Is historical fiction intrinsically cheap?

Henry James wrote in a letter to Sarah Orne Jewett, “the ‘historic’ novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labor as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness…” (I am indebted to Samir Chopra’s excellent blog for this thought-provoking quote.) A modern writer, James continues, can include historical details but cannot invent or represent “the old consciousness, the soul, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent.” Jewett wanted to write about the New England Puritans, but to James’ point, how could she without being one?

HHhHLaurent Binet, the French author of HHhH, apparently agrees. Winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, HHhH is a gripping, self-conscious historical novel about the daring attempt by the Czechoslovakian Resistance to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler’s right-hand man and mastermind of the Final Solution, in Prague in 1942. Through a careful orchestration of the story’s  facts, presented with the ironies that only a historical perspective can provide, he avoids the “old consciousness” entirely, except in supposition, and yet he creates a suspenseful and nuanced tale.

I was drawn to Binet’s book not only by its subject but also by his treatment of the “historic” problem. For, although I enjoy the history in historical fiction, I share James’ concern: the fictional aspect, meaning the experiential truth of it, is usually disappointing. The lack of the “old consciousness” was the problem I had with The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, as I struggled to articulate here, and it is frequently the problem I have with books about Elizabethans or Victorians written by modern authors: they fail to capture the consciousness of the time, making the story and, consequentially, the history false.

Laurent Binet (Photo credit:

Laurent Binet (Photo credit:

Binet gets the problem. Born in 1972, he knows he would be faking any dialogue between Heydrich and Himmler or between the two brave resistance fighters who parachuted into Czechoslovakia to kill Heydrich. So, to get around the “consciousness” problem, he inserts himself as a first-person narrator into the novel, critiquing his own story-telling and advising the reader not to believe what he wrote: it is made up and a disservice to the important truth of the real story. This metafictional device is clever and coy at the same time, and toward the climax of the novel it delays without adding value, becoming somewhat annoying. Yet it highlights the dilemma fiction writers face with any historical drama; it also adds another, more postmodern dimension to the story (as John Fowles’ techniques did in The French Lieutenant’s Woman).

Binet forces the reader to ask not only how much of what he writes is true, but how much of the past is truly capturable. Is all history fiction? Is all fiction false? What is the point of history if our imagination and empathy are not involved? And what better way to tap our imagination and empathy than with fiction? Binet doesn’t really resolve James’ issue, but he does a fine job raising these ancillary questions.


Filed under Commentary, Quotes, Reviews

15 responses to “Is historical fiction intrinsically cheap?

  1. Interesting post!

    However ‘factual’ they claim to be in their work, historians are biased and cannot know the whole picture even if they try. There are things that go unrecorded or are destroyed, voices that are silenced. How can anyone, even a scrupulous historian, reproduce the past in all its complexity? It isn’t possible. Ask 10 witnesses to describe something that just happened and why it happened and you’ll get 10 different versions of the ‘truth’, with different motivations, causes and effects. And even in door-stopper tomes, the historian must select and omit, creating a particular version of history by privileging some pieces of evidence over others. In this respect the historian is no more truthful than the novelist.

    I’m hesitant, however, about reading HHhH. I don’t need a metafictional sub-plot to remind me how biased any retelling of history is.

    The ethics of historical fiction are troubling, but fiction can also bring the past to life for us. The historian and the novelist both have to use empathy to enable the reader to enter the past, even if it isn’t a complete version of the past. Without empathy, neither the historian nor the novelist can engage with the past, and empathy requires imagination. Imagining what it might be like to be someone else or to be in a different era is a creative act.

    I am troubled, however, by the ethics of some historical fiction. For example, A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd is a historical novel that suggests that Mary Shelley didn’t write, wasn’t even capable of writing, Frankenstein. With friends like these, what woman writer needs V.S. Naipaul to write her out of the literary canon? This stripping away of Mary Shelley’s writing powers disturbs me even more than the fictional scenario in which Mary Shelley is portrayed as a murderous fiend. As a novel, A Treacherous Likeness is entertaining enough and I’ll be following Lynn Shepherd’s future efforts, but a failure of empathy here has created a warped version of a real writer that reinforces a long-standing myth that only men are capable of saying anything worth hearing. These sorts of issues trouble me as I work on my own writing, putting words into the mouths of real people from history.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, JD. As you so gracefully put it, the creative act is the role of all fiction, historical and contemporary. While I tend to agree with James, the devil in me asks, is it any less cheap to imagine a person of the other gender than it is to imagine a person from another era? Isn’t it as presumptuous of James to insert himself in the consciousness of Isabel Archer as it is for Jewett to insert herself in the consciousness of a Puritan?

      And yet, that is what novelists do. Their characters may be shadow puppets but, if well crafted, they cast shadows on the walls of our imagination, and we discover something about ourselves in the process.

      I do think James was right in one sense, however: it may be easier to cross contemporary states of consciousness than it is to cross those of other eras, especially the farther back in time they are.

      I was unfamiliar with Naipaul’s absurd and egotistical statement. One thing historians do well is show the foolishness of man; time will tell who has the last laugh: Jane Austen or V. S. Naipaul. And Jane has a two-hundred-year lead!

  2. Perhaps the instability of postmodern thought has freed history from its Jungian archetype allowing as many approaches to what is ultimately unknowable as there are wanderers approaching.

    • I love that! I like to think that history is a collective process, and ultimately inclusive. But I think historians would disagree with the notion that it’s all relative. Certain things can’t and shouldn’t be denied, even if we don’t know the whole story.

      • Odd how the universe adds to our moments if we are listening. In reading Barthes’ S/Z again, I just ran across this: “The difference between feudal society and bourgeois society, index and sign, is this: the index has an origin, the sign does not: to shift from index to sign is to abolish the last (or first) limit, the origin, the basis, the prop, to enter into the limitless process of equivalences, representations that nothing will ever stop, orient, fix, sanction… Replacing the feudal index, the bourgeois sign is a metonymic confussion.” It was for me as if Barthes slapped me across the face and said “Apologize to the Historian. Only he stands between social historical index and the miasma of a mercurial historical fictional sign.” As such, I apologize for my cynicism. You stand against the postmodern confusion. Hold the borders against the barbarians, surrounded though you may be. Thank you for your efforts.

  3. I got you. We do not want to deny horrors or who was President during some event or where boundaries were. Nevertheless, millions have suffered without historical note, perhaps thousands of the ilk of Ozymandais have come and gone buried silently beneath sand, and boundaries shift on maps without a line ever appearing on the surface of the earth. The historian is creating a fiction from a perceived and researched reality often through unstable translations from other languages to a purpose not always free of bias. When enough people embrace the historical fiction du jour we have acceptance, archetype and Jung’s collective unconscious upon which we build our attitudes and behaviors (a purely fictional construct in itself). It is historical fact that the U.S. Supreme Court in its capacity as the highest authority in the country and the wisest men of their time declared Africans to be a sub-species of human as a way to address slave ownership of men who were ostensibly “created equal.” Thus the war was averted for decades, profits were made and the suffering continued. Still, contemporary discussions of race ignore history in these contexts as perhaps too complex and nuanced for the masses who require packaging and clarity even though not one human can recite even the complete and entire history of the few minutes it took me to compose this. You, my friend, face a daunting task, though valuable as the proverbial “lesson learned” by which we are supposed to avoid repetition of negative behavior.

  4. “Still, contemporary discussions of race ignore history in these contexts as perhaps too complex and nuanced for the masses who require packaging and clarity even though not one human can recite even the complete and entire history of the few minutes it took me to compose this.”

    Beautifully put. I think there’s a novel in that thought, worthy of Borges. (If Borges had written novels!)

  5. 1) Henry James can kiss my ass, Tom. Your own book “Under a False Flag” is far more readable (and better written) than anything that overrated gasbag ever produced.
    2) As an author, all you’ve gotta care about is not lying to the public about yourself or your story. I don’t say you can’t FOOL ’em. Just don’t lie to ’em, cuz that ain’t nice. And it ain’t legal. To cover your butt, all you’ve gotta do is put “A Novel” or “Fiction” somewhere on the cover. From that point on, you may employ any device or pretense you wish, as long as it makes for good reading.
    3) Did you read “The Visible World” yet? Don’t forget.

    • Wordy, I appreciate your kind words but suspect your praise has more to do with your clear distaste for that “gasbag” James than with the merits of my book. I agree with you about fiction. Oddly, I think James might have been saying the same thing but he used “cheapness” instead of “lie.”

      And no, I still haven’t gotten to The Visible World but have it on my list, thanks.

  6. This is a fine post, Tom. Deep, thought provoking, important. History defines us. Our understanding of the past helps to shape our future. But history is, despite the research and objectivity of the historian, an interpretative discipline. When the period of time under investigation is narrow, students and readers of history will sometimes attribute levels of significance to the events and issues being studied that are disproportionate with their actual importance in a broader and deeper view of world events. Thank you for the intellectual stimulation…

    • Thanks, Russell. That’s an interesting observation about disproportionate significance due to a narrow perspective. I felt Binet did a little of that in describing the Czechoslovak act of resistance in the greater scheme of the war. Still, it made a good story.

  7. Thank you for this insightful, provocative post, Tom. The metafiction aspect of HHhH does not appeal to this reader, but the debate surrounding “fiction” and “history” in historical fiction is near and dear. I’m wrestling with these writers’ demons.

    My current WIP is genre-bending and I’m trying to loosen the bonds of fact while retaining the essence of place, time, events. It mixes modern-day Languedoc with the Languedoc of early 13th century, contains a few historical characters and events, but is fantastical in many respects. My reference library of medieval French, Catalan, Occitan and European architecture, politics, religion, etc. grows, but I would never claim this novel as a work of historical fiction. Fiction inspired by fact?

    The next novel brewing is one based on a true story of dear friends who met during WWII and married in the decade that followed. Although this will be far closer to traditional historical fiction, I will – to paraphrase comments made in your review of Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist – “invent a past shaped more by my own imagination, by my own emotion toward the curious worlds I conjure, than by the historical record.” I will seek to capture the essence of time and place. I make no pretense to serious fiction, I simply want to tell a good story.

    I think this is an open-ended conversation I am having with myself, but your post and the comments from your readers help me explore and articulate my goals and the experience I hope readers have with my stories.

    Thank you!

    • Hi Julie, I’m glad my blog has generated some thoughts for you. Sometimes I feel like I’m blathering to an empty room!

      I will be excited to read whatever you arrive at, as I can tell from your writing that it will be exciting no matter what it is about. The key, I think, is simply to make sure your WIP satisfies you. Let readers deal with that, and trust them to discern what you are doing.

      Have you ever read “The Dream of Scipio” by Iain Pears? It’s a story about Provence in three different historical periods. The description of your story reminds me of it.

      As for Coplin, I think what disappointed me was her character development, or lack thereof. Verisimilitude is everything, and I am willing to believe that butterflies raise a girl into heaven as long as it is told in a way that I can’t disbelieve it. Coplin didn’t quite convince me.

  8. Pingback: A thousand-mile journey by canoe | Tom Gething re reading

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