This week, I posted a review of Shadow of the Swords, a book that I enjoyed but found too many historical accuracies in to be entirely comfortable with. I loved the idea of it, but worried that the doubts the changes would leave in readers’ minds would undermine the otherwise important story the author was trying to convey. The author, Kamran Pasha, dropped by, and left his opinion on my review; namely that fiction is an art and is still enjoyable despite changes made to history, that it’s more than a dry retelling of facts. You can read his comment in full here. I’ve really appreciated the fact that he left a comment because it led us to an interesting email discussion, which has given me the idea for this post and the desire to find out whether others agree or disagree.
In essence, my opinion of historical fiction when it involves mainly real characters and events is this; that it should follow historical fact as much as we know and use the author’s imagination to in effect fill in the blanks. I do think that sometimes minor changes are necessary, and fictional characters inserted into said history don’t bother me particularly, but I really dislike the changes of major events, the omission of important historical characters, and in general anything that could give a reader the wrong impression about the period, the event, or the person.
Undoubtedly a book can be a wonderful read even if it gets history wrong, but I know some people do read historical fiction and allow it to influence their beliefs and feelings about the historical period in question. Yes, this includes me, although I do try to read history about any period that I am really enjoying in fiction, to make up my own mind. I love that historical fiction has really taken off in the past few years, but I am often running into people who believe they know something but they’ve been misled by a book or a movie. Historians do get it wrong and historical understanding can change over time, which is why it’s important to read a few different sources in order to escape bias, but so few people do that and I dislike the fact that they could easily pick up and spread a mistaken belief because of a fiction book they read.
Even major politicians get history wrong and many people seem to have lost the ability to think for themselves; that probably doesn’t apply to anyone reading this blog, but I firmly believe we should get it right whenever we possibly can. Think about all the backlash against immigrants; how many Americans are from immigrant stock themselves? All of us who aren’t Native Americans, if you think about it. As an example, how many of us are proud to be Irish now, and how many of those have neatly forgotten the discrimination our grandparents endured and insist on perpetuating it by discriminating against others? This is why history is important, because it does profoundly affect what is happening today and can help us to determine how we react to the calamities of the future.
Finally, I also think a lot of my desire for history to be as accurate as possible in historical fiction is simply because I love history. I think it’s all fascinating on its own. I love historical fiction because it can bring that history to life, and I will admit that I feel misled and cheated if I believed what I read and the author had in fact changed things to suit his or her story without saying a word about it anywhere. In the book I first referenced in this post, Shadow of the Swords, Pasha does freely admit that he changed things in his author’s note, and in general if changes are necessary I like when they’re detailed somewhere. I still probably won’t agree with what was changed, but at least I know what to believe and what not to believe and I can respect the author’s desire to construct his or her own version of the story.
Perhaps I’m thinking too deeply about historical fiction, but I do believe an understanding of history is important in becoming an informed citizen of the world. Many of us do feel we’re learning from historical fiction; it’s not just mindless pleasure that is immediately forgotten. Fiction can be a powerful tool to inspire us to learn more, to understand the world that much better, to become better people. As a result I do feel we should get it as close to the truth as we can; the wonderful stories are there. They just need a clever mind to give them life and make them accessible to those who prefer not to read straight non-fiction. Obviously, much of my own personal preference as represented in this post is due to the fact that I think everyone should have some basic understanding of history. My own studies have massively expanded and drastically changed my own view of the world in ways that I appreciate on a regular basis; I wish that for everyone else, too, and I think historical fiction could be an important first step.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? Am I missing the point of fiction? How much history do you like in your historical fiction?