Some good commentary on the difficulties of both historical fiction and history writing.
Originally posted on A. Roy King:
I was struck by this quotation from Howard Zinn in The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, by James Alexander Thom:
Historical fiction and nonfiction are both abstractions from a complex world of infinite fact. Both can tell the truth; both can lie. The “lies” (that is, distortions, omissions, exaggerations) in historical fiction may have two advantages over the “lies” (that is, omissions, exaggerations, distortions) in nonfiction. First, that they are at least entertaining. Second, that they do not make the same claim of being truthful.
The fact that historical fiction is more entertaining can also make it more dangerous because it is more seductive, enveloping the lie in a sweeter package than nonfiction. Bad historical fiction may wrap a false idea (that blacks are inferior, that war is good) in an attractive story and thus make it more dangerous.
Thom, who is a great American historical novelist known for his careful research and accuracy, also quotes Washington Irving as saying, “I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories.” Thom then adds,