Monday, April 2, 2012

History Today complains that history is too popular.

In an article that can only be described as bizarre, Paul Lay complains that "Last week, for the first time, the number of historical novels sent to History Today for review outnumbered ‘real’ history books." Not only is there too much historical fiction, Lay doesn't like most of it:

The vast majority [of historical novels], however, are awful. And, despite the excellence of authors such as Leon Garfield, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo, so are most of the historical novels aimed at the children’s market.

As a writer of history and historical fiction, I'm at a bit of a loss for a coherent response. My first question would be what Lay means by "awful." If he means poorly written, then the smarty-pants in me would respond that reading "real" history is hardly a solution.

The crux of his complaint seems to come at the end of the piece:
There’s no great harm in reading historical novels, nor writing them, but if anyone wishes to understand history, in all its complexity, they should read ‘real’ history and then they should write it. 
The mistake here is the the questionable assumption that people read historical fiction in order to understand history. While that might one goal for readers, I would argue that to be entertained, challenged, or intrigued, are equally important, if not more-so. (Were that not the case, then why bother with the "fiction" part of "historical fiction"?) And, though I wish it were not the case, "real" history with its infinite interpretations, and equally infinite shades of gray, does not always lend itself to fiction.

I am not, of course, defending bad history even in a fictional context. The past is not "Like Now, but with Hats." But given the desperate financial challenges faced by the humanities, isn't the enduring interest in the past a good thing? 

One might also wonder if "less" historical fiction would mean - as Lay seems to think - "better" historical fiction. It does not seem unreasonable to think that fewer books would also mean fewer good books. And it is certainly true that a smaller market for historical fiction would hurt authors such as Hilary Mantel just as much as the hacks. And who would want that?

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