Friday Buzz - History + Fiction

I was visiting my local indie bookstore the other day, and standing before the rack of recently released paperback fiction, I noticed an inordinate number of titles related to historical personages. Here is a sampling of such--mind you, a sampling:

Dreamlife of Sukhanov
Memoirs of Helen of Troy
Anxious Pleasures (A Life After Kafka)
The Mercuy Visions of Louis Daguerre
I, Mona Lisa
Rasputin's Daughter
Secret Memoirs of Jackie Kennedy Onassis
Great Lady: The Notorious Gorgeous Life of Emma Lady Hamilton

Okay, I can accept some of this as a wave in the cyclic nature of publishing trends; after successes like The Other Boleyn Girl or The Dante Club, naturally publishers chase after more of the same and glut the market.

But why is the reading public hungering for fictional accounts of people who really lived? (Honestly, I don't get it. To me, the facts are infinitely more interesting. How could any author improve on the story of Marie Antoinette, for example? Wouldn't you rather know about the real Jackie O. versus some stranger's made-up account of her? And why would readers buy into a contemporary writer's interpretation of the memoirs of a famous historical personage?)

This is saying something about our society and culture, though I'm not quite sure what. I simply don't have enough pieces of the puzzle. To me, there is some sort of intersecting between the fictionalized personage trend and the recent spat of "dramatized" memoirs. Real life crossing over with fiction, that sort of thing. For some reason, we are not prone to distinguishing between "fact" and "fiction," "truth" and "theory": We are willing, maybe even eager, to blur the lines. Why?

On another tangent, could the fictionalizing of historical person's memoirs be a reaction to our own (recent) lack of tangible, permanent records of our days and thoughts and history? Think about it: We soon will have no more letters or lengthy correspondence and few written diaries to document the processes, personal musings, daily accounts of our great thinkers. No more Samuel Pepys or Viriginia Woolf diaries. No more letters between Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (Yeah, I can just imagine how helpful Blackberry messages will be: RUwriting? :) )

Just some random, rambling thoughts. Something about this nags at me, though: Somehow, it's telling us something we must pay attention to. That's the feeling I get.

I'd like to hear some of your thoughts on the subject.


Dorothy W. said...

The question of what will happen to historians of our time period, where we have fewer things like letters and diaries, is an interesting one. It's enough to make me want to print out all my blog entries (although I won't probably, being too lazy). I don't envy those future historians.

For some reason, we're in both a highly skeptical and very gullible age, I think -- we get so upset, as you point out, when people exaggerate in their memoirs, but not so upset when politicians lie to us.

Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

I sympathize with your question about why people are choosing to read fictional accounts of people who really lived. I am a biography fan but as well I can say I have enjoyed a few fictional accounts too - The Kitchen Boy - The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre. For me, reading a fictional account often catapults me into finding 'real' stories about the persons so I think that is a good thing and I suppose I hope it happens that way for others.

Brandon said...

I'll read historical fiction if it sounds interesting, but I have a really bad track record with it; I seem to lose interest in it eventually. I always figure, if I want to read a book set in the nineteenth-century (for example), I'll just read something that was published during that time. I'm not a big biography reader, though; I can't remember the last biography I read, but they just don't interest me. I'm a lot like you in that, when it comes to history, I'd rather read the real thing; we all know that fiction writers take certain liberties with facts, and I'm the kind of guy who, if I read something I knew wasn't true, I'd immediately lose interest the story, or at least start combing the text for other "lies."

Andi said...

I have a similar idea I'll be writing about for the April issue of Estella re: the loss of written artifacts.

As for the fictionalization of real people and their experiences? I dunno. I'm tempted to say it's because our culture finds scandal or "stories" more appealing than a history book which strikes them as too "texty." Or perhaps it's because fiction (sometimes) provokes more emotion and can feel more personal?


LK said...

Dorothy, you are right: It is the historians who will have a difficult time with the artifacts. Maybe the historical fiction is an anticipation of that...? (I think I am reading WAY too much into it!)

OBG, thanks for the perspective. I guess I'll be joining the ranks: My book club is sending me a copy of the novel by Alison Weir on Lady Jane Gray. I like Weir's nonfiction, so this will be a good introduction to the genre.

Brandon, I am with you on the "looking for lies." I am that way with sci-fi; if one single iota of the created world doesn't ring true, it's over for me. (i.e., in the film Total Recall, I could not get over the fact that, in this futuristic world, men were working on the streets with manual drills, which Ah-nold does in the beginning.)

Andi, can't wait to see the issue. You make some good points about either the titillation factor or just the plain old human need to hear a good tale. Hmmm...food for thought.

Stefanie said...

I wonder if people prefer fictionalized stories of real people because they think reading history is boring? Or maybe people are intimidated by big biographies that often reach 500+ pages but are willing to read a novel of 200-300 pages?

cipriano said...

Hmmm... I don't know. It is an interesting question, this fiction vs. actual history or alleged historical account stuff.
I am currently reading Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ and finding it INFINITELY more interesting than reading the Gospel account of Christ's [allegedly actual] life and times. I could say the same for Jose Saramago's book, The Gospel According To Jesus Christ.
Similarly, I would rather read Tolstory's War And Peace than read about the actual Napoleonic Wars... but you have made me think, and that is always good, and I shall think more upon this....

Lesley said...

Well, I enjoy both historical fiction and reading non-fiction history. Since I know going into a HF book that it's a fictionalized account, I'm interested to see where the author takes the subject, how s/he deviates from what we know from history. And if I'm reading about a subject/person I don't know too much about, then the novel may spark my interest enough to look to historical works.

I think they both have their place in the printed world, but I do agree that HF seems to be one of those trends that's on the rise right now.

danielle said...

Interesting post. I admit to being a big fan of historical fiction. I do also like reading NF, but considering my track record with NF (s-l-o-w reader), I would never get anything read. Sometimes I like reading a novel set in a particular time (not necessarily a fictional account about a real person in the time). I think there are good examples of writing (and bad..) both fiction and NF. I also think it is sad that in the future, there will not be the same paper trails as in the past--with everything being digital. A historian's nightmare!

bloglily said...

It's hard to get it right, that's for sure. For every Colm Toibin (I thought the Master was great), there's a Michael Cunningham (I thought the Hours was not so great, but that's just me).

I've seen this in current poetry too, in poems that riff on people like Dickinson, and Whitman.

I don't believe it's actually true that all fictional and poetic possibilities have been exhausted, but I do think it's possible that maybe this sort of derivative writing signals we're entering into an age of exhaustion.

My next novel is based on Wallace Stevens's life (but with more sex and travel!), and your post makes me think about why that topic is so appealing.