I am glad we are all discussing this issue, it crosses so many of my passions. But first all of you who were following my discussions with Monica on primary school education and content will want to read Bill Teale, Kathleen Paciga and Jessica Hoffman’s article in The Reading Teacher 61(4), pages 344-348, "Beginning Reading Instruction in Urban Schools" on how content is being removed from primary school education. A 2007 Center on Education Policy survey said 44% of districts "substantially reduced instructional time" in areas other than language arts. This is terrible — and we must not accept it. (the article comes out next month, I’ll post a link when it is available)
Let’s start with the question of why someone would turn to fiction in a history book. The obvious answer is in the hope of increasing reader interest. In nonfiction you are limited by what is known. In fiction you can add color. No one knows exactly what Toussaint L’Ouverture looked like, none of the paintings we have can be trusted. If you are writing about him, what a relief to be able to cobble together your own image of him from descriptions, those suspect paintings, your own sense. You give the readers a face to picture. You obviously also have the same freedom to imagine emotions: "as Thomas Jefferson listed those self-evident truths he felt a swell of hope, that one day, all men would be free." And finally you can ascribe motivation, "slashed by the British officer’s sword young Andy Jackson swore he would never show fear, and would always stand up for the liberty and freedom."
But as these dashed off examples show, putting thoughts and motivations into people’s minds is dangerous. I think the author has to signal when s/he leaves the known — "it would be nice to imagine that as Thomas…" "one can picture that, slashed by…young Andy might have sworn." I can see someone saying, that takes all the fun away. Fun for whom, the writer? The writer ought to be scared, s/he needs to be worried, must feel s/he is on thin ice. The problem I have with fictionalized nonfiction is when it is too confident, when it covers its traces, when it is arrogant towards the precision history requires. If an author wants total fiction s/he should write fiction.
And there is a reverse pleasure in real history. For some readers, for me as a child, knowing that something was true was more important than picturing Toussaint’s face as a writer imagined him, or imagining what Jefferson felt, or what Jackson swore. I kind of liked those imagined scenes, but I treasured knowing what was actually so. So I caution authors not to assume that the tools of fiction are required to fill in what is missing in the historical record. For some of your readers, knowing that your book tells only, and exactly, what is known, is enough. Think of it this way — do we learn anything more about gravity by having an author imagine what it felt like to Newton to have an apple fall on his head (and did that happen, I seem to recall hearing some doubts about that). No, if you want to understand the laws of motion, you want the laws of motion, not a description of the sun glinting off of the skin of the ripe red apple. Just because we like to imagine and write, does not mean we are adding anything by doing so.
I promise to get on to the faux books, and back to historical fiction. Betty Carter has written a nice essay on the topic, which perhaps I can get her to summarize here.