With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Historical Fiction and the ‘Gaps’ in Academic History

Governed by evidence and logic in their specialized work, some academic historians have lost their interest in literary and historical fiction, especially in the face of arduous teaching and research duties.  Often scholars initially had to put this interest aside during graduate school while they burrowed into the scholarly literature, an essential but daunting task requiring constant analytical focus.

If that focus should lead to increasingly narrow and tedious research, to what extent can historians rediscover the passion for their subject by reading historical fiction, while being wary, as they must be, of obvious distortions of the facts so dear to scholars?

Reading historical fiction can lead to an appreciation of novelistic insights, and even to collaborative enlightenment between novelists and historians—but not always.

As historian and novelist Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker in 2008, “Historians and novelists are kin… but they’re more like brothers who throw food at each other than like sisters who borrow each other’s clothes.”

The question of how and whether fiction can boost serious historical interest is far from new, but of late it has received much attention, perhaps because of the sustained drive toward ever more specialization in historical scholarship.  In 2009, the Key West Literary Seminar featured historians Eric Foner and David Levering Lewis, along with several novelists including Geraldine Brooks, Barry Unsworth, Valerie Martin, and William Kennedy, all assembled to discuss the complicated kinship of fiction and history.

While acknowledging that history is supposed to be about facts and that fiction is concerned with a largely imagined reality, Foner said that “the line between historical scholarship and historical fiction is not as hard and fast as we would sometimes think.”  This is so because novelists and historians alike are trapped in what the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called “the egocentric predicament,” making everything they write an expression of their individual sensibilities rather than an objective representation of the past.

Beyond this “predicament,” Foner asserted that “history has more in common with literature than with disciplines that claim some kind of scientific exactness, like sociology or political science.  History is not and should not aspire to be a science, and historical truth is always tentative, contested, and ever-changing.”  Quoting Oscar Wilde, he added:  “The only obligation we have to history is to rewrite it.”

He told the audience that rewriting academic history, especially the increasingly specialized nature of it, has distanced it from the broader reading public.  Skilled, non-academic historians answer the public demand for well-written historical narrative and biography.  Although Foner said that he does not read much fiction, he clearly appreciated its appeal to historians and the general public.

At the recent AHA annual meeting in Boston, most of the sessions were well-attended, and the audiences, if not always spellbound, were respectful and offered occasional questions.  But the session on “History and Fiction: Creative Intersections” was packed, with attendees standing in the doorways, lining up along the walls, and even sitting in the aisles.

On entering the room, one reason for the appeal became clear: the language was much more plain-spoken (and colorful) than the discussions in most sessions.  The panel included, among others, Jane Kamensky, co-author with Jill Lepore of Blindspot: A Novel, set in pre-Revolutionary America.  Geraldine Brooks was again a participant, along with fellow novelist Peter Ho Davies.

Kamensky said that she “came to be more passionate” about the human side of events after co-writing the novel.  For her the novel helped to satisfy “a yearning for that séance with the past we know we can’t have.”

Using historical fiction in her classes is “part of the kick now,” she said.  “I am more passionate about the day-dreaming moment.”  Kamensky regretted that such moments were “burned out of me with a red-hot iron when I was in graduate school.”

“We need to create a classroom space where what it was like is as important as what it means,” she said.  And historians should write more for “people who pay to read our books instead of people who are paid to read our books.”

Speaking from a novelist’s perspective, Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks described historical fiction as “a gateway drug” used “to interrogate the past.”  

“I have to have that void,” the world of the unknown, Brooks said, because the unverified story allows more room for the fictional interrogation.  But in this process, the novelist often does not welcome new information, if that information disrupts an appealing narrative based on previous research.  (This tendency is not limited to novelists.)

For Brooks, a novel has value if it is “a deception in the service of the truth.”  She is most comfortable when writing instinctively “within a known arc of history,” in search of a voice she can follow to that truth.

The idea from Brooks is that one cannot “know” the past without seeing it, in part, through the consciousness of someone in that past.  Historians can explore that consciousness in some cases through diaries, letters, and other documentation, but often these generate even more questions about what has been left out.

The truth Brooks is after is the same truth that Kamensky and most of the audience sought:  What was it really like?  How did it feel?  How am I like, or different from, those people?  How do they speak to me, human to human?  What is likely to have happened?  And, then, maybe, what does it mean?  As panelist Peter Ho Davies said, the answers to these questions are fiction’s way of “filling in the gaps.”

But if fiction can be a “deception in the service of the truth,” especially interior truths, surely the deception can go the other way, and serve neither the known facts nor a deeper truth.  Kamensky rejected such writing as the pursuit of “banal agendas.”

Her own foray into novel writing might have helped to make Kamensky so candid in expressing her frustration with much historical scholarship.  “We cringe before our work,” she lamented.  Much of what she reads tells her “so much more about what ‘it’ meant than what ‘it’ was.”  And, for her, the expressions of this “meaning” are often too indirect, cautious, or esoteric. 

“Follow the path,” she said, “and if you’re wrong, someone will tell you.” 

Kamensky was probably the focal point for the academic audience, but Geraldine Brooks may have come closest to the best answer about the appeal of fiction.  The Australian-born novelist said, in her clear and melodic voice, that the humanities were “really not interested in individuals.”
This is in fact a “crisis,” she said, and it is the result of our insufficient attention to the pain and suffering, the living and dying, “of everybody we study.”  The retreat from hagiography and the “Great Man” approach was necessary; but the retreat from individual humanity is not.

This retreat explains the public’s interest not only in fiction but in biographies and strong narrative histories that include engrossing personal stories.  The consensus of the group appeared to be that academic history well defines what we think we know, and identifies what we do not know; but that is not enough, not even for most of the historians in the room.

They came to hear how fiction that respects history can inhabit some of the ‘gaps’ in history, and enable them to feel, and see, a more complete and human story.  For most of them, it was that story that led them to the study of history in the first place.