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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Historical Fiction Seminar

Lets Run This Like a Seminar, Not a Blog

In other words, I am not here to state, first off, what I think, but to present to you the challenges Greenblatt’s essay poses to us — the community interested in books for younger readers. If any of you would like to respond with a post longer than the comment allows, or to include the links it blocks, just email me via my website and I’ll post your thoughts as blogs.
    One of the essays in the book on childrens and YA literature I am working on with the editors of the Horn Book is a revised version of the historian Anne Scott McCleod’s Horn Book essay, "Writing Backward" She challenges three beloved books for being so historically false they no longer maintain the balance of "history" and "fiction" the genre demands: Sarah, Plain and Tall; True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle; and Catherine, Called Birdie. In each case she finds the female protaganist either atypical  (Sarah); ludicruously implausible (Charlotte), or given an unrealistic fate (Catherine).I was relatively close to my graduate training in medieval studies when I read Catherine, and had exactly the same reaction. But then again I was closer to my Am History doctorate when I read Sarah and she did not bother me. The book was more a prose poem, an evocation, than a study — at least in my recollection. 
    But let’s hold McCleod’s concern about violating plausibility against Greenblatt’s willingness to excuse a voice for Cromwell that does not match sources, and his passionate appreciation of the "hallucination of presence" Mantel creates. One difference is intended readers. Greenblatt is writing for caveat emptor adults who are presumably able to compare the novel to history, if they so desire. McCleod is balancing the two imperatives on writing for younger readers — engaging them, and being fair to them by not misleading them (you might say we all have taken an oath to "first, do no harm")   
   Adults say over and over, "kids don’t know the difference between fiction and fact; they take a novel as real." Others add, "what if this is the only book a child reads about girls in the middle ages, don’t we have to be careful to be both accurate (not misleading) and not harmful (not fostering or reinforcing prejudices)." So historical fiction is enjoined to — as Macleod argues — not make the exception or unlikely masquerade as the typical (if you want to describe an exceptional life, make sure your readers realize that — but also means your book cannot be used by a teacher wanting a slice of life to sweeten a textbook, since the book is precisely not a slice of normal life); while at the same time the book is considered a transmitter of important contemporary values and insights. 
    To add one more gamey ingredient to this stew, the adults judging historical plausibility may often have a hazy or second hand knowledge of the period described in the book.. If an adult last took a college level history class a decade or more ago she may have fixed in her mind views, and understandings, that the academy no longer shares. So what seems implausible depends on how much the reviewer knows about implausibility. Greenblatt is so comfortable in the sources, he grants Mantel freedom. A reviewer less schooled may well be more rigid — since the little she knows is her bastion against prior ignorance. 

So where do you stand on HF — on the demands of evocation versions the demands of historical plausibility? How would you judge those three novels by his standards? What standards do you think we should should apply? Should there be a difference in standard between adult and kids books? adult and middle grade? adult and YA? If a book beautifully makes you feel you are there, in another time, how many elements of that time can it willfully violate, or ignore, or edit? I have more questions friends, but now it is your turn to speak.


  1. Even when I was a kid–I was about eleven–I thought Charlotte Doyle was meant to be a fantasy. It’s never crossed my mind before that some people read it as (and maybe it’s meant to be) straight-up historical fiction.

    The McCleod article is great and brings up most of the points I would have, though I don’t necessarily agree that this is a new-ish problem; I think earlier historical fiction was at least as inaccurate, just in different ways.

    The amount of historical fiction I read as a kid (enormous) is what’s made me good at Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit, not just because of facts learned in the reading, but because when I hear something actually factual, I can connect it in my mind to a book or a character and I remember. I’ve had to un-learn plenty of “facts” I got from books, and faced up, myself, to the idea that options for women in the past were much more limited than those presented by my favorite books, but those have generally been interesting experiences that taught me to think critically when I was a teenager (and, of course, the un-learning continues).

    Certain historical fiction topics make me squirmy, though. Take The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (which, of course, some claim as a fantasy)–the danger of that book is that it presents Auschwitz as less scary and horrible than it really was. Now, I think it’s okay to wait to learn some of those harsh realities, but presenting a rosier picture instead is something else altogether.

    Then there are issues of race, which McCleod does discuss; one of my problems with last year’s Chains was the in-my-opinion-unlikely “specialness” of its heroine, who is able to read scholarly works that much better-educated people today struggle with.

    I contradict myself all the time on this issue. Caddie Woodlawn irritates me because of Caddie’s condescending attitude toward her half-Indian schoolmates, yet I wouldn’t like historical fiction that pretended a girl like Caddie wouldn’t have had those attitudes. But there’s a difference between a character condoning that attitude and a book condoning it, and perhaps there’s a sweet spot an author can hit that presents reality while making it clear that a situation was less than ideal. Maybe The Green Glass Sea does this.

  2. i liked your phrasing of the idea of the sweet spot that balances between imperatives. I like it most because it is balancing point, a sensed rather than proven equipoise. But that of course means there is no single correct view of whether the author has found it– only whatever insight and evidence each reader brings.

  3. Vicky Alvear Shecter says:

    I like Mcleod’s line: “The German historian Leopold von Ranke said that writing history was saying ‘what really happened’ — but according to whom?” What a critical question!

    I have a book coming out next Spring on Cleopatra that questions some of the interpretations historians have made about her over the centuries. Here’s the thing, though: I am bracing myself for the possibility that some may accuse me of trying to “rewrite” history simply because I’m looking at her story from a different angle. However, I relied on the ancient sources and the latest scholarlship, as well as vetting by respected scholars, etc., to back up my work, but still–people get very attached to their perceptions of “what really happened” or the history that they “know.”

    I’ve also been writing a YA historical fiction novel set in that period and I struggle with the fact that slavery was deeply entrenched and very commonplace in the ancient world. Would my main character object to the practice? A modern teen would, but–in the end–if I were going to be true to my character, her status and the history of this period–she wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But that’s uncomfortable.

    I like how Wendy put it: “there’s a difference between a character condoning that attitude and a book condoning it.” When you’re dealing with issues of racism, slavery,class discrimination, etc.,the impulse is to want to inject a modern sensibility. But not at the price of showing what life was ‘really’ like. The search for balance continues…

  4. I sympathize with that concern about you having a few that will disturb readers who know less than you do. That is what Tanya Stone experienced with some of the comments on Almost Astros, and I’ve seen that with my own books. I sometimes think the kids’ books community gets the ideas of the academy on a decade delay, since the reviewers recall what they studied and have not been focused on new developments.
    As you know, there were some in Rome who objected to slavery but it was a very rare and minority voice, and the practice was completely accepted. So I think you could have a character have doubts if, as Macleod says, you made that character highly unusual. So for example, there are kids today who are Vegans because they are against eating animals. But if you wrote a modern YA with a character who refused to swat any bugs or eat any food treated with a pesticide you would have to make those treats highly significant (he is a Jain; he has eco-extremist Danish parents). Take a look, though, at Adrienne Mayor’s The Poison King for a brief anti-Roman, anti-slavery movement close to your period (which was murderous and bloody in its own right).

  5. Vicky Alvear Shecter says:

    It’s funny, I had just placed The Poison King on my “wish list!” On the issue of making the character highly unusual, I agree and I love the example you used (Danish Jainist-ha!). That would seem to work very well with a character you dream up. It’s a little harder to do that with real figures in history, I think. But then again, I’m new to historical fiction so that just may be my particular struggle.

    In the end, though, I think kids read historical fiction for the same reason adults do–to enter a different world and “hallucinate” the experience of it. The better the hallucination, the better the experience and the more beloved the book. Or, at least, that’s my experience of it.

    But let’s not forget, most authors today include an author’s note where they parse the fiction from the facts. I find them fascinating and ALWAYS read them. But do kids? Not sure. Still, I think the Author’s Note is a good compromise–a way for the author to express his or her creative vision while articulating the facts from which they sprung.

  6. Actually, one of the things I loved about The Green Glass Sea was that she DIDN’T include an author’s note–the text speaks for itself, and there was nothing to draw me out of the story when I was done with it. (I did go and read a whole bunch of stuff about the Manhattan Project, though.) I don’t think an author’s note is necessarily bad, but I found this very refreshing.

  7. Greenblatt’s word is really helpful — we probably all read HF to have that same hallucinatory experience — a special form of the old “willful suspension of disbelief.” The problem is that violations of what you think/know/believe the past was can break the spell — as Birdy did for me. Vickey’s good point is that readers not “up” on new interpretations may be jarred by something the read that violates the past as they understood it– and so see the book as flawed, when the limitation is in their knowledge. In cases like that an author’s note is especially useful. In general I tend to like author’s notes — but I also like to read (and write) footnotes in nonfiction. Seems Wendy is one of those readers who wants to stay within the dream between the covers of the book, then head out on her own for further research. I don’t actually think the issue is whether kids do or do not read the note. The point is it is there, for the young reader, the teacher, the librarian, the parent to use as a resource — like Further Reading in a NF book. Few readers may consult it, but it is there waiting, a loyal friend, ready to help out whoever comes by.

  8. Hmm, I’m not sure that’s exactly how I read, though I see how my comment comes across that way. I thought about author’s notes a lot after reading both The Green Glass Sea and Chains (which has an extensive one). It seems to me that author’s notes are often written very pedantically; that they can seem to be telling the reader what to think; that they can be a place for the author to dump some of the facts that didn’t work into the story; that they can be used to ensure the reader knows exactly what the author’s position is. I tend to think that if the book is good enough, none of that is necessary–or, maybe, even a good idea. I wonder why author’s notes (especially very lengthy ones) are so much more common right now than they were twenty or fifty years ago.

    As I recall, in The Witch of Blackbird Pond–my go-to example for classic historical fiction–there’s a minimal author’s note, explaining that a couple of the characters and one of the situations are real. Would the book have been improved by a long note at the back, explaining living conditions in Barbados, the realities of a long ocean voyage, the Puritans and their journey to New England, what Quakers believed and how they were mistreated in Massachusetts? I have a feeling this would take away from the book, lessening both its beauty AND its value.

  9. I am sure that some notes are defensive — designed to deflect anticipated criticism, prove why you the author had all that was good and true on your side when you wrote the book. But I also think, as against Blackbird days, that issues of who gets to write what, what story belongs to whom, offense, stereotype etc., etc. are so standard as to be expected these days. And any author (editor/publisher) who has award, starred review, school use hopes is going to want to head off possible criticism at the pass, and answer anticipated questions. Does all of this industry stuff interfere with the pure reading experience? I suspect it can (though the objection to notes that no one reads them also means they do no harm). But I can also see why an author/editor would feel it was necesssary to the book’s best possible future.
    You actually brought us to the next Seminar topic I have in mind — Use. Because evaluations of HF (and also of NF) are often shaped by utility not abstract literary values. And we need to weigh that next. For you the note breaks the spell of the book. But for teachers the note may be what allows you to use it.