Historical Fiction: How True to the History Should Writers Be?

Quote of the Week: I am not a fan of historical fiction that is sloppy in its research or is dishonest about the real history.Kate Mosse


A few weeks ago an author gave me a book of short stories that were essentially modern takes on historical tales—in this case stories from the Bible. In the book (since it’s considered politically incorrect these days to say anything bad about anyone else’s book I won’t divulge the name), the biblical stories were rewritten from the female characters’ perspectives. An interesting and worthy idea, but in this case each of the tales was morphed into a thinly disguised attempt at feminist revisionism. Men: irredeemably brutish and the cause of all the evil in the world. Women: smart, nurturing, understanding and powerless against this dominance (which, since he’s male, includes God).

Perspectives on gender issues in literature these days aside, it got me thinking about the nature of historical fiction, specifically, how should an author treat the values of the culture and the time in which the story takes place, especially if they differ from those of the present, or of the author?

The author of the book in question chose to abandon any semblance of the values of the world of the story, choosing instead to judge Adam, Eve, and their descendants by the cultural values of 21st century liberal western thinking.

Granted, such a treatment of history is popular these days, but it’s also pandering to an assumed market, and to me, simply phony.

I think one of the dangers of updating the past in that way is that the writer ignores the framework of that past, and assumes the characters would have—and should have—the cultural values of the author. As a writer of historical fiction myself, I find that practice belittles the lives of the people who lived in past times. They couldn’t possibly know what we would find right or wrong today, and so it makes them tools in a polemic designed to validate a specific point of view to which the author is sympathetic. That has little to do with history, and everything to do with today’s politics and culture wars. Worse, it assumes the values of the author are the only ones worth promoting. And interestingly, it lacks the same sensitivity that we demand of stories about other cultures that exist today. The dead can’t fight back, I guess.[1]

Writing historical fiction is an attempt to connect past events to the present, and show how they relate, but by definition[2] it must make some attempt at historical, and therefore cultural accuracy. That means having the perspective to understand that the vast majority of people have lived lives dictated by the cultures and times in which they found themselves. So to judge them solely by the values of another culture and time is patently unfair. Judge the culture, yes; but the individual within the culture by an arbitrary set of values that he or she couldn’t possibly have knowledge of? I think you have to ask what the purpose of that is. Better to let the people of past times be themselves and allow us to see from where our present values evolved.

True, history is filled with atrocities and errors of judgment. It’s filled with hatreds and fears and wars and ignorance. For me, our best treatment of it is to pursue it accurately, in the context in which it occurred, and try to understand it, connect it to the present without idealizing it and study how we have evolved. Only then can we learn from it, and try to move forward to correct its errors. Revisionist history may make some people feel better, but it’s a placebo—it doesn’t cure anything.


[1] Unless, of course, yours is a zombie historical fiction.

[2] Mine, at least.

Joe Ponepinto
Joe Ponepinto is the founding Fiction Editor and Publisher of Tahoma Literary Review. His new novel, Mr. Neutron will be published by 7.13 Books of Brooklyn, NY in the spring of 2018.

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