To Bibliography or Not to Bibliography?

Here’s an excerpt from an interesting article by Julie Bosman, “Loved His New Novel, and What a Bibliography,” in today’s New York Times about the practice of including bibligraphies in novels:

“It’s terribly off-putting,” said James Wood, the literary critic for The New Republic. “It would be very odd if Thomas Hardy had put at the end of all his books, ‘I’m thankful to the Dorset County Chronicle for dialect books from the 18th century.’ We expect authors to do that work, and I don’t see why we should praise them for that work. And I don’t see why they should praise themselves for it.”

Traditionally confined to works of nonfiction, the bibliography has lately been creeping into novels, rankling critics who call it a pretentious extension of the acknowledgments page, which began appearing more than a decade ago and was roundly derided as the tacky literary equivalent of the Oscar speech. Purists contend that novelists have always done research, particularly in books like “Madame Bovary” that were inspired by real-life events, yet never felt a bibliography was necessary.

And many present-day writers like Thomas Pynchon, most recently in “Against the Day,” put extensive historical research into their novels without citing sources or explaining methods.

But some novelists defend the bibliography, pointing out that for writers who spend months or years doing research for historical novels, a list of sources is proof of labor and expertise. . . .

Of course some fiction writers have always tacked on bibliographies, as William T. Vollmann has done since his first book, “You Bright and Risen Angels,” published in 1987. Mr. Vollmann initially did it because the book was first published in Britain, and he wasn’t sure how many sources he was expected to cite according to British laws, he said.

But now, Mr. Vollmann says, he does it as a service to readers. “I think it’s nice for a reader to have the information available,” he said. “Let’s say somebody gets interested in a character, or is disbelieving of something I had a character do. He can look in the back of the book.” . . .

I’m with Mr. Vollmann. Personally, I regard a bibliography in a historical novel not as a bid for praise or as proof of labor and expertise, but simply as a tool for the reader who might be interested in reading more about the subject. I don’t hold the absence of one against an author (there’s none in my own book, although I do include an author’s note in the book and a list of further reading on my website), but I do appreciate its inclusion. I certainly don’t see its being there as pretentious or as a form of bragging. It’s an aid to the reader, which the reader can either make use of or ignore.

Maybe Mr. Wood just doesn’t read much commercial historical fiction, because bibliographies seem to have been quite common in it for some time. Jean Plaidy often included them in her novels (The Battle of the Queens, the one closest to hand on my bookshelf, lists 21 titles that Plaidy consulted), and King’s Minions, a 1974 Brenda Honeyman novel about Edward II that I finally acquired yesterday after months of forlorn Googling, has a “Works Consulted” page. Even these now-dated bibliographies can be useful in leading readers to long-out-of-print books that may contain relevant information.

So I say, ignore Mr. Wood. Bring on the bibs (and keep the author’s notes coming too, please).

10 thoughts on “To Bibliography or Not to Bibliography?”

  1. I like a bibliography for just the reasons you and Vollman mentioned. They can be useful guides for learning more about a new topic of interest (or even an old one). I guess I had assumed that many did it for legal reasons (as in, “yes, I did borrow an idea, but you get credit for that….”).

  2. I like bibliographies, too. They don’t need to be in the book, but it’s nice if an author has them on his website (Guy Gavriel Kay) or is willing to send a list if you ask.

    It should even help the authors. Bernard Conrwell is often asked about books in the Q&A section on his website, and sometimes he replies he’s forgotten the exact title because it’s long ago he worked on the novel in question.

    But maybe it takes the mindset of a researcher to think about assembling a bibliography for the readers and your own benefit. It’s work, after all, and I can’t blame an author for not doing it.

  3. Susan Higginbotham

    Sherherzade, there were a few comments in the article about authors who liked to put in references for legal reasons. Interesting article in its entirety.

    Gabrielle, I’ll have to check out Cornwall’s website. Sounds very informative.

    Picked up Philippa Gregory’s latest today and noticed that it has a longish bibliography . . .

  4. I agree with you and Mr Vollmann, and I remember finding the Jean Plaidy bibliographies useful. With a historical novel I always want to know what’s history and what the author made up, and a bibliography or a detailed Author’s Note or both are good ways of doing that.

    Bernard Cornwell’s website is well worth a look, especially a flick through the Your Questions page, where readers sometimes ask him quite detailed questions about where such-and-such a thing came from and did so-and-so really happen, and so on.

  5. I’ve just found a bibliography in a German YA series I filched from my nephew. Crusades, Templars and the Grail, but the historical background is competently done.

    Little side-story: The author had a reading in Braunschweig my nephew attended. And since he was so brave to ask the first question after the reading, he got the author’s newest book as gift.

  6. Another vote for Mr. Vollmann. I like bibliographies or bibliographical notes in novels because it can give you an idea of what schools of thought a writer may subscribe to regarding a historical person or event. For instance, Phillipa Gregory based her portrayal of Anne Boleyn’s downfall in her book the Other Boleyn Girl on Retha Warnike’s contraversial thesis that it was because Anne miscarried a deformed fetus (not a view I personally agree with, but interesting nevertheless). The sources an author chooses to include can really tell you a lot about their opinions.

  7. elena maria vidal

    I agree that it is helpful for a historical novel, especially one about controversial people, or little known people,to have some references or a bibliography, or something. I put a bibliography at the end of my second novel, Madame Royale, because I was being challenged a lot after Trianon came out. I am really glad I did; it helps the readers and it helps me when I am debating with someone. For future novels I will always have a bibliography.

  8. Hate to quote yourself back to you, but I’m convinced this is exactly the right way to see bibliographies:
    “I regard a bibliography in a historical novel not as a bid for praise or as proof of labor and expertise, but simply as a tool for the reader who might be interested in reading more about the subject.”

  9. Historical novelists–and their publishers–should be aware that a bibliography is often the best thing–and all too frequently, the only good thing about the book.

  10. Historical novelists–and their publishers–should be aware that the bibliography is often the best thing–and all too frequently, the only good thing about the book.

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