Where Fiction Isn’t Allowed to be Fiction

Main Entry:
Middle English ficcioun, from Middle French fiction, from Latin fiction-, fictio act of fashioning, fiction, from fingere to shape, fashion, feign — more at dough
14th century
1 a: something invented by the imagination or feigned ; specifically : an invented story b: fictitious literature (as novels or short stories) c: a work of fiction ; especially : novel2 a: an assumption of a possibility as a fact irrespective of the question of its truth <a legal fiction> b: a useful illusion or pretense3: the action of feigning or of creating with the imagination
fic·tion·al \-shn?l, -sh?-n?l\ adjective
fic·tion·al·i·ty \?fik-sh?-?na-l?-t?\ noun
fic·tion·al·ly \?fik-shn?-l?, -sh?-n?l-?\ adverb

From Meriam-Webster Online Dictionary

My Friend Amy posted an interview with Robin Maxwell, the author of Signora Da Vinci (to be reviewed here later this week).  In this interview, Robin makes a point to discuss other authors and how they are not true to history and, in essence, dishonor the people they write about.  This is not a view peculiar to Robin Maxwell.  After reading The Other Boleyn Girl, I started to read more about the book, historical fiction in general, and Philippa Gregory.  There are many readers and reviewers who will pick apart a work of historical fiction as if it were purporting itself to be a biography or a text book.   Apparently historical fiction is not allowed to be fiction.

One of the most common complaints about historical fiction in general and certain of its authors in specific is that it misinforms the masses.  They feel that after reading such novels that contain inaccuracies that the average reader will walk away from book believing historical falsehoods.  Okay.  That may very well be true, but whose fault is that?  If I were to pick up a copy of The Monsters of Templeton and really believe that there are monsters in the lakes in New York, do we chastise Lauren Groff for spreading rumors that might start to destroy tourism or do we say “Jennifer may need to be institutionalized for a little while.  She seems to be losing it.”  I think it would be the padded room for me.

I read fiction to be entertained.  I read biographies to be educated.  When a work of historical fiction captures my imagination, it prompts me to read more about that figure, period, and time.  In every circumstance, I’ve discovered differences between the novels and what actually happened.  I find that interesting in and of itself. It doesn’t (or at least it doesn’t have to) lessen the experience of the novel. It gives insight to where the author is may have been thinking “What if Anne did X instead of Y?  How would that have impacted the story.”

I completely understand those who love historical fiction and prefer that the known history inside be as accurate as possible.  I appreciate and respect those who want or need such authenticity in order to buy in to a novel.  The same is not always necessary for me.  Where I cannot agree is when they attempt to put authors of historical fiction in a tight, hermetically sealed box to protect the sanctity of history or the honor of its figures.  Let’s not take historical fiction so seriously.  I would dare say that those in the public eye are never more harshly treated or vilified than they are during their own generation.  The following generations have their own public  figures to skewer.  If their counterparts didn’t make them roll over in their graves, I sincerely doubt that a modern author will.

Fiction, whatever its genre, is fiction.  Those who read it and take it for actual, historical fact are lazy readers.  That is not the fault of the author.  While it might very well be true that people can come away from The Other Boleyn Girl with a less than spotless and honorable opinion of Anne Boleyn and believe she did things that she never did, they will at least be able to answer Jay Leno when he asks the man on the street “Who is Anne Boleyn?”  The rest is really of no consequence.  Such readers are not going to be the Anne Boleyn opinion setters of the future.


  • At 2009.02.18 08:22, Violet said:

    I am of the opinion that one should not alter fiction completely. It’s okay to assume the characters reactions over certain incidents or also okay to assume why a certain person in history did what he did.

    Even if it’s not right, there are many people who think seriously of historical fiction. Personally whenever I read historical fiction and I form concrete ideas of the people in the book, i make sure to atleast google some basic information so that I am not stuck with wrong ideas.

    So basically the gist of what i am saying is this: it is okay to fictionalized history, but to a certain extent.

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    • At 2009.02.18 10:50, Sandy said:

      I do read alot of historical fiction…it is one of my favorite genres. And at times, I do find myself getting drawn into the story and forget its fiction. But like you said, that’s MY fault! It is a tribute to the writer and their skills as an author to make it come to life for us. I believe if reading such a novel inspires further interest in the period or location or event, then the author has done their job.

      Sandy’s last blog post..Wordless Wednesday

      I agree with you. When a writer makes me feel as if something is real, be that historical fiction or otherwise, it says so much about their writing. I don’t ever want to lose that.

      • At 2009.02.18 11:40, Francesca said:

        It strikes me that one of the traps readers of historical fiction (emphasis on fiction) fall into is that on some level, we truly WANT it to be true. Good fiction creates a world and readers enter that world, fall in love with that world and (in some deep recess of the brain) believe in that world’s reality. Historical fiction creates a world that seems very close to our own — so the temptation is even greater. We are even more fully seduced and so in love that we truly want it to be real. When we discover it is not (whether in tiny details or in sweeping arcs)… disappointment wars with betrayal and comes out as self-righteous anger. Somehow we are content (although I would argue that we’re not really as content as we pretend) for worlds that are clearly fiction to be ‘only pretend.’ But historical fiction gives us that tiny drop more hope that there is a real world that entices us, intrigues us, SATISFIES us as much as pretend ones do.

        Ah well.

        Francesca’s last blog post..Techno-dweeb

        I am really interested in what you are saying here. I do understand the feelings of disappointment, betrayal and anger. There is a place for that and it needs to be discussed. Does this make a book “bad” when this happens? I really can’t say. For me, it doesn’t. For others it might and that is more than okay. How do we discuss this without vilifying an author, a particular work, or lumping all of the people who enjoyed it into one mass of mindless people?

        • At 2009.02.18 12:57, Meghan said:

          You’re entirely correct in that fiction should be allowed to be fiction. I prefer to read historical fiction that is as close to what is known as possible. I like it when they make up the bits in the middle that no one can figure out. That doesn’t mean anyone else has to like it that way. I can’t watch historical movies with anyone because they are always horribly inaccurate and it drives me mad, and I then drive the other viewers mad by criticizing it. That’s certainly a fault of mine. And you’re correct in that those readers who are lazy and don’t seek further information are probably in the wrong. Regardless, I’m guessing no one has argued with you about certain historical matters on the basis of historical fiction. I get this on a startlingly frequent basis from people who discover I’m a fledgling historian and want to run their favorite theory by me, only then they don’t listen when I say it’s not based on any historical fact or documentation. There are so many common misconceptions about history based off popular culture and it really bothers me that no one cares enough to check these things out. (Vikings, “Dark Ages”, the world is flat, etc.)

          That said, I think it’s also valid to add to this discussion the idea that history is actually a debate. Some facts are concrete. Most are not. We’re always challenging what has come before and re-interpreting documents and facts and believe it or not, finding new evidence. So I’m not sure what I expect from historical fiction except that I don’t want it to fly in the face of what is probable. That’s hard for an author to do and I’m not sure I should expect them to. I do, however, want them to give it a try, and it bothers me when they simply subscribe to propaganda and don’t try to recreate a world that actually existed. There we go, that’s what I want – I want the world re-created in fiction to be a possible reality, which you can’t do nearly as well in history, and when the facts in the novel contradict what I know to be the case, it takes away from that. There are always small differences, but I want it to be largely possible.

          Also, I want to apologize if I’ve come off as belligerent/argumentative in any of this. History is very close to my heart and I have strong opinions about it. I acknowledge that others don’t feel this way and obviously that’s fine and everyone is welcome to their opinion. And I’m sorry for the length of this comment! I think you make a lot of valid points though and your perspective has helped me understand quite a bit. Thanks!

          Meghan’s last blog post..Review: A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro

          I am so glad you took the time to comment on this post like you did. I am not the only one who gets passionate about these discussions about the role and purpose of historical fiction. I was just thinking about it again this morning and I realize that we all have our limits to the leaps an author can make in historical or any other type of fiction. I realized that after seeing TOBG in the theater that I was upset with the rape scene because that was not the way it happened. I am openly admitting that this makes me a tad hypocritical in light of this post. I need to remember that next time. There aren’t necessarily two ways of thinking about it – just entertain me vs. keep it real. We all have our thresholds. We need to keep this in mind when we discuss historical fiction. Just because another person’s ceiling is lower or higher than mine doesn’t negate either position. It’s just a fact. Like history, it’s something that can and should be debated, but not turned into anything personal against an author, a novel, or a reader.

          I would find it very irritating to have people ask me what I think of their opinion to only have them listen if you agree with them.

          Regarding common misconceptions. I don’t know what the answer is there. I don’t think a single book or a single genre should be held responsible for them. I also think that we have the right and the charge in fact to point them out and correct them. Perhaps that is the key to this topic. “I liked or disliked this novel, but it contains this misconception. What do you think about that?” Make it a dialog, not an attack.

          Thanks again, Meghan!

          • At 2009.02.18 13:00, Jennifer said:

            I am of the opinion that one should not alter fiction completely. It’s okay to assume the characters reactions over certain incidents or also okay to assume why a certain person in history did what he did.

            Even if it’s not right, there are many people who think seriously of historical fiction. Personally whenever I read historical fiction and I form concrete ideas of the people in the book, i make sure to atleast google some basic information so that I am not stuck with wrong ideas.

            So basically the gist of what i am saying is this: it is okay to fictionalized history, but to a certain extent.

            Violet, I don’t disagree with you at all. I think that there is a place for historical fiction that is as “dead on” as it can be. I just don’t think that complete accuracy should be a firm requirement. I would understand completely if someone did not like a particular novel because of the inaccurate way that a person or situation was depicted. I just don’t believe that it should be considered “bad” historical fiction as a result. It should be a matter of preference for both the author and the reader. Nothing more than that.

            • At 2009.02.18 13:51, Lezlie said:

              I agree with you. I enjoy the “what if” factor. I like historicals that stick to the facts also, but when it comes right down to it, if that’s really what I’m looking for, there’s always non-fiction.


              Lezlie’s last blog post..A LESSON BEFORE DYING

              Either way can work very well for me. It all comes down to the writing for me. I will say that if I know a lot about a particular figure, time period, event, etc. that I’ll like the novel more if it sticks closer to the facts. Still, if it is well written and compelling, I’m along for the ride.

              • At 2009.02.18 13:53, Kathy said:

                Great post, Jennifer! Historical fiction makes me curious, and I usually find myself researching the time period after I read it, to see what’s true and what’s not true, but I’m sure many people take it at face value.

                Kathy’s last blog post..Giveaway Winners

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                • At 2009.02.18 16:38, Jen - Devourer of Books said:

                  I don’t know, I hate it when authors blatantly change history when writing historical fiction. If they just want to completely make something up they can easily write about a character under similar circumstances and not call that character Anne Boleyn, or whatever, or they can write more speculative fiction about the character (like Eleanor Vs. Ike). I enjoyed TOBG, but Gregory has driven me more and more crazy with each subsequent book. Next book I don’t think I’m even going to bother. I don’t mind it so much if the authors include a good note in the back of the book about what liberties they took and why, but I think the purpose of historical fiction is generally to try to know the unknowable: thoughts, feelings, motivations and humanize these historical figures, unless it is more period fiction, in which case it probably doesn’t deal with real people anyway.

                  Jen – Devourer of Books’s last blog post..BTT: Authors Talk

                  Do your feelings about this differ when you’re reading about someone or some event about whom/which you don’t have a lot of previous knowledge? Once I know about something from a purely historical standpoint my ceiling is lower than it would have been before. Still, I really like the Anne Boleyn that Gregory created even if there are things in there that she didn’t do. At some point, even though she existed in real life, she becomes Gregory’s character more than she is who she was. Does this make sense?

                  I know that Philippa Gregory lost many readers with The Other Queen. Although I enjoyed it, it wasn’t anywhere near as compelling as her other work for me. I’m not only defending her and other authors who have been accused of the same. I’m defending myself and others like me who have read and loved her work and are not blithering idiots who blinding believe historical fiction as fact. It is possible to enjoy and, in some cases, love a novel that doesn’t always toe the closest line to accepted historical fact.

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                  • At 2009.02.18 16:40, Jen - Devourer of Books said:

                    All that being said, I don’t know if I’d go so far as to agree with Robin that the historical figures are being ‘disrespected’ (except maybe Elizabeth I by Philippa Gregory, she really seems to hate Elizabeth).

                    Jen – Devourer of Books’s last blog post..BTT: Authors Talk

                    I have still to read a novel about Elizabeth I that I found interesting. I was hoping that The Lady Elizabeth would have been the one, but no such luck. I still have hope, though.

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                    • At 2009.02.18 16:54, Nymeth said:

                      “I think it would be the padded room for me.” lol! Probably 😉

                      I like it when historical fiction, and even other types of fiction, is well-researched. I like it when writers get the details right, when they capture the mood of the time period, when they work around well-known facts. For me, the main problem of large innacuracies is that the readers who notice them will be pulled out of the story, will be less likely to enjoy the book as a whole. So I think research is definitely important. Having said that, I also think fiction should indeed be allowed to be fiction. Especially when it comes to characterization, to motivations, to the details that history will never be able to clarify. I like what Meghan said about “flying in the face of what is probable.” And also what Jen said about the human side of the story.

                      Also, I don’t like the assumption that readers of historical fiction will take what they read as fact. Some of them will, I know…but a lot of us actually do look things up. That’s part of the fun of historical fiction. It makes me want to read about what things were really like.

                      Great discission, btw 🙂

                      Nymeth’s last blog post..Ratha’s Creature and Clan Ground by Clare Bell

                      Thank you so much for your comments. I’m really enjoying this discussion. There are lots of shades of gray to this. I have been pulled out of many a novel before. I’m wondering if that this can be solely attributed to the historical inaccuracies or not? Could it be the writer’s style or tone? I’m going to pay a lot more attention to that going forward. Since my knowledge of Tudor England was so minimal when I read TOBG, it’s hard to say if having Anne take Mary’s child away from her would have taken me out of the book or not. I loved Anne as that character. I haven’t read any other novels about her, but I think I would be disappointed with a more victimized and/or goody-goody Anne. I am most definitely going to pick up Robin Maxwell’s novel about Anne Boleyn. I want to see what is so different. It will be an interesting contrast.

                      • At 2009.02.18 17:10, Nymeth said:

                        Eek! That was supposed to be “discussion”. Don’t know how that happened 😛

                        • At 2009.02.18 18:18, Jena said:

                          I have to remind myself that it’s fiction, imagined. But still, it drives me nuts when anachronisms show up in historical fiction. I read a book once, set in the early 20th century, where the characters (both poor and from poor families) who got married had a double-ring ceremony, using their parents’ rings. Drove me nuts; I thought everyone knew that double-ring ceremonies didn’t become popular until WWII (due to a jeweler’s marketing campaign).

                          Oddly enough, it’s the little things like that that bug me. Rearrangement of events or changing the importance of a historical figure–you know, bigger details–don’t bother me as much.

                          Jena’s last blog post..Rocksalt: An Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry

                          I know what your pet peeve is now, Jena! 🙂 I think that’s interesting that cultural aspects are more likely to set you off than larger inaccuracies.

                          • At 2009.02.18 18:27, Jen said:

                            I agree with your take on it. Since historical fiction has people who actually lived at some point in history as characters, people do seem to be either a) more likely to accept historical fiction as an account of actual events, and (on the opposite end) b) more quick to point out historical gaffes or inaccuracies, or feel defensive of historical figures. I’m reading The Historian, and read a review in which someone complained because an international phone call made by a character in the book would have not been made during that time period. Come on people, let it go! I would be willing to bet that while some people may (mis)take historical fiction as an account of actual events, more people become interested in the actual history because of the novel (or movie, or TV show.) I had no interest in Henry VIII until I started watching The Tudors, but I have gone online and done a little reading to tease out fact from fiction since I started watching the show. One of these days I might even pick up a biography of Henry VIII or one of his wives when I wouldn’t have otherwise.

                            But the bottom line is fiction is fiction, whether it’s “science”, “historical”, or otherwise. Some authors may do better research than others, but the finished product is not a factual account of events in any case. No one can control the thoughts and reactions of a reader, although one would hope that most people know the difference between a biography and a novel. But I’m sticking with the side of encouraging imagination, creativity, book writing, and book reading.

                            Well said, Jen! This may not be something that happens as often with science, but there are differing interpretations of history, so what one person might see as a blatant assault on history may be what those on the other side of the fence think. In the end, I fully agree with what you said in closing: “I’m sticking with the side of encouraging imagination, creativity, book writing, and book reading.” Whatever the outcome, I say Amen.

                            • At 2009.02.18 19:23, Michael Hartford said:

                              This is a really fascinating topic!

                              Fiction and history are different ways of knowing–“non-overlapping magisteria” per Stephen Jay Gould?–and both contribute to how we imagine the past. I’m bothered when a history/biography tries to express the inner thoughts of a historical figure (De Rosa’s “Rebels: The Irish Rising of 1916” did this a lot, and I had to stop reading), less bothered when a novel plays a little loose with the facts in the interest of exploring the unrecordable facts (so long as no major plot point hinges on an anachronism).

                              Fiction that explores the gaps in history can be really enlightening, and lead to a richer understanding of the past. I recommend Emma Donoghue’s “The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits,” a collection of short stories that explores some little-known corners of women’s history in the UK, for an example of how history and fiction can work together. Nathaniel Hawthorne did similar things with his short stories exploring the “moral history” of New England.

                              In any case, an author who gets historical fiction right in a way that works as both fiction and history has pulled off something incredibly difficult; the historian’s work of providing evidence and verifying facts is almost simple compared to the work involved in making the past live.

                              Michael Hartford’s last blog post..gallery shadows 2

                              Michael, thank you so much for stopping by. I’m glad you find this discussion as interesting as I do.

                              I really like what you said about history and fiction contribute to how we imagine the past. The key word there is imagination. I also agree with what you say about an inaccurate anachronism (say that 10 times fast) not being such a bad thing as long as it isn’t the hinge holding the story line together. That does make a difference. Yes, an author who makes a historical figure/event come alive completely within the confines of what is known and believed in history has created quite a work of art.

                              I have not heard of Emma Donoghue’s collection. It’s definitely going on my list of books to get my hands on. Thanks so much for the recommendation!

                              • At 2009.02.18 21:35, Lisamm said:

                                Great post, Jen, and excellent discussion. I don’t have much to add at this point. I read TOBG with very little knowledge of tudor England so for me it was a fun, wild romp. Ignorance is bliss, I guess. And I did make assumptions that the historical aspect was true- so was surprised to learn that much of it was false. But I still loved it.

                                Lisamm’s last blog post..Teaser Tuesdays 2-17-09

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                                • At 2009.02.19 01:30, Daphne said:

                                  Very well said! While I don’t think I would like a book that totally distorts history, a few alterations or some speculation in areas that aren’t totally agreed on make for an interesting story. Besides, if all of the books about a particular person followed the exact same storyline, wouldn’t they all sound the same? And that doesn’t make for fun reading!

                                  Daphne’s last blog post..Monday Mosaic

                                  That is a good point, Daphne. I hadn’t thought about it like that, but who wants to read the same novel about [fill in the blank] over and over again?

                                  • At 2009.02.19 02:11, Shana @ Literarily said:

                                    Well said, Jennifer. I agree with you completely, as far as what I’m looking for or expecting when I read historical fiction. And I love Philippa too! 🙂

                                    Shana @ Literarily’s last blog post..Tuesday Thingers

                                    • At 2009.02.20 23:25, Lorin said:

                                      Great post! For me, I will read – and enjoy- HF that is not historically accurate but I much prefer authors who stick to known facts. I just think fudging the historical record smacks of laziness – either write historical fiction or just fiction, but don’t call it historical if its not. Its just set in the past and to me there is a difference.

                                      Lorin’s last blog post..Friday Update

                                      That’s a great point, Lorin. There is definitely a difference between authors who take creative license with history and those who don’t bother to do a basic Google or Wikipedia search beforehand. If the author can’t be bothered to do the research, why should I be bothered to read it?

                                      • At 2009.02.22 18:53, Carrie K. said:

                                        Wonderful, thought-provoking post. I react to historical fiction that is about real people the same way you do – I look up more information about them. I recently listened to The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland on audiobook – and then spent a few hours on Wikipedia and other sources reading about her real life and viewing her gorgeous art. Yes, there were a few differences in the novel that helped to move the story along, but nothing that I think denigrated her memory.

                                        Carrie K.’s last blog post..The Sunday Salon – February 22 (The “bucket-loads of guilt” edition)

                                        I have that book, but I haven’t read it yet. If you spent that much time researching it, it must be good. I’m bumping it up in my list.

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                                        • At 2009.02.23 22:05, Melissa said:

                                          Great post! I love HF and don’t really care if it is 100% accurate. I would much prefer that an author interest me in the time period, and if I want to research more, I can.

                                          What bugs me the most about HF is when a character will do or say something totally modern.

                                          Melissa’s last blog post..Tagged!

                                          I expect there to be some liberties taken and I’m alright with that. I agree about the modern glimpses. I sometimes find the stronger female characters feeling very out of place.

                                          • At 2009.02.28 06:08, Mommy Brain » Links for Friday said:

                                            […] Where Fiction Isn’t Allowed to Be Fiction: A post by Literate Housewife about historical fiction – that is, fiction based on actual […]

                                            • At 2009.03.27 12:41, Modiggidy said:

                                              To Literate Housewife for the post and Meghan “That said, I think it’s also valid to add to this discussion the idea that history is actually a debate. Some facts are concrete. Most are not. We’re always challenging what has come before and re-interpreting documents and facts and believe it or not, finding new evidence.”
                                              Thank you both for saying this. To an extent, I can agree that it is disrespectful to fly in the face of all known facts, but is that always truly the case? Often when I read the most angry, vociferous objections to “inaccurate” fiction, I find that many of them turn out not to be directed against actual anachronisms, or variance with real, specific “facts” that can be nailed down to a specific time or place, but rather based upon the general impression given of someone’s personal “villain” or “hero.”

                                              Reading different NON-FICTION works can paint very different pictures of historical figures, from Biblical figures to modern prime ministers and military leaders. Why should that difference of opinion and interpretation be disallowed for fiction writers? Which of the historical accounts an author accepts as the most reliable source may not be the same for another, so it doesn’t necessarily follow that the author is intentionally defaming someone or being deceitful, particularly when several centuries removed from the character in question! It may be true that they are taking liberties for a juicy story, but on the other hand they may simply disagree as to which interpretation is correct.

                                              Works of literature dealing with historical figures usually differ from each other and the non-fiction accounts. (Try Shakespeare for several terrific examples.) If someone dislikes the writer’s interpretation, fine, object, please….but be honest about why, and don’t quickly accuse others of laziness, lying, etc. without offering specifics. To me, doing one without the other is also lazy and disrespectful. (I am NOT referring to anyone here, but to some very emotional comments and screed directed at others in various places.)

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