Antony Beevor's newest book, The Second World War, compresses the entirety of the century's most important event into a single volume. In this essay for Tip Sheet, Beevor tackles the perils of "faction."
In the last few years we have seen an unprecedented number of novels and films constructed around historical events. A blend of fact and fiction has been used in various forms since the dawn of creative writing – starting with sagas and epic poems. Yet faction seems to have suddenly increased its attraction to writers and readers in a dramatic way. Is this due to a poverty of imagination, as some critics argue? Is it a marketing-driven phenomenon, perhaps catering to the modern desire in a fast-moving world to learn and to be entertained at the same time? Is it influenced by a desperate need for authenticity, even in works of fiction? Is there a prurient compulsion to fill in those gaps in our knowledge about the private lives of great figures, which history has failed to cover? Movies and television now revel in the speculative biopic.
The simmering debate about about the uses and abuses of faction has been bubbling merrily in Britain. Niall Ferguson argued that historical fiction "contaminates historical understanding." I feel that that is too sweeping. There are novels which can raise interesting historical questions, because they are able to go where historians should never dare to tread.
Some novelists want to give people in history a voice, because they have been denied it in the past by their lowly position. Andrea Levy, whose novel ‘The Long Song’ was set in Jamaica in the 1830s, said that the almost complete absence of accounts of the period by enslaved people allowed fiction to come ‘into its own in this type of story,’ with the novelist’s imagination filling in the blanks of history.
A problem only comes, I think, with faction, when real historical characters are introduced with words put into their mouths. Helen Dunmore, who has written two novels set in the Soviet Union, said that writers stray into “dangerous territory” when they fictionalise real people. She said that she was “very wary” of putting words into the mouths of characters from history.
Once could argue that historical fiction set further in the past poses less of a dilemma, if only because of the lack of verbatim accounts. Hilary Mantel, the author of Wolf Hall and now Bring out the Bodies about Thomas Cromwell, wrote: "For a novelist, this absence of intimate material is both a problem and an opportunity. . . Unlike the historian, the novelist doesn’t operate through hindsight. She lives inside the consciousness of her characters for whom the future is blank." In fact the historian should do both – first see the world as it appears to protoganists at the time, and then analyse with hindsight. But the key point surely is that when a novelist uses a major historical character, the reader has no idea what the writer has taken from recorded fact and what has been invented.
Restorers of paintings and pottery follow a code of conduct in their work to distinguish the genuine and original material from what they are adding later. If writers are going to take a piece of history and then fill in the blanks, should they not do the same? But if novelists do not want to make this distinction (say by the use of italics or bold to distinguish true parts from invention) then why not change the names slightly, as in a roman-à-clef, to emphasise that their version is at least one step away from reality? The novelist Linda Grant argues that this also gives the writer much greater freedom of invention. She pointed out that Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife, which is obviously based on Laura Bush, benefitted greatly from changing the name. Sittenfeld was able to go where it would have been unthinkable to go otherwise. Keeping real names shackles the imaginative writer perhaps more than they realise. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the most convincing and interesting characters are those he made up, not the historical characters he introduces. The most memorable characters of world fiction have always come from a great writer’s imagination.
The frontier of fact and fiction is a zone of huge commercial potential and thus also of huge potential corruption in historical terms. As well as the increase in historical novels, we have also seen ‘faction-creep’ both in documentary and feature films. One of the reasons for this is that we have moved into a post-literate world, where the moving image is king. Most people lack the knowledge now to distinguish fact from fiction. And the needs of the movie and television industry remain fundamentally incompatible with historical truth.