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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What Makes For Great Historical Fiction?

"The Hallucination of Presence"

The same issue of the New York Review of Books with the Tim Garton Ash essay on 1989 included this review: Stephen Greenblatt, who is well known in the academic world as an authority on writing in Shakespeare’s time, reviews Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which won the highest literary prize in England this year, the Booker Prize. The book is historical fiction, centering on a key member of the court of Henry VIII, Thomas (not Oliver) Cromwell. Greenblatt uses the review to question what historical fiction does, because Mantel does  it so well.

Here is his view: the best historical novels "generate a sense in the reader best summed up in exclamations like "Yes, this is the way it must have been"; "This is how they must have sounded"; "This is what it must have felt like." Historical accuracy is not the issue: scrutiny of Cromwell’s surviving letters suggests that he probably did not sound very much like Mantel’s hero. What matters is the illusion of reality, the ability to summon up ghosts."

In a beautiful passage, Greenblatt describes what you feel what an author has accomplished that summoning. The books, "provide a powerful hallucination of presence, the vivid sensation of lived life. They set the dead in motion and make them speak: I am not a stick figure in a textbook; I was once alive, emotionally complex, beset with fears and daydreams, just as you are now. I will hide nothing from you. I will reveal to you what it actually felt like to experience in the flesh certain historical forces that are fixed in certain frozen formulaic phrases: the Italian Renaissance, the English Reformation, the Irish Uprising. And I will do so in a way that will make you feel, in the midst of a sober conversation about court politics, the touch of the real: "Try one of these sugared almonds."

Wow — this is eloquent criticism. Greenblatt sweeps away the question of accuracy and replaces it with a sensation we’ve all had — a novel that makes us feel we are there, more there than we could be in a book limited to what is known, or knowable. Great historical fiction is time travel, we feel we are in another place, seeing more than the record of the past allowed  us to know. I want to return to this, because this matter of accuracy is a hot button in children’s books. But for the moment, I’m ready to follow Greenblatt anywhere he wants to lead.


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    Thanks so much for pointing out this excellent essay.

  2. Marc,
    I am getting your feed now. Thank you!
    And thanks for the post on historical fiction. Very interesting discussion. I would like to hear more on the topic.

  3. I will explore some of his points in more detail in my next post, but of course all of you please add your own thoughts.

  4. Peni Griffin says:

    Writing historical fiction is so much a means of time travel for me that all three of the ones I’ve written to date are time travel fantasies. But I fail to see how anything but the most accuracy you can get can conjure up that hallucination of presence. I don’t even plot the book until I’ve done a critical mass of research, at which point the plot forms itself in my head – given this time and place, and that character, the plot has a natural channel in which it must flow.

    Of course, making stuff up is necessary. History is full of lacunae; prehistory, even more so. But the more saturated the brain with the available facts, the more convincingly the shape of the unavailable facts emerge from the negative space.

  5. Greenblatt credits Mantel with knowing her subject well. And I completely agree about immersing yourself in research. But, as I will spell out more fully in a blog, he also raises a really interesting question when he says Mantel’s Cromwell does not sound like the man in the available letters, yet he is a fully successful creation. And I think it is that borderline, that issue of evidence and invention that we need to ponder. Yes of course, the fullest research, but what are the boundaries of invention? And, what are the standards or judgment — where does accuracy trump literary accomplishment, and where does rich evocation on the page trump precise match to sources? These are questions, not answers.

  6. Vicky Alvear Shecter says:

    Wow, what a great line. Historial fiction provides “a powerful hallucination of presence, the vivid sensation of lived life.” So true on so many levels!