2.28.2006

question of the day

Is there a difference between historical novels (classified as fiction) and history books (classified as non-fiction)? (Other than their classifications, of course...)

8 Comments:

Blogger Joshua said...

i think it depends on your theory of history as a discipline. if you're a strict theoretical historian, probably not. but i don't think you're going to get into many arguments in the real world regarding the academic rigor of your run-of-the-mill historical novel.

2/28/2006 11:17 PM  
Blogger Andy Whitman said...

Sure there's a difference. And although I enjoy historical novels, I don't approach them the same way I approach history.

One of my favorite historical novels is "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara, a fictionalized account of the Battle of Gettysburg. It's a wonderful book, and in a sense it's historically accurate. It describes troop movements, crucial military successes and bluders over the course of the three-day battle, etc. This is information you could find in any standard history textbook. Where it differs is that it also includes dialogue between some of the major military leaders, and the interior monologues of Robert E. Lee, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, etc. It also posits several events that cannot be historically verified, but which add to the dramatic impact of the novel (and the battle) as a whole.

This is all great stuff. But it's not history, and it shouldn't be treated as such. As long as the reader understands that, there's no problem. But I've encountered people whose knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg comes almost exclusively from "The Killer Angels," and then it may be more problematic. It's like gleaning all knowledge of the Vietnam War from watching "Platoon" and "The Deerhunter." It's entertaining, but it might result in a skewed understanding of history.

3/01/2006 10:22 AM  
Blogger e said...

So what are some of the fundamental differences between something like Killer Angels and something like Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War and a history book on the Civil War?

It sounds like from what Joshua said that perhaps the difference is in the mind of the reader? Or is there another reason to distinguish the two?

3/01/2006 10:37 AM  
Blogger Scott Sloan said...

E, historical fiction takes an event or period in time and builds a story re: that event or time period. Examples would be Allan Eckert's series on the Northwest Territory, Taylor Caldwell's books on Peter and Paul, and Colleen McCullogh's first man of Rome series.

History is more based on facts and our biased interpretations of those events.

3/01/2006 12:44 PM  
Blogger Andy Whitman said...

I would think that objectivity and historical veracity would be the hallmarks of a history book. I realize that true objectivity is impossible, of course, and that every writer brings his or her biases to the process, but nevertheless I think it's reasonable to assume that when, for example, a Civil War historian recounts that when Union colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain led a desperate bayonet charge down Little Round Top, and thereby saved the Union flank from collapsing, then such a statement should be historically accurate and verifiable.

Historical fiction mixes that kind of history with conjectural events and imaginary dialogue. And since it rarely distinguishes between objective fact, imagination, and conjecture, it is important that it not be read as history. That's not to say that it can't contain a core of historical truth. But it doesn't (or shouldn't) be read the same way as so-called "objective" history. It's the difference between a historian interpreting an objective historical event (which goes on all the time in history books) and a novelist inventing a new historical event that fits within the broader context of well-known history.

3/01/2006 1:59 PM  
Blogger e said...

So there's a consensus, I think, that the distinguishing mark of "real" history vs. a novel that's based on historical characters is the historical "fact." X really happened.

Follow up question: what is a historical "fact"? How do we get those--assuming all eyewitnesses are dead (although perhaps this is moot)?

3/01/2006 9:18 PM  
Blogger Andy Whitman said...

Re: the historical "fact" question, I assume that an event should be independently corroborated by a variety of sources. How many? And what constitutes overwhelming historical evidence? I don't know. I mean, there are people who still deny that the Holocaust happened, you know? Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is overwhelming historical evidence that it happened.

I would say that the importance of historical events is almost always up for grabs. As a little kid, I was taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America, and that that was a huge deal. These days, although the historical circumstances of Columbus' life have not changed, it seems to me that the events themselves are viewed is much as much less important than they used to be. But the fact that Christopher Columbus did, in fact, sail around and cavort on various Caribbean islands is the historical kernel that we hold on to. That's the history, if you will. The interpretation is much more elusive, and much more subject to change.

3/02/2006 11:18 AM  
Blogger e said...

So what do we do with a single document recording a relatively minor event? (We assume here, of course, that we're interested in the event despite its low relevance to anything else.)

What isn't fictional about an attempt to use this document to describe a more important issue? Don't we have to make connections that exist in our minds, outside of the context of this document? Is this any less fictional than a novelists use of a similar document?

3/06/2006 10:30 AM  

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