The Uses of History: Inaccuracy and Injustice

One of my commenters on another post included the following: Kenneth Chase cites a book called “Teppo denrai” by Takehisa Udagawa who states: “If historical inaccuracy is ignored for the sake of the message then it is not clear what the message gains from being placed in an historical setting”

Which, as a historical fantasy author, has made me consider why I do what I do. I believe that my first duty is to the story–generally, the story of a character who faces great problems. History is an excellent resource for all kinds of problems. In the case of Elisha Barber, I wanted to examine a few problems–some on a personal level (what happens if your brother commits suicide, though his society believes he will go to Hell for it?), some on a more societal level (what happens when injustice is so endemic in a society that the lives of its lower-class soldiers don’t “count”?) How far is it right to go in service to a cause–would you die for it? kill for it? allow or encourage others to do so?

Protagonist Elisha, a Barber-surgeon, stands in the ruined church

cover image for Elisha Barber, from DAW Books, cover by Cliff Nielsen

They cynics among us will have noted that these problems are still rampant today–especially those following the VA hospitals scandal and worried about how we are treating our soldiers right now. So why is the story set in a historical period?

First reason, history, like fantasy, is a sideways view of our own time. It’s been said that, no matter when and where a book is set, the author is always writing about his or her contemporary era. We can’t really help it–this time and place is, in spite of all research, what we know best. It is what has imprinted our psyche to form us as writers, and to suggest the things we are likely to be concerned about enough to write about them. So why not go into journalism to write about current events or ideas?

Here’s where the sideways comes in. People easily lose interest in the news. They feel a pang of righteous outrage when they hear or read about something bad happening to someone, somewhere–then it’s over and they click through on a link about easy weight loss. It is also easy to avoid difficult issues by simply avoiding following those news stories or reading the non-fiction produced about them (often while thinking, “well, that’s not *my* problem.”). A well-crafted novel, on the other hand, encourages sympathy with the protagonist(s) and draws the reader in through their adventure. The reader can feel close to the protagonist who is distant in time and place, without feeling pressured by what’s happening–after all, it’s only a novel.

Susan Sontag posited that the problem with over exposure to images of death, violence or degradation isn’t that people become insensitive to them, but rather that people become overwhelmed by helplessness about them. Why keep looking, why keep reading about a tragedy you can’t do anything about? In fiction, by way of that identification with the protagonist, you can. You can see that action can be taken, that it can be effective, at least in the world of the novel. If the world of the novel is Middle Earth, you might be inspired by the actions of the heroes, but not relate it to their own earth. A historical setting, on the other hand, still has real-world implications. It can be far enough from the reader’s experience to allow the reader to step away from today–but it is still connected, still suggestive of the substance of the world.

Phillip Zimbardo (creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment) and Zeno Franco wrote an article called “The Banality of Heroism,” in which they conclude that one good way to nurture the heroic imagination (leading individuals to think of themselves as potential heroes) is to encourage the reading and sharing of heroic narratives. Today is the 25th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre, with its iconic image of that single, unknown person facing down a row of tanks. If a story can inspire people with that kind of strength and courage, I’m all for it.

But the commentor’s quotation begins with the idea of historical accuracy. Basically, it asks, if you’re not going to be accurate, why write into history? My question in reply is, where does accuracy begin and end? We don’t know as much about history as we think we do. A manuscript can turn up in an unexpected place that turns our understanding of a critical event or person on its proverbial ear. The archaeological record can be tricky to interpret, and the written documents (which don’t even exist for many times and places, and are incomplete at best) make little attempt at accuracy themselves–exaggerating the size of the enemy force, misrepresenting leadership as stronger or weaker, incorporating only a particular point of view. It’s only in recent years that we’ve tried to look for and include a variety of perspectives on history, and to make history not merely the records of the victor.

So even if the author wishes to be as accurate as possible given current information, he or she is already at a disadvantage. Next, there is the hurdle of audience investment. If the reader wants a history book, he’ll go get one. If the reader wants entertainment (and doesn’t mind some history) then he’ll come to historical fiction. The expectation of the genre is to present a solid impression of the historical time and place being represented–in the way that a stage set is a representation of a real house. You include the pieces most relevant to the story, display them in a way the reader can understand, and try to suggest the greater breadth and depth of possibilities outside the stage. Most authors of historical fiction attempt to be accurate in the items and aspects that are portrayed, but they also know they cannot portray them all. Something will be lost in the translation of the historical reality to the page of a book.

However, something is gained as well. A well-written historical novel invites the reader to explore another time and place, to learn more about that setting through the vehicle of a narrative experience. The fusion of a strong historical setting, with a story the reader can enjoy produces a work capable of revealing both the past and the present–and, perhaps, illuminating something about the reader that could be seen in no other way, through the sidelong glance of the historical mirror.


About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in Elisha Barber, essays, fantasy, fiction, history, Uncategorized, writing, writing process and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Uses of History: Inaccuracy and Injustice

  1. Michelle says:

    Having recently been reading a sampling of both “set in period” historical fiction & modern fiction that draws much of it’s plot from history, I find myself reading the author’s end notes quite frequently. By including the historical references and where they speculated or deviated for the sake of the story, my curiousity has been piqued to the point of both looking up the actual history and reading additional related fiction. I completely agree that the problems of history are indeed being repated today, and if exploring the gritty past can shed some light on the same issues happening today, then it is a genre to be celebrated.

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