How to Learn From Historical Fiction
Picking Books was created as a way to show you how to learn about history and culture through books. But learning about history from historical fiction poses more than a few problems. Today, we’ll focus on the two biggest ones.
Historical Accuracy in Historical Fiction
First, there’s the issue of historical accuracy. Authors often have to sacrifice at least some historical accuracy or information in the interest of moving along the plot. Plus, it’s fiction, so authors aren’t exactly bound to telling the truth. I will mention, however, that the best historical fiction writers do take historical accuracy seriously. But it’s up to us find out how the historical information we tease out of books compares to the prevailing historical wisdom.
Bias in Historical Fiction
Second, is the issue of bias. How unbiased can an author be when it comes to their own life and culture or the life of their parents, grandparents, or ancestors? Of course, that’s only one example of how an author might be biased, but you get the point.
Additionally, if we read novels written in the past as historical fiction, (regardless of whether they were originally) we have to be especially careful of how the author’s attitudes influenced the book. Science and the study of history have also come a long way, so we may know more now about the events/time described in a classic novel than when it was written. Hindsight is 20/20 right?
Instead of trying to learn history directly through a classic novel, take the time to research the history of the book itself, how the book conforms or doesn’t conform to the attitudes of the time/place it was written, and why it’s stood the test of time. Classic novels are also the best at teaching us about what it means to be human.
History Isn’t the Only Thing We Can Learn From Historical Fiction
It isn’t just classic novels that can teach us about the human condition. Historical fiction, like fantasy, often gets a bad rap for being genre fiction, story-driven fiction for entertainment purposes only. But there is plenty of literary historical fiction out there.
The term literary might conjure images of pretentious, boring books written by dead white dudes. Lucky for us, there is TONS of riveting historical fiction that combines elements of both genre and literary fiction that doesn’t fit the stereotype of “literary.”
You might wonder what’s so special about literary fiction, why picking up any old book isn’t good enough.
In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus advises, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Ignoring Buffalo Bill for the moment, literary fiction allows us to do just that, to climb in another man’s skin and walk around in it. In addition to showing readers the inner beings of characters, literary fiction also reflects on social issues, politics, and/or the human condition.
The distinction between literary and genre fiction isn’t important though, and books often don’t fit squarely in one category or the other. It is important, however, to pick up a book you’ll actually enjoy reading, and if you’re looking to learn something while you read, even better. So, if you prefer your historical fiction less literary and more fun, read “Carnegie’s Maid.” If, however, you’re looking to learn about history and contemplate the nature of truth, read “Alias Grace.”
Ultimately, it’s not about taking what a novel says about an event, period, idea, or issue as truth, it’s about picking out bits of information that interest you and using the internet (responsibly) and other books to learn more.