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History and Fiction, Cadit Quaestiō

June 20, 2011

The responses to last week’s question (How much history do you like in your fiction?) come mostly from Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.  They were illuminating, generally thoughtful, and surprisingly entertaining. Opinions on the topic could be reduced to two categories: Stick to the facts, and Facts, schmacts.

The vast majority held to the first position, expressing their desire that authors keep as close to “the true story” as possible. (How one divines the “true story” in history is a debate for another day.) It was abundantly clear that the favored approach is for authors to use fictional or obscure historical characters to illuminate larger events and actors. That is, however we enjoy reading the exploits of the fictional Pug Henry (or his wife as she busies herself schtooping the officer corps), we want the particulars of WWII rendered faithfully. The comment that best captured this sentiment was, “I’m so sick of The Tudors 90210.”

One bold discussant stood up to majority, declaring he did not care if the author fudged a bit with the facts because it is, after all, fiction. This being precisely the approach Shakespeare took, we should allow that the reader has a point. Others have gone further. In film we all enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s splendidly indulgent, yet historically bastardized killing of Hitler in Paris in Inglourious Basterds. An author can also turn history on its head and go counter-factual, as Harry Turtledove did when he endowed the Confederacy with AK-47’s in Gun’s of the South, rather dramatically altering the balance of power in the American Civil War, killing the Union and saving Lincoln.

In fact, the differences were not as stark as all that. Most of those who favored historical fidelity made clear that they didn’t mind the author stepping out on the facts as long as long as the dalliance was openly acknowledged. The “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, where all is made clear in the morass of fact and fiction, is a beloved thing.


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