "beautiful writing" about "character development", whereas many readers just want A Good Story.  This doesn't mean you should write sloppily or have inconsistencies in your story.  It just means that there are some things that are more important to a lot of people than they are to these literary snobs(there's no other word for them, in my opinion).  Historical novelists, however, do offer an opportunity for the reader to learn "more" about whatever period they are writing about, and it is not uncommon for people who read historical novels to later get into history majors, and become professionals, in some way or another.  Similar things have happened to some science fiction readers, who get into science that way. 


I think Magistra et Mater has fallen into the common trap of thinking that, since they have become "experts", they must find fault with anything written by a nonexpert.  Some fiction, like some historical films(such as Kingdom of Heaven and Braveheart in the movie realm, and things like The Da Vinci Code in the "literary" realm), richly deserves the opprobrium it is given.  These pieces are laughably inaccurate, as in Braveheart, and/or they have, as in the case of The Da Vinci Code, very obviously "mined" certain dubious source "works", which are themselves full of historical "junk".  However, the author apparently does not recognize that a historical novelist is not a historian, is not expected to be a historian, and shouldn't be held to the same standards as a historian, no matter how "representative" of a time or place any piece of historical fiction is supposed to be.  I've seen whines about this in anthropology journals(mainly about the Jean Auel's Children of Earth series.  There, the problem is, that the academics in question wish they were as famous, or had made as much money as Mrs. Auel, but they're academics, and aren't as famous as Jean Auel or her series.  It is quite possible to make legitimate criticisms of her series -- she has obviously done extensive research, but Ayla, her heroine, is too much of a prehistoric "everywoman" to be completely credible.  Yet, if she hadn't written Ayla this way, would anybody have eve read her books?  I don't have an answer to this, but novelists must make authorial decisions all the time about things like this, whether it's "accurate" or not.  On the other hand, I do think the novelist in question should research as thoroughly as they can, and work the "accurate" bits into the background.  It won't be "history", exactly, but it might inspire someone, some day, to research a period on their own or even(gasp!) to become a historian themselves.

Anne G


magistra said...

Dear Anne

I’ve very conscious of how difficult writing historical fiction is – as I say myself in that post, I’m a failed historical novelist. I’m also not expecting ‘total’ accuracy from a novelist – that’s intrinsically impossible for many periods, including the early Middle Ages, which I study. But I do find anachronisms in writing very jarring, in the same way that someone who has learnt to play an instrument or speak a foreign language well would find a wrong note or a mispronounced word jarring: the trained ear or the eye cannot switch off. (The ‘papa’ that I mentioned was said by a teenage girl, not a baby, by the way, so your charge of my linguistic ignorance is unjustified). As for anachronistic mental attitudes, I mentioned some novelists in the entry and the subsequent discussion who seem to me to have found more effective ways of dealing with that than others.

Is all this academic snobbery? Note that my post is entitled ‘Why *I* no longer read historical fiction’, not ‘Why people shouldn’t read historical fiction’ and starts with my previous enjoyment of historical novels. I also include a link in the piece to a discussion of how I came to studying history via an obscure writer of children’s fiction. I am not deploring or depreciating the pleasure that others get from historical novels: I am saying, with some regret, that I can no longer experience it. Have you never found genres or authors that once spoke deeply to you but now you found unsatisfying? Nor is this a matter of literary style: my tastes on the whole are more for genre fiction than literary fiction and I enjoy Harry Potter.

You claim that I feel I must find fault with ‘non-experts’ and that I do not appreciate the difference between novelists and historians. I don’t know on what basis you make this judgement, especially since I’ve also written on what historical novels can do that factual history can’t. There are some medievalist blogs that spend a lot of time discussing inaccuracies in modern portrayals of the Middle Ages (although the emphasis is more often on film than books); mine isn’t one of them. Most of the criticism I have on my blog is of other academics (and, of course, Dan Brown).


magistra said...

As for the implication that academics are envious of the success of fiction writers: that’s a claim that’s easy to make and very hard to provide evidence against. But anyone who decides to do a PhD in medieval history is unlikely to be motivated by a burning desire to be rich and famous. In so far as I and other historians I know are envious, it is very largely about those of our peers who are more academically successful than us. Very much secondarily, we might be envious of the writers of ‘pop’ factual history, but not of historical novelists: my historian friends may really wish they were Patrick Wormald or perhaps even David Starkey, but not Dan Brown. If I was a writer of fiction, I might well envy successful novelists, but they’re frankly not trying to do the same thing as I am in my work. If someone did a best-selling novel on Charlemagne that wasn’t completely inaccurate, it would, indeed, be cheered by a number of my colleagues as a way of encouraging students to take early medieval options at university. It’s just that nobody wants to have to students who seriously believe that the Merovingian kings are descended from Jesus.

There are a lot of very interesting questions to discuss about the relationship of history and historical fiction and some of those have been raised in posts and comments over at my site, both by historians and novelists. But your post here seems to me to be trying to fit the evidence of my comments into a preconceived theory of yours about what historians believe. That kind of careless reading of a document isn’t really the way you’re going to have productive conversations with historians, if that is what you’re looking for.

Joansz said...

Well, I'm new to the historical novel writing schtick and not by any count a historian. *But* I guess a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, because I find myself questioning the accuracy of the history in some novels and other drama, which I never did before. I used to allow myself to bask in a good story even if the history was 180º out of phase from the truth. That is all spoiled for me now that I've learned something. Luckily, that doesn't mean that can't enjoy HF, and I even have my list of trusted authors--those who I know are meticulous about their research. That doesn't mean I can't disagree with their extrapolations and interpretations, but that's what makes it fun for me.

I do understand why as a professional historian, magistra, that you have had to give up on HF. For most of my professional life, I worked in the area of computer science and data communication. I have some of the same issues reading or watching the latest computer thriller. I still enjoy them though, managing to suspend my disbelief if the story otherwise hangs together. Besides, I'm not above using those devices for my stories.

Lisa Yarde said...

Anne, I saw the original post several weeks ago and was intrigued by it. There are obvious differences between the expectations of historians vs. historical fiction writers / readers. The emphasis is on the fiction for those of us who enjoy the genre - we're looking primarily to be entertained by a good story that is first well-written, and secondly has good factual basis. If the characters, plot etc. don't intrigue, then frankly who cares if the history is 100% right? I think what's happened in the genre to turn off the historians is that facts are often turned on their head or the history is used a window dressing, just for the sake of a good story. I don't actually blame writers for this, I think television has influenced the way in which some HF writers play lose and fast with history. See the Tudors and Rome for examples of this - great, memorable characters but the history is just laughable.

Because of this focus on entertainment first, good history second, I never expect that anything I read or write for that matter can be 100% true. And also like you, I acknowledge that there are many things a writer simply cannot know. Especially if you're dealing with historical figures, you're putting words and thoughts into the mind a person that not even a contemporary chronicler of their times could have even known. There is no way you can faithfully reproduce that in historical fiction, because history doesn't give us that level of intimacy in our characters' lives. I wish it did, would certainly make our lives as writers easier.

Anne Gilbert said...

Magistra, Joan, and Lisa:

YOu have all raised some very good points, which have caused me, over the last few days to think again about what I said. But my reply to all of you is going to have to be long enough to be another blog post, because, at least, for me, there is a long "history" behind some of the comments I made, which I will explain more fully in this post. And, especially for Magistra, I felt at the time I made them, that her remarks reflect a larger problem that I've been seeing, not just in historical novels, but among "critics" of all
"genre" fiction. Some of this is pretty distressing, coming from people you might think would know better. In any case, stay tuned. I take all comments seriously, and strive to improve if I think I've gone too far or made a mistake.
Anne G

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