History as Fiction, Fiction as History

A few weeks ago, A Motley Vision provided a quote from an 1897 publication by Junius Wells in which he discusses the idea of books as ‘companions’ and urges his readers to reconsider the type of company they keep when they read. Wells makes a distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and privileges scriptural and factual based writing over ‘lighter fare’, noting that ‘the staff of intellectual life is fact.’ While it is easy to dismiss the words of Wells as old-fashioned and to assume that we have advanced culturally beyond our fear of fiction, I have sometimes run into a subset of Mormon readers who still fear fiction. They prefer to read nonfiction, preferably the devotional type written by a proven authority figure and published by an official press, but they may occasionally indulge in some inspirational fiction or perhaps some historical fiction that retells familiar events in a way that allows them to learn something and still ring ‘true’.

Though I have long been a reader of historical fiction and I appreciate the added benefit of learning some facts, I mostly read it for the aesthetic experience. Consider these rave reviews from Amazon for a book that I dismissed as poorly-written tripe: “His descriptions of everything seem spot-on, as if he walked every inch of the past where his book is set… He certainly made me believe he’d been to all those places” and “[the author] does an excellent job with interweaving historical fact with believable, appropriate fiction. In fact, I was never sure where one left off and the other began. But the dates and details present throughout the book assured me that the topic was thoroughly researched and documented.” The meandering plot, poor grammar, and incoherently detailed descriptions made this book a difficult read for me, but for several readers this was a 5-star book because it rang true to their understanding of history.

Perhaps I have been spoiled by reading too much post-modern literary criticism. I can remember the mind-expanding moment in a graduate level class when we read and discussed “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact” by Hayden White, in which he posits that literature and history are not as separate as most people would like to think and that historians use literary technique in constructing their narrative accounts of history. The facts of history do not change, but our interpretation of their significance depends on their emplotment. I have often wondered how readers like those mentioned in my previous paragraph would feel about the idea that what they take to be Truth may just be one version of narrative truth. I think Mormon readers have a particularly difficult time with fiction because of our ideas about truth, revelation, and writing. If we assume that the Book of Mormon is the true narrative of everything that happened to the Nephites, narrated directly by God to Mormon, and then translated directly by God through Joseph Smith, we assume that there is one way to tell the story of history and that history does indeed equal Truth.

But, as Grant Hardy points out in his book Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide, one can still believe in the Book of Mormon as the word of God while also recognizing that it was written by authors that used literary devices to construct a narrative that served their particular purposes. In one chapter, he describes Mormon’s competing agendas in creating his history: a desire to be historically accurate and true to his sources, creation of an aesthetically pleasing narrative, and a responsibility for teaching moral and spiritual truths (pg. 102). In teaching about the Book of Mormon, I think the emphasis has often landed on Mormon’s historical accuracy and spiritual teaching, without as much acknowledgement of the fact that he is constructing a literary narrative. I can see how this can lead to confusion about what the purpose of literature is, and whether it still be valuable even if it is not historically accurate.

These are difficult questions and perhaps a short blog post cannot fully do them justice. What really precipitated this post and this line of thinking is something that has been bothering me lately: footnotes in historical fiction. I’ve noticed a trend during the last few years for historical fiction published by LDS publishers to include notes, either at the end of each chapter or at the end of the book, explaining the historical facts or clarifying the context for events that the characters experience. I will be blunt and say that I hate these kinds of things. I find it a little insulting for the author to assume that I don’t know who Chairman Mao was or what “dim sum” means. Even if I didn’t know those things, I find it irritating to have my reading experience interrupted by reminders about what the ‘truth’ of the narrative is; if I cannot understand the significance of something from context, I can do some research about it on my own. In doing a bit of investigating, I discovered that Gerald Lund includes notes at the end of certain chapters in The Work and the Glory, perhaps in an effort to help readers more fully distinguish between real people and the fictional Steed family. Personally, I don’t think that distinguishing between fictional characters and historic characters is such a big deal. If my testimony is strengthened by reading about something that happened to the Steeds, does that make it illegitimate? What is the danger of confusing fact and fiction? Is it threating to realize that history is just as much a literary construct as fiction is? What think ye?

This entry was posted in Community Voices, The Past through Literature and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to History as Fiction, Fiction as History

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    First, I want to agree that we miss out on a lot through a lack of awareness of the literary dimensions of scripture. That said, I do think that at least in some cases, there are important reasons for distinguishing history from fiction in our literary compositions.

    I suspect that for something like Darius Gray and Margaret Young’s Standing on the Promises series, historical notes were probably a rhetorical necessity, given the audience they were trying to reach. I also think that in cases like Tom Rogers’s play Huebener, there’s probably value in an author’s note clarifying some of the verified historical facts of the play, and where the author chose to go beyond them.

    My preferred format for this kind of discussion is probably an essay from the writer talking about how he/she grappled with the historical record and the choices he/she made. For me, that serves the dual purpose of informing me historically and illuminating the writer’s creative processes.

    I do think it’s a problem when fiction tampers with historical settings in ways readers are unlikely to recognize, without acknowledgment. Part of the power of those stories is that they draw on common historical property. That being the case, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hold them accountable for what they do with that property. Notes from the author are one way of addressing that issue of accountability, though perhaps not the most elegant one.

  2. Th. says:

    .

    Here are some thoughts. Mostly inspired by Jessie’s remarks, but the first from Jonathan’s:

    1. Especially we need to admit this must matter after watching Mike Daisey’s debacle play out these past few weeks. (Hasn’t that been fun?) If your audience is expecting you to be factual with them (and particularly if you tell them that’s the case), then your artistic licence is necessarily constrained.

    2. My grandmother who loved fiction as much as anyone, gave it up believing it was a sacrifice God required of her. And perhaps he did—what do I know? But watching her watch us read fiction, the hunger upon her face— Were her final couple decades improved by that loss?

    3. The notes you’re noticing—holy smokes—if ever there was a trope ripe for parody! Almost you make me want to read a dozen of those, just to write such a novel of my own!

    4. Hardy’s book’s the best ever, don’t you think? I want to wax literary the next time I teach adult Sunday School. I’m already implementing some of these idea in teaching the youth.

    5. The tension between truth and Truth (whichever is which) drives me nuts. Overworrying this issue is what leads to people being offended as well, methinks.

    • Scott Hales says:

      RE: 3

      Honestly, I’m surprised nobody has parodied Lund’s notes–which, in my opinion, often contain plenty of historically dubious information of their own (or maybe, because all information about history is dubious in one way or another, I should just say that I don’t think the notes interrogate the history as much as they ought to–if truth really were their primary objective, that is).

      I think one reason why we haven’t seen a great parody of the Work and the Glory–which is another way of saying a great contemporary Mormon historical novel–is simply that Mormon fiction has not yet moved into the realms of postmodernism. We’ll need a Mormon Pynchon or Russell Banks–someone who isn’t wed to the Lund model or traditional notions of linear historical fiction–before we’ll ever get any Mormon historical fiction that really tells us something striking about our history.

      That said, I think the last thing we need is a lampoon of Mormon history. That’s not what I’m driving at at all. I’d like to read a Mormon historical novel written by an author who has a deep respect for and investment in the Mormon past–so much so that she or he is willing to manipulate it creatively and artistically to say something truly profound.

      • Wm says:

        I thought David Farland’s In the Company of Angels was solid, and he did do some manipulation of history and explained it well in an afterword.

        Also: my Speculations series is postmodern (and is somewhat inspired by postmodern experiments with narrative, although the core inspiration is Kafka).

        • Scott Hales says:

          I haven’t read Farland’s book in full yet, so I can’t comment on it. From what I know about it, though, it doesn’t quite push the historical fiction envelope enough to take Mormon historical fiction in a new, more exciting direction. But like I said…I haven’t read it.

          And I think you’re right to point out that Mormon short fiction has already begun to show postmodernism’s influence whereas the Mormon novel has not. Aside from your stories, I can think of a number of others that are introducing new things to Mormon letters.

          But I could be wrong. Can anyone think of a Mormon novel that could be labeled postmodern?

          • Wm says:

            I think Th. has one coming out. Stephen Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell might be considered one, although the Mormon elements are brief. Actually, his might be more Modernist than postmodern.

            Then there’s the one that I’m not writing that’s about a Mormon writer not writing a Mormon novel (not a joke — if I do write a novel length work of Mormon fiction, that will be the one I write. I have a page of notes and the first three pages of it done.).

          • Th. says:

            .

            I have a short story that’s about a Mormon writer writing a Mormon novel. Which has had a rather postmodern nonpublication history.

            As to whether Buyck is postmodern I will leave to the critics to decide.

          • Th. says:

            .

            Ah, jeez. I can’t believe I spelled my own book’s title wrong.

            It’s Byuck. Byuck.

    • Katya says:

      Theric, have you read “Ibid.,” by Mark Dunn? No Mormon connection, but it’s a novel that consists entirely of footnotes.

      • Th. says:

        .

        I’m about halfway through it, actually. I love the idea and quite like the execution, but it’s an easy book to slip away from. I enjoy reading it . . . and have been for well over a year.

  3. Jessie says:

    I think these are all great comments. In writing historical fiction, there will always be some sort of manipulation of history, and I think it’s best for everyone to acknowledge that. I have met some readers who don’t seem to realize that and I wonder how it would affect their reading experience to realize how much of even nonfiction history is actually somewhat manipulated. Like I said, I’m too postmodernist these days :)

    I’m personally not bothered by endnotes or afterwords like those used by authors like David Farland or Dean Hughes. Those are pretty standard for non-LDS historical fiction as well. For some reason I’m more bothered by the chapter-specific notes–I think because they keep pulling me out of the narrative to remind me that what I’m reading isn’t ‘just fiction’. I’ve only noticed these in books published by LDS authors so that’s why I’m wondering if there is something unique about the LDS audience that makes authors or publishers think we need some kind of extensive, intrusive notes. I also don’t know where the notes come from–is it something from authors or does it come from publishers? Or is it all Gerald Lund’s fault? :)

    • Scott Hales says:

      I think the chapter-specific footnotes are a more or less uniquely Mormon historical fiction convention. I think it’s interesting that the first volume of “The Work and the Glory” didn’t have them–not extensively, at least–and Lund only started using them after readers asked that he provide sources for the various events portrayed in novels.

      I don’t know if that means we should blame Lund for them, but I do think we can trace their genesis back to him and maybe his editor/publisher.

      As storytellers, Mormons put a high premium on the phrase “based on a true story”–so much so that nearly every story in “The Friend,” it seems, begins with that phrase. If I remember correctly, Terryl Givens writes about this in “People of Paradox” when he discusses the tendency in Mormon culture to emphasize having a perfect knowledge of something rather than having a belief or faith in it. For Mormons, in other words, to have faith generally means to have a perfect knowledge–regardless of what Alma says.

      So, I’m sure this mentality affects in some way how we read and write Mormon historical fiction.

      • James Goldberg says:

        I’m pretty sure it’s editorial policy at The Friend not to have fiction. They used to, and I think it was fine, but focusing on real stories about what children are experiencing rather than adult writers’ hopes about what children might be experiencing has probably been a worthwhile shift.

        And as far as Lund’s end-chapter notes, it’s sort of a glass half-empty or half-full thing. On the one hand, it suggests that people are more interested in the history part than the compelling story part. On the other hand, it’s kind of cool that a popular reading audience cares about the history part.

        It’d be a shame to see a literary gem like Midnight’s Children constantly interrupted by explanatory chapter references (“Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule really did happen. Yes, people were sterilized by the government. No, there are not documented cases of forced sinus surgery removing anyone’s paranormal psychic powers.). But if Lund’s books aren’t exactly literary gems, what’s the loss if you interrupt them with historical notes a little?

  4. Jessie says:

    I think Th.’s allusion to the Mike Daisey debacle deserves a little more discussion. I listened to the interview with him on NPR (can’t remember who the interviewer was), and they went back and forth for a while about this idea of audience expectation. Daisey contended that he needed the framework of nonfiction for his show to be effective; his audience had to believe that what he said was true in order for there to be emotional impact. The intervewier contended that he would have been just as moved by fiction, or even fiction grounded in personal, lived experience, and that it was actually less-effective and more damaging to present something first as fact and then have to back pedal and say it was fiction. One of the problems with the issue, that has been brought up by others, is that there are real, documented problems with many of Apple’s suppliers in China. But they are not the specific problems outlined by Mike Daisey.

    I’m not sure this is totally relevant to this discussion, but in some ways it is. For me, when I read historical fiction, the emphasis is on the ‘fiction’ part. I like the historical setting, but I’m more focused on using that setting as a place to explore ideas and characters. Others, however, place the emphasis on the ‘historical’ part and feel that this gives the fiction some added legitimacy and weight. They want those extra assurances that what they are reading has some grounding in fact. I think the fundamental issue is the same as that brought up by the Mike Daisey thing–some people feel that only nonfiction can have emotional impact and that fiction can’t, and some people see fiction as having emotional weight.

  5. Jonathan Langford says:

    Jessie’s most recent comment reminds me of one objection I’ve encountered to interpreting the Book of Job as fiction: that is, that God’s comfort of Joseph Smith (“thou art not yet as Job…”) is hollow if Job wasn’t actually a real person.

    I think this statement is fascinating because of what it reveals about the person’s assumptions regarding fiction. For me, part of the whole point of fiction is to comfort and console us in the circumstances of life. “Thou art not yet as Frodo” works, for me. But maybe that’s because I identify so strongly with characters in the stories I read, to the extent that sometimes I have to back away from reading a story (at least for a time) in order not to be overwhelmed by emotion.

    Despite which, I still think that historical fiction has some obligations on the history side, as well as the fiction side. Maybe that’s because history is also an important genre to me. My basic point, though, is that historical settings and characters bring their history with them when they’re incorporated into the story — something that presumably is being included because it furthers the author’s purpose(s) in some way (or else why not use something wholly invented and therefor without preexisting associations for the reader?). Doing violence to that historical background is just as much a problem for me as if (for example) a character is depicted as a teenager and then acts like an adult.

    I also think there are ethical issues involved — storytelling is an action in the real world, with real world consequences. My point, though, is that even viewed from a purely esthetic standpoint, there’s an argument for holding authors of historical fiction just as accountable for their historical accuracy as for any other element in their writing.

    Which doesn’t mean that I don’t accept deviations from history — actually, I love alternative history stories. For me, though, it’s a matter of expectations and being honest with the reader.

  6. Well, I have to admit I’ve been so busy writing “historical fiction” I haven’t had time to read blogs or join in any discussions. But this one caught my eye. I am impressed with the level of intelligent speculation inherent in these comments, and I TOTALLY AGREE with Jessie—-that INTERPRETIVE FACT is IMPOSSIBLE. ONE event is seen by one person in one way, and by another in another way.

    Okay, so I may not be the great “postmodern” novelist, but at least I can weave a page-turning tale without footnotes! (See FIRES OF JERUSALEM) Though this intellectual crowd seems to speak beyond my present awareness, I challenge anybody to find a SERIOUS INTERPRETIVE CONTRADICTION in my “historical novels” to what we know from “records.” (If you do find a glitch, I’d be thrilled!) I was SO EXCITED this year that the UVU MBNA committee found a fabulous historical novel worthy of the thousand dollar Marilyn Brown Novel Award. My contention is that INTERP with VISION and COMPASSION broadens all of us–both as readers of serious history, and connoisseurs of clean, character-building, mind-stretching entertainment.

  7. My thoughts (as a newly published historical fiction writer): I thought of going the footnote route. But in the end I realized that the historical events and peoplr weren’t central enoughh to my story.to warrant footnotes and bibliography. Maybe the distinction for me is, is your story all about an attempted portrayal of a historical event or events…or, are you writing it as an argument for some sort of social change? Then yes, footnotes are probably good. Is your story a fiction simply set in a certain period, with certain events ocurring on the sidelines and a brief cameo of an historical figure or two? Maybe footnotes, in that case, might distract and annoy the type of reader you are trying to play to

  8. Also want to reiterate a point Marilyn made: no footnotes does not =poor or incomplete research. In the end, a writer is accountable for their portayal in exactly the way that unfortunate man was accountable. I did my research carefully not only because of my love of history, but because I woupd hate to mis-portay and then face the embarrassment of being called on it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>