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Saturday, November 26, 2016

History And History

Historical novels clearly serve an important role. Many people might never be exposed to a less told slice of history without them. Authors like Christina Baker Kline ("Orphan Train") or Tatiana de Rosnay ("Sarah's Key") deserve respect for bringing millions of readers to these portals to the past. 

That said, my experience has taught me I'm often better served reading non-fiction accounts of historical events. Not that I haven't enjoyed my share of historical novels - EL Doctorow's vibrant re-imaginings come first to mind - but my list demands continual culling. So, each time a non-fiction account like "Into the Arms of Strangers" (Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer) or "Beyond The Beautiful Forever" (Katherine Boo) takes my breath away using facts, I have less patience for the neat moralizing found in many historical novels and I'm able to easily eliminate certain titles from that pesky list. It's annoying when an author telling me a story grounded in history decides to end a chapter using a "cliffhanger" sentence, usually involving their fictional protagonist facing some soul-testing dilemma. Even worse are those scenes in historical novels when the author spoon feeds me the "big picture" via a vile character representing the "wrong" side of history.

Does this mildly churlish post have a whiff of maleness to it? Perhaps. But lest any reader lapse into stereotyping, I suggest you first peruse the Bell Curve Backlog, or just go back to early this month and read my back-to-back raves about "Olive Kitteridge" (Elizabeth Strout). Prose about the human condition frequently moves me and almost always teaches me; novels do that best. My male friends who tell me they never read any novels because they read for "information" only annoy me almost as much as authors who use history to try to manipulate my emotions.   

1 comment:

  1. Some thoughts from Ursula K. LeGuin: "There are two major kinds of story: the kind where you tell what happened, and the kind where you tell what didn't. The first kind is history, journalism, biography, autobiography, and memoir. The second kind is fiction - stories you make up.
    We Americans tend to be more comfortable with the first kind. We distrust people who make things up. We're comfortable with stories about "real things" and "real life." We want stories that tell us about "reality." We want them so bad that when we stage completely fake situations and film them, we call it "reality TV."
    The problem with all this is that your real is not my real. We don't all perceive reality the same way. Some of us in fact do not perceive reality at all. You can definitely see that if you watch Fox News."
    - From the 87-year-old author's recently published collection Words Are My Matter. There were many times I saw a strong similarity between LeGuin's non-fiction and that of Neil Gaiman.

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