Tim O'Brien

Useful Fictions, Part V - "Historical Fiction," Proper

Frederick J. Chiaventone, commenting on his own novel Moon of Bitter Cold:

One of the great delights of the historical novelist is the license to hang flesh on the bones of the actors and set the blood pumping through their veins. While the purist may decry this practice, others will find it useful and perhaps informative. There is a sense in which fiction can reveal more to us more of the truth than history in that historians are frequently constrained by their reliance on relics, some written, which are in themselves the products of imperfect and differently motivated human beings.

So while the historian can at best provide an objective account of the facts (however incomplete or imperfect), it is the province of the novelist to address not only the objective facts of a period and a people but their passions as well. To paraphrase Macaulay, it can be the difference between a topographical map and a painted landscape.

I like this, but Chiaventone does seem to lean towards a truth more at home in Kate Chopin than Doris Kearns Goodwin. He seems to promote moving past the factual in order to capture more important truths - which wistorical fiction can, and often does. But in my mind that’s not the most important or purest sort of historical fiction. Let’s try another…

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