On Writing Historical Fiction
As somebody who writes historical fiction — and some other things, but I seem to be in a historical fiction zone lately, so I’m just going to keep rolling with it — I think a lot about the ethics involved. Namely, what does the writer of historical fiction owe to the truth? Or to the subjects themselves? All writers of historical fiction take departures from historical fact. Hence the word “fiction” in the name. But that fiction is also blended quite heavily with dollops of genuine truth. Hence the word “historical.” This leaves the reader of these sorts of things in a bit of a tricky position, as it’s always hard for her to tell what’s real and what’s the creation of the author. So how much does the author owe this hypothetical reader in making it clear, and also, maybe more importantly, what does the author owe the subjects themselves when he writes about the subject doing things and saying things and being engaged in things that never actually happened?
David Seidler, who wrote the wonderful new film The King’s Speech, is currently engaged in a bit of a war-of-words with the inimitable Christopher Hitchens on just these topics. It’s a fascinating argument, and one dear to my heart.
1) Don’t pick a fight with Christopher Hitchens. It’s not worth it. He’s smarter than you are, and he’ll win. Just… Don’t.
2) As it happens, I’m fortunate enough that Hitchens actually liked my book, and wrote a very kind blurb for the back cover. So that makes me feel good.
3) I liked The King’s Speech. A lot. It was great.
3) Both Seidler and Hitchens know world’s more than I do about the history of the British monarchy, and the history of Britain between the wars, so I will not even begin to wade into this debate on historicist grounds.
4) However, I will wade in on the grounds of authorial license and responsibility. Seidler appears to have made a few things up in The King’s Speech. Okay, cool. I made a TON of things up in The Sherlockian. His problem seems to be though that he denies having made them up. And I quote:
Hitchens also accuses Bertie of supporting Chamberlain in appeasing Hitler. Well, just about everyone in England, except Churchill, did the same. Hindsight is always 20/20.
The logical error between the first of those sentences and the second two is readily apparent. Think of Seidler’s claim this way: “Hitchens says that person X held position Y. Well, just about everyone else in England held position Y.” He’s admitting that, contrary to his film, person X really did hold position Y,which in this case happens to be Bertie and the appeasement of Hitler, respectively. Now, perhaps Bertie/Chamberlain were right to do so, and perhaps they was wrong. I won’t make a claim there because I don’t know enough about the subject. But it’s disingenuous to claim that you didn’t put that inconvenient fact in the film because it wasn’t true; it was true, it was just inconvenient for narrative purposes, so it was left out. Which is all well and good, and I wish Seidler would have defended his film on those grounds.
5) The really thorny question here is “when IS it okay to leave out inconvenient facts for narrative purposes?” Hitchens seems to say “never,” or at least “never about issues so morally fraught and world-historically important.” I’m very conflicted about this position, as it grants the writer very little leeway to construct stories based on important or morally complicated real events. And aren’t those the most interesting ones to write about?