I hope all of you are following the comments that have come in on the various history/fiction posts — from authors, from Betty, from Monica, from Becky. In particular, the most recent Betty/Monica exchange leads me to a crucial issue. So far my focus has been on fact and imagination, on what is called historicity (and we might mangle as historicalness) and how that fits, or does not fit, with entering the past, inhabitating the past — whether as a historian, an author, or a reader. But Monica and Betty bring up a great point — aesthetic reading as one style of engagement, critical thinking as another.
But first, what is "aesthetic reading"? In one way, you might say, it is passive, appreciative — you the reader invite the author to take you somewhere, to please you, move you, entrance you. You show up at the book, and expect to be taken for a ride — with the author’s wit, charm, depth, mastery of craft, sensitivity to character, insight into situations being the motors that will carry you along. And yet it is not entirely that. One of the great steps forward in YA fiction in the past decade has been the greater use of the unreliable narrator and the multivoice novel. In other words, books that invite the reader not to trust the text, but to look around, behind, within it. Aesthetic reading, then, is not passive, it is active — looking for what is not said, what is implied, what is seen one way by one character, and a different way by another.
I think that what Monica and Betty are pointing to is that good historical writing must involve both active and passive reading. And I don’t think we are as accustomed to using those YA English Major tools in nonfiction as we are in fiction. It is very rare to have nonfiction from multiple POVs (George Vs. George comes to mind; or Bull Run, though that is precisely historical fiction). We are invited always to trust the voice of nonfiction, never to see the author as having his or her own angle, own emotions, own point of view.
Monica and Betty are raising the red flag of caution — do not assume the reader needs to enter a book passively, to be seduced into the text. A reader can also be challenged, asked to enter actively, swinging the sword of questions, doubts, suspicion. Do you need the spoonful of aesthetic sugar to make the medicine of history go down?
What do you all think? (Note I will be at Fisk University’s Race Relations Institute this Friday for a panel so I may be delayed in my next blog.)