Over the weekend, J. Peder Zane, the book columnist in the Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer, had this to say about the topic of accuracy in historical fiction (here’s a link to the entire column):
“Of course, “The Da Vinci Code” is a novel. But it raises the question of what responsibility works of historical fiction have to the known record. My rule of thumb: The better known the subject, the more liberties the author may take. A novel about an obscure figure–which may largely shape our memory of the person–must hew closely to the facts.”
I don’t agree with this. (Not, mind you, because of any petty grudge I might hold against the N&O for not reviewing The Traitor’s Wife, even though I’ve been reading the damned paper for over 10 years now and even though I always stick up for it when Republican hubby says mean things about it. No, I’ll just continue to seethe until I spontaneously combust, like Mr. Krook in Bleak House–and then the jerks will have to mention my book. Ha ha!) I’m unhappy with authors who take liberties with the known facts about any historical figure, well known or obscure. Many readers may read only one book about a historical person, and if that book happens to be a historical novel which presents a distorted picture of that person, that may be the picture that stays in the reader’s mind, even though it’s amply contradicted by nonfiction works and by other historical novels. My own opinion remains firm: If writers alter known facts, they should let the reader know, unless the alteration is so obvious or ludicrous that an average reader couldn’t possibly take it seriously. After all, even with well-known people, there are often so many blanks to fill in–unknown motivations, conflicting accounts, private interactions, for instance–that there’s plenty left for a writer’s imagination to work on without having to distort known facts or invent grossly improbable ones just for the sake of being sensational.
So what do you think? (I should add that in writing the above, I was not thinking of The Da Vinci Code in particular–I’ve never read it and have done my best to ignore the hype surrounding it, because that’s the kind of perverse gal that I am.)
By the way, if you mosey over to my website, you’ll find a new section, Medieval Miniatures, featuring mini-biographies of historical figures. Octavia Randolph‘s got it started with one of Lady Godiva. I’d love to post some others (under the author’s own byline, of course), if you’d like to send me some!