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" tinyurl.com/ys435e 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.