Both on this blog and on other sites I’ve visited, the question of historical accuracy in historical fiction has come up. As I said in one of my earlier blog posts, I think it’s the reader’s ultimate responsibility to check the accuracy of what he reads. Historical fiction, after all, is exactly that–fiction.
By saying that, however, I don’t mean to let writers off the hook, because I think that a writer of historical fiction has a responsibility not to distort known facts to suit her purposes—or at least if she does, to let the reader know what has been done. To me, it’s an ethical obligation. That’s not to say that it’s an obligation that should be forced upon novelists–it couldn’t be without imposing some degree of censorship, and that’s certainly not what I or any other sane author or reader wants.
Ideally, the marketplace would reward those novelists and other storytellers who adhere to this ethical code (and, by the same token, penalize those who don’t give a flip for accuracy). More often than not, it doesn’t. The historical inaccuracies of Braveheart, for example, have been pointed out countless times, and I doubt its producers have lost a penny as a result. (Hey, they even got my penny–through ratings figures–the other night.) And readers, of course, don’t always appreciate accuracy. Take a look at the Amazon reader reviews for Virginia Henley’s historical romance The Marriage Prize. Several readers gave Henley two- or one-star ratings simply because she followed history in killing off Simon de Montfort. Of course, romantic fiction has a convention where one doesn’t kill off the hero, but Montfort wasn’t the hero of this particular novel.
There’s a core of readers who both want accuracy and appreciate it, however, and I’m one of them. How to make our voices heard? Post–on our blogs, on Amazon, anywhere. Praise an author when he makes an effort to be accurate, criticize him when he deliberately distorts and leaves the reader in the dark that he’s done so.
If nothing else, do this: Buy Mr. Accuracy’s books new, buy Mr. Inaccuracy’s books used.
That’ll show ’em.