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The Problem of Presentism in Historical Fiction

July 24, 2011

When a historian commits the sin of presentism—judging actors past by values present—the offending scholar will likely suffer the slings and arrows of indignation of his or her peer group.  If a writer of historical fiction is similarly guilty, they’ll probably get a pat on the back from the publisher and sell a bunch of books.  Such is the problem of presentism in historical fiction. 

Natalia Cecire eloquently fulminates against HF’s scientific presentism in which the central character intuits scientific truisms amid a sea of superstition.  Anne Scott Macleod reviews children’s historical fiction and points out the tendency to give the central characters in medieval history extraordinarily modern perspectives on issues such as planned marriage, despite the fact that this was the accepted custom of the day.  Chandra Power takes a sociological approach to examine presentism of both reader and writer, and makes much the same point.     

I can agree with all of this, but none of it addresses the problem’s essence, which is that HF authors are compelled to write characters with whom their readers can identify, regardless of historical authenticity. 

So it’s all narcissism?  We’re only interested in historical versions of us?  That’s probably putting too fine a point on it, but, yeah, something like that.  The difference between the presentation in history and historical fiction is often the thought processes of its subjects.  The historian is forever trying to understand the cultural and intellectual climate of historical actors.  This is usually not pretty: their views on sex, race, and well, damn near everything, clash with our own—often violently.  The more closely we study our historical subjects—or heroes—the more imperfect they become.  

For the historical novelist who wants to create characters their readers would like to have over for dinner, the strictly historical approach simply will not do.  The writer who wants a marketable book will feel compelled to draw, say, 19th-century characters with 21st-century values—make ‘em folks just like us.  The women are intellectually liberated, the heroes are sensitive, and somehow they end up on the right side of every issue. 

God help me.

I have taken no small amount of grief for violating this unwritten tenet.  I have always believed that supporters on each side of every issue have their truth.  Villains do not see themselves as villains, and Snidely Whiplash has no place in a book for grownups.  Nonetheless, several readers, bless them, have taken me to task for allowing the white usurpers in the Hawaiian Revolution, depicted in The Imperialist, to believe that they were good guys.  Is there a bad guy who actually sees himself as such?

Painting characters in black and white is a lowest-common-denominator approach to literature, even if it makes the heart of every literary agent go pitter pat.  Some of our favorite characters are those with whom no one could really identify.  John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces) is a character no one would want to be, or possibly even be in the same room with, yet when he spoke we listened.  Whenever the narrative followed his thoughts I found myself wishing I could read more slowly so as to enjoy his poetically convoluted reasoning just a little while longer.  Similarly, Mark Helprin’s Freddy (a thinly veiled Prince Charles from Freddy and Frederica), was a lucidly obtuse character utterly unlike anyone likely to read him—he’s a prince for crying out loud—but still we find him somehow endearing and we cheer him on to each of his little victories and weep with him in his pain.  These are exceptional characters from exceptional books, and I can think of no analogue for them in historical fiction.

You can probably get published by pandering to presentist presumptions of what a character should be, but only at the price of mediocrity.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2011 10:12 pm

    These pesky historically-bound characters are indeed problematic, because, as you point out, you have to get the reader to identify with them or they won’t keep reading. On the other hand, one of the best things about historical fiction is the opportunity to really put yourself inside the heads of people from other times and places; what fun is that if you can’t trust that your psychic time-travel is at least close to accurate?!

    After reading this blog post I’m going to pay closer attention, but so far I think Hilary Mantel is the author who comes the closest to creating well-rounded time-appropriate characters, sometimes so much so that their actions seem inexplicable until you stick with the story and let the plot unfold.

    And I love your Ignatius O’Reilly example!

  2. August 13, 2011 8:27 am

    Kurt, after you opened the informed discussion on Goodreads, I just had to put a link to the above post on my blog. Thanks for making me think.

    • August 13, 2011 5:15 pm

      Happy to help. I’m glad you stopped by. –Kurt

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