Monday, November 22, 2010

Historical Accuracy...and the Joys of Inaccuracy

I'm not a writer of historical fiction. Indeed, I find the idea of writing historical fiction quite intimidating. To be honest, I find the idea of even writing about historical fiction intimidating.

So my hat is off to all of you who actually have the nerve to gird your loins, bite the bullet, bell the cat, or whatever cliche you prefer, and actually venture forward and write the stuff. The thought of writing it might intimidate me, but I love reading it.

And one of the joys of reading good historical fiction is when the writer manages to evoke the time-machine sense of reality, from the chronological details on down to locutions, smells, meals, and attitudes. One of the standard criticisms of a work of historical fiction are either that the timeline has collapsed or that an anachronism of some sort has crept in and both are hard to avoid.

In general, I apply the same standards to historical fiction as to fiction in general: I know it's a lie, but I demand that the lie seems to tell the truth. And often this truthfulness seems to involve stretching the facts a bit...even in historical fiction.

In an author's note preceding one of Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin novels, he points out that each novel covers a fairly large span of time, and that since he had written more of the novels than he'd ever imagined at the outset, soon he would be forced to resort to hypothetical years, such as 1812a and 1812b; there simply wasn't enough Napoleonic War to encompass the story he had started to tell.

Well, I was willing to forgive that fiddling with chronology in favor of the story. I'm also willing to forgive Massie's Augustus for having the Romans speak in something like modern phraseology, even though I sometimes found it a bit jarring, and I'm far more than happy to have Alis Hawkins have her Medieval folks speak in something that I can comprehend rather than forcing me to work through it as though it were Chaucer. (Deciding how to represent the speech of another time and culture is a tricky issue. I've always been amused at the tendency of American WWII movies to have the Germans speak English with a rather tight-assed British accent--foreign enough to seem foreign, but still immediately comprehensible.)

At the other end of the language and diction spectrum from Alis and Massie is the problem John Fowles faced in The French Lieutenant's Woman. I read an interview with Fowles where he said he deliberately made the characters speak a somewhat older English than the Victorians actually spoke, because almost no one realized how much spoken Victorian English sounded like the English of the twentieth century. He was asserting that accuracy would have undermined the feeling of authenticity. And, of course, what writers of fiction all know is that the sense of authenticity is more important than authenticity itself; with the exception of the late lamented David Foster Wallace, most of us fictioneers don't use footnotes.

Though, if you're skilled enough, you can make a fine career out of violating people's historical expectations with real authenticity. (Okay, okay. "Real authenticity" is a hideous, seemingly redundant term. Yet I'm contrasting it with a "seeming authenticity," which sort of means "fake authenticity." The language isn't adequate for this sort of thing.)

As I was about to say before I got trapped in that parenthetical comment, one of the admirable things about Faye Booth's historical fiction is how she violates our preconceptions about the period in which her stories are set. How she gets away with this and makes it believable is a mystery to me, as she can't exactly whip out charts and graphs and keep the story moving. It's conviction and skill, I guess, and is sort of the opposite of Fowles' approach. Fowles said to himself, the readers won't believe it if I stick to the facts; Faye said, to hell with it, life then didn't work the way you believe: here's how it was, and you'd better take it and like it.

And, you know what? Both approaches work just fine.

Ahem. That's nine paragraphs before getting to the point of this post, which might be a Personal Best for me.

All this rumination on historical detail was set in motion by watching the DVDs of A&E's Nero Wolfe series. Rex Stout's Wolfe novels were written over nearly forty years, and although the early novels are solidly planted in the 1930s, as the series progresses it loses lock on time. There are stories that are definitely set during World War II, and others that are set in the McCarthy period; and certain technological innovations creep into the pages. But Goodwin and Wolfe apparently remain the same age throughout, and how they dress and the cars they drive also seem frozen in time.

So how was this handled on film? Very much as in the books, but with variations. The cars and sets suggest the 1950s, but Goodwin's and Wolfe's dress and dialogue are more 1940s, and characters and situations suggest everything from the late 1930s to the mid-60s--and not in any particular order. In one episode, Archie is in the military and trying to be sent to fight in Europe rather than serving stateside; in another, one of the characters talks much like a beatnik, but dresses as if she skipped over from Twiggy-era Carnaby Street.

Rather than worrying about matching the time period of the stories, the teleplays include whatever elements make the adaptation most diverting. And, oddly, I found that it works. Like the books, the teleplays take place in a sort of Neverland, where the main characters continue on virtually unchanged. (The fact that most of the stories take place inside Wolfe's house make this easier to pull off.) I find myself noticing that Archie is wearing a Sam Spade hat while talking to a woman in go-go boots and Dippity-Do hair, but I don't find myself objecting. This unchanging cast of characters and attitudes is somehow satisfying--a kind of comfort food for the brain.

On thinking it over, I realized I had other favorite diversions that also fit this mold, notably Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster tales. The television adaptation of those stories stuck to a single time period, but the stories themselves, like the Wolfe stories, started out rooted in time but gradually drifted off into their own universe, a universe that has a chronology in the sense of A happening before B, but not in the sense that any quantifiable period of time passed between them.

These two examples break two oft-quoted rules about writing fiction. First is the simple rule against anachronism--a good rule for historically grounded fiction, but inapplicable in the familiar yet separate universes of Wodehouse or Stout.

Second is the rule about the importance of character arc. Neither Jeeves nor Wooster nor Goodwin nor Wolfe has one. All four of the characters are rounded out over the course of their stories, but no one would claim that they had really changed.

Which proves what, exactly? I'm not sure. I think it proves that an overriding rule is: Entertain your readers enough and none of the other rules apply.


PS Rex Stout's Wolfe novels provide one of the most amusing (and ridiculous) examples of readers engaging in the biographical fallacy. Because the character Nero Wolfe is obese and obsessed with food, many readers assumed that Stout himself was overweight. (This was probably subconsciously reinforced by his surname.) Stout was anything but--from pictures I've seen of him, I think the best word for his physique is probably "lanky."

This also challenges the view of fiction as wish-fulfillment on the part of the writer, as I seriously doubt that the author really wanted to be obese but couldn't achieve it.

PPS Nero Wolfe provides a good touchstone for how bodies have changed over the 20th century. Wolfe stands 5 feet 11 inches and weighs 272 pounds (which Archie often calls "a seventh of a ton"). That's certainly obese, but today it wouldn't be the source of astonishment it was at the time; in the books, people stop and stare, and Wolfe has special chairs designed to support his elephantine bulk. He's less than 100 pounds overweight according to his BMI--a lot of extra weight, but no longer circus-freak quality. Today he probably couldn't even get a slot on The Biggest Loser; he's too svelte.


Tim Stretton said...

I think Faye's approach is quite unusual--challenging what we think we know about a period, rather than pandering to it. But it definitely works.

Glad to see you caught up with Augustus. The modern language is a risk, but he gets away with it.

O'Brian--I'm pushing at an open door here--is surely the king of the historical novel.

Alis said...

With regard to dialogue in hist fic, there's a fine line between not going in for what a radio editor I worked with once called 'gadzookery' and making your characters sound jarringly modern. i think it's something to do with using modern grammar and syntax but inventing idioms and figures of speech that sound current to the period your characters live in. it's a tricky balancing act - they're not twenty-first century people but you want them to be accessible to your twenty-first century readers.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim. Yes, thanks for the recommendation on Augustus.

The thing is, it is reasonable to expect that people of the time had idiomatic constructions that were equivalent to ours; but it's still odd to see them on that page, as they have a tedency to act as historical markers.

You're right that he gets away with it, but the effect is exceedingly odd.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

I've never had to deal with the problem myself, but it strikes me as a another difficult burden to shoulder in a genere which is hard enough already.

The only thing similar I have faced is rendering the speech/POV of a non-English speaker. The only way I've found to do it is to make the language more literal; less fluid and idiomatic. That seems to distance it and make it seem foreign. But a little bit goes a long way, and I'm not sure I've found the right balance.

Frances Garrood said...

"..the sense of authenticity is more important than authenticity itself". You've hit the nail on the head there, David.

By the way, how's the tree?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Frances--

That tree is now firewood. We're waiting for the stump-grinding guy to show up. I have no objection to physical labor, but digging out the roots of a banyan is beyond me.

Frances Garrood said...

Ah. The stump-grinding guy. Mustn't forget him.

And "Digging out the Roots of a Banyan" would make a good title for a novel. A bit like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

RDJ said...

I remember Vonnegut mentioning that people often sent him letters telling him that they, too, were very short. Vonnegut was six-two, but something in his writing seemed to give off shortness, apparently.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Frances--

Yes, the stump-grinding guy. Which allowed me to tell a friend that someone was "coming over on Wednesday to grind my stump."

A rather horrific phrase.

David Isaak said...

Hi, RDJ--

That's hilarious. I'd never heard that--nor did Vonnegut ever give off a "short" vibe to me.

Well, except for his penis. Was it "Breakfast of Champions" where he gives the penis measurements of all the male characters? In any case, he aserted that the author's penis was one inch long and six (I believe) inches in diameter.

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