Thursday, June 11, 2015

History According to Jim, Vol. 1, No. 5

                                                                    Historical Fiction

     I doubt there is any historian that has not played a game of what if? concerning something in history. When engaging in What If? questions anything is possible because there is no possible way short of going to an alternate universe to check on the outcome whether or not something would have turned out differently if X had occurred. These concepts are open to pure speculation and some folks have turned this into a fine livelihood. I will not bother to go into conspiracy theories and neo-confederate fantasies because is about legitimate historical fiction, not crackpot lunacy.

     In today's current literary world this is referred to as alternative history. I think this is actually pretty entertaining and some good literature as long as it is marketed as being fiction. When and if it is passed off as historical non-fiction the line of common sense is crossed. At that point it ceases to be fiction and becomes a lie. Again, I have no issue with fictional history. I read it and enjoy it at times. I just want to be clear that it must be represented as what it is, fiction, not actual history.

     Harry Turtledove has to be the master of alternate fiction today. I loved Guns of the South and when I saw How Few Remain I grabbed it. When he turned that into the Southern Victory series with eleven volumes I read them all while also reading the eight books int eh Worldwar tetralogy. I've read some other works of his and I like how he mixed historical fact with fiction is playing a huge game of What If? Some historians may not like the fact that Turtledove writes alternative history fiction when he has a Ph.D in History from UCLA in Byzantine History. Turtledove of course laughs all the way to the bank because he sells more books than any historian does.

    Turtledove though is not the only writer to use history in their works of fiction. In fact, this is common. It also indicates to me that history is popular with the American public. It just needs to be presented to them in a way they can interact or embrace it. The popularity of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series speaks for itself. W.E.B. Griffith has several series which involve history and has a wide audience. Clive Cussler uses history for the kernels that form the plots in his Dirk Pitt series (keep em coming, Clive!) The millions of books sold show a clear interest in history for these authors and their prose.

     One needs to look no further than the television set to find historical fiction. The movies have used history to sell tickets for a century. The fact that Hollywood has mangled history is well known. I've gained a reputation for spoiling films for my students because by the end of the course they've learned how to evaluate the films for accuracy. No film gets history right which is why I call them historical fiction no matter how hard Hollywood tries to pass them off as historically accurate.

    History permeates literature in great ways too. Even science fiction and fantasy use history. Robert E. Howard set his Conan novels in a world which reflected various historical eras and peoples. Fantasy video games like Everquest and World of Warcraft use historical themes to construct their games. Dungeons and Dragons came from miniature wargaming which of course was from the study of history.  Even The Hobbit came from historical mythology with the peoples of Middle-Earth sometimes representing historical peoples who seemed to be awfully English.

     So we see history exists in historical fiction on a really large scale. I think this is a good thing. It then brings up a question which I hope to answer in a future post: If historical fiction sells so well, why do works of historical non-fiction sell so poorly in comparison? Feel free to comment on this and also tell us what your favorite work of historical fiction is!

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