Are there rules that govern the representation of the “real world” in fiction? How much should fiction writers be allowed to misrepresent history before being called out for it?
A brief note: I had been trying, off and on, for nearly a year to finish this essay on historical fiction, when one morning I read an article by television writer/producer David Simon about his new post-Katrina series Treme that codifies everything I had been debating for so long. Here’s the main thrust of what Simon wrote:
If we are true to ourselves as dramatists, we will cheat and lie and pile one fraud upon the next, given that with every scene, we make fictional characters say and do things that were never said and done. And yet, if we are respectful of the historical reality of post-Katrina New Orleans, there are facts that must be referenced accurately as well. Some things, you just don’t make up… Admittedly, it’s delicate. And we are likely to be at our best in those instances in which we are entirely aware of our deceits, just as we are likely to fail when we proceed in ignorance of the facts…. But Treme is drama, and therefore artifice. It is not journalism. It is not documentary. It is a fictional representation set in a real time and place, replete with moments of inside humor, local celebrity and galloping, unrestrained meta. At moments, if we do our jobs correctly, it may feel real.
Simon also mentions elsewhere in the article—regarding a scene that features Hubig’s Pies, and critics’ comments that Hubig’s wasn’t yet back in business at that time: “The pie in Janette DeSautel’s purse is a Magic Hubig’s…”
In Malcolm Jones’s Newsweek review of Glen David Gold’s 2009 novel, Sunnyside—which dramatizes the life of Charlie Chaplin and the creation of the first movie stars—Jones criticizes the book in light of various factual inaccuracies. Here is what Jones says about Chaplin’s affair with screenwriter Frances Marion, which Gold deals with early in the novel:
The only thing wrong is that it probably never happened. It could have. Chaplin and Marion were contemporaries in the small community of early Hollywood. But we can only conclude, from the intimacy of the scene and the copious dialogue, that this is all Gold’s imagining. That’s all right, surely. This is a novel, with characters called Charlie Chaplin and Frances Marion, and Gold calling the shots. The problem—and it’s a problem whether your name is Doctorow, Mailer or DeLillo—is that once a novelist invites reality into his story, he can’t tell it when to leave. On every page, he has to tacitly ask the reader to suspend not disbelief but belief… But at every turn, reality comes knocking on the back door of our awareness, raising the question of what is real and what is made up.
Jones later examines a section that involves Chaplin’s mother, Hannah:
The Chaplin in the novel sends his lunatic mother back to England. The real Chaplin did not. Is there a point here? It’s hard to say. Gold is so clever and assured that he makes his readers think twice before accusing him of mere bungling. Instead, we second-guess ourselves for quibbling.
Reading this, all I could think was: Why the big concern? I mean, it’s fiction after all.
Nonetheless, since reading Jones’s review I have been thinking an awful lot about the consequences of fiction that bends, and sometimes breaks, the historical record. Are there tasteful rules governing representations of the “real world” in fiction? To put it more bluntly, just how much should fiction writers be allowed to misrepresent the world before being called out for it?
I Googled a bit, asked around, wandered some bookstores, and soon found I was far from alone thinking about all this. Some others who have been concerned, in no particular order:
Plato, Steven Millhauser, Andrea Barrett, Jim Shepard, E. L. Doctorow, David Shields, Michael Chabon, Nam Le, Tamas Dobozy, Homer, Charles Dickens, Laura van den Berg, Colum McCann, David Leavitt, Samantha Hunt, T. C. Boyle, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Henry James, Umberto Eco, Andrew Foster Altschul, Susan Choi, Curtis Sittenfeld, Julie Orringer, David Shields, Georg Lukacs, Philip Sidney, Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Philip K. Dick, Quentin Tarantino, Ha Jin, Geraldine Brooks, Peter Ho Davies, Eric Foner, Allan Gurganus, Ursula Hegi, Jill Lepore, Peter Matthiessen, Barry Unsworth, Gore Vidal, John Wray, Russell Banks, Madison Smartt Bell, Alan Cheuse, Francisco Goldman, William Kennedy, Marilynne Robinson, William Shakespeare…
And then, a few months ago, my wife was reading a review of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel about Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell—and turned to me and said, “Wow, historical fiction seems to be really hot these days.” I Googled once again and came up with the following:
• Four of the last ten Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction have been historical.
• Two of the five National Book Award finalists in 2009 were, as well.
• Of the last four novels discussed at length in The New Yorker (during 2009), two were historical fictions, and the other two were given very poor reviews.
• Just this year, the literary journal Conjunctions published a “Hybrid Histories” issue, including historical fiction from Francine Prose, William H. Gass, Stephen Marché, Paul West, Matt Bell, and many others.
Then, of course, there are the countless historical films and television shows: Pearl Harbor, The Pacific, Treme, The Wire, Young Victoria, An Education, The Queen, Seabiscuit, Titanic, 300, Public Enemies, Amelia, W., Milk, Frost/Nixon, and so on.
History and fiction have long been a team. The fictional transformation of historical fact has been going on since literature’s beginnings—I am thinking particularly of Gilgamesh and The Iliad, both about historical kings their authors never met, battles they never witnessed. And historical accuracy has always been a bit, well, uneven—short story pioneer Washington Irving never visited the Catskill mountains until after he wrote about them in “Rip Van Winkle”; and Homer didn’t fact-check the Trojan War before composing a 16,000-line poem about it. Luke Slattery argues in The Australian, “To the extent that Homer’s Troy exists at all, it exists in the imagination.”
On the other hand, some storytellers are more rigorous. Hillary Mantel is hyper-conscious about historical accuracy in her novels, and argues strongly for historical realism in fiction. In a recent discussion of Showtime’s Renaissance drama, The Tudors, Mantel said:
Every time they take one decision that’s contrary to the way things really happened, there’s a cascade of consequences, and in the end, the story becomes complete nonsense. Perhaps you’ve left out a vital character, or you’ve given someone a different name because you don’t trust the viewer’s or the reader’s intelligence. The most crass example was that Henry VIII had two sisters, and they decided to roll them into one, but once you take that kind of decision it ripples through everything you’re going to write thereafter.
Such tension between the historical record and fictional liberty exists in any story—the relaxing of this tension is an essential part of a reader’s suspension of disbelief. Some writers, such as Morrison and Doctorow, wear such tension on their sleeves, going so far as to make it a major part of the conflict they try to dramatize in novels such as Beloved, Ragtime, and The Book of Daniel. As critic Matthew Henry explains, “Where Doctorow differs from traditional historical novelists… is in the intentional confusion he sets up between documented historical events (‘facts’) and invented ones (‘fictions’).”
Again, this tension stretches far back into literary history, at least to Plato and his desire to excise poets—the novelists of their day—from the Republic for offering “phantoms, not realities.” Such a worry about literary misinformation is what led Philip Sidney to write his Defense of Poesy, an effort to defend literature against accusations that it distorts the real world:
For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false; so as the other artists, and especially the historian, affirming many things, can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies. But the poet, as I said before, never affirmeth. The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writeth. He citeth not authorities of other histories, but even for his entry calleth the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention; in troth, not laboring to tell you what is or is not, but what should or should not be.
The poet never affirmeth. Rather than simply affirm or record history, many fiction writers use the historical record as a painter uses a palette—a spectrum of realities from which to choose. In a 2009 interview on Bookworm, Glen David Gold goes so far as to say that he doesn’t like historical fiction, instead describing the use of history in his fiction as “the same way people use character [and] emotion.” The same was true for perhaps the most successful storyteller in the history of the English language. “As usual when he dealt with English history,” wrote Harvard professor Herschel Baker, “Shakespeare did not tie himself to the facts.”
For a more modern example, when asked if his stories were true, David Sedaris once answered that they were “true enough.” Much like character, setting, and symbolism, history is simply an element of the writing, and the only verification the writer must make for any element is if it “rings true” within the realm of the story, not that of reality.
The above of course begs the question: At what point is the storyteller allowed to let the story they are telling take over the story that exists in the history books? In an interview on Identity Theory, Jim Shepard—whose short stories are more often than not based around historical events—says:
On the one hand, you don’t come to fiction for the exact same thing you come to history for… But on the other hand, writers do tend to forget just how many of fiction’s pleasures for the reader do have non-fiction components. Read [Hemingway’s] “Big Two-Hearted River” and you think, “Well, I am learning about fly fishing.” Or read The Great Gatsby and part of the pleasure is thinking you are learning a little bit about the upper crust in Long Island at a certain point.
Fiction most often—perhaps always—exists in that middle ground between the real and the imaginary. Regarding the act of writing itself, Shepard adds:
At some point you have to say to yourself, “It’s not about what really happened. It’s about what I am about to invent.”
In short, the entire thing seems so much more complicated than Jones makes it out to be in his review of Sunnyside. When we are comparing artifice to the world, talking about where it and the world connect and overlap, I think that to simply say, “The only thing wrong is that it probably never happened,” is to oversimplify and undercut what may be the fundamental magic by which good fiction is powered.