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Purpose to historical fiction?

For discussions of historical fiction. Threads that do not relate to historical fiction should be started in the Chat forum or elsewhere on the forum, depending on the topic.
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wendy
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Purpose to historical fiction?

Post by wendy » Thu December 30th, 2010, 1:37 pm

I've been thinking a lot about the purpose of historical fiction because
T.S. Eliot claimed we do not learn from the past, and that in every generation the same things happen again and again (Murder in the Cathedral)

So I have two questions -

Readers: Do you read purely for entertainment?

Writers: Should literature be more didactic?

Any thoughts?
Wendy K. Perriman
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Ash
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Post by Ash » Thu December 30th, 2010, 2:35 pm

I'm a reader, and I can answer both questions: No, I do not read only for entertainment, tho I do expect a book to be entertaining to read on some level. I read to escape into another story, another life, another world. I esp read to learn about the world around me, and usually manage to find lessons in HF, as well as many other genres

No, I don't think literature should be hitting us over the head with lessons. A good writer knows how to teach us by telling us a story. Wolf Hall was excellent in that respect. No footnotes needed, no long explanations needed. Just good story telling, which at the same time expanded my knowledge of the man and his time.

I do agree with the Elliot quote, as well as the quote that 'if we do not remember our history we are condemned to repeat it'. But I don't think its any books job to necessarily do that for us.

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Divia
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Post by Divia » Thu December 30th, 2010, 3:55 pm

I read for entertainment.

If I want to learn about history I'll pick up a history book. That's just me though.
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Michy
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Post by Michy » Thu December 30th, 2010, 4:26 pm

When it comes to fiction, I read for entertainment (if I want to learn, I'll read NF). That being said, I read almost exclusively historical fiction (almost no contemporary fiction) and so I do enjoy learning a little bit at the same time about whatever time and place the story is set in. I like it when authors weave historical details and facts into their stories so that it not only feels authentic but at the same time teaches me something that I may not have known. As a reader I'm always asking -- what would it have been like for me if I had lived during this time and place?

IMO, the best authors are the ones who can work these things seamlessly into their dialogue and descriptions of the places, etc. I do not like it when authors seem to pause their story while taking a paragraph or two to lecture me about whatever fascinating information they uncovered in their research. (ok, I'm being a little facetious, but I have read books written like that, and, ugh!)
Last edited by Michy on Thu December 30th, 2010, 5:04 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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SarahWoodbury
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Post by SarahWoodbury » Thu December 30th, 2010, 4:43 pm

I read historical fiction because I love the past. Even though I'd last about a minute and a half in the middle ages, an Outlander type time travel opportunity would be impossible to pass up.

Given that, I also want to learn something in the sense that this person's life is different from my own--how does the author bridge that gap and make the past accessible to me?

Did I learn more than anyone needs to know about Llywelyn ap Gruffydd from history books taught in any of MY schools? Of course not. It's all SKP. Why do I know anything at all about the civil war between Stephen and Maud? Thank you, Brother Cadfael. Thus, it's nice if the history is accurate, and I appreciate author's notes that tell me when it isn't.

I also completely disagree with the Eliot quote. We are a product of our history. We tell ourselves stories all the time about our own pasts that we use to shape our futures. Not knowing it is like lying to yourself about who you are.

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Susan
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Post by Susan » Thu December 30th, 2010, 5:05 pm

[quote=""SarahWoodbury""]Did I learn more than anyone needs to know about Llywelyn ap Gruffydd from history books taught in any of MY schools? Of course not. It's all SKP. Why do I know anything at all about the civil war between Stephen and Maud? Thank you, Brother Cadfael. Thus, it's nice if the history is accurate, and I appreciate author's notes that tell me when it isn't.[/quote]

I totally agree with the above statement about Welsh history...Sharon Kay Penman all the way!

I read HF for both purposes. When I find out something new from HF, it causes me to do some research, learn more, and evaluate what I did learn from HF. I've met some very interesting real people from HF. Two such people were Margaret of York (sister of Edward IV and Richard III) and her stepdaughter Mary of Burgundy (a reigning Duchess of Burgundy) from Anne Easter Smith's book Daughter of York. I had some issues with the book, but I met those two interesting women and did further research on them. When I read the book, I could never have imagined that in less than a year I would be in Bruges at the tomb of Mary of Burgundy who tragically died at age 25 in a riding accident. Without that novel, that tomb would have been just one of the very many I saw on that European trip.
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LoveHistory
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Post by LoveHistory » Thu December 30th, 2010, 6:05 pm

I read mostly for entertainment. Escaping into another place is entertainment for me. I like to learn too so learning is sometimes entertainment to me. I like fact-based fiction, and completely invented fiction.

There is so much variation within the HF genre that I don't really feel a need to lean one way or the other on this issue. Some books have more facts and history in them, others are blatant entertainment, most lie between the two.

Didn't like the T.S. Eliot quote until I went back and read it again. He did not say we shouldn't study the past, just that most people don't learn from it and make the same mistakes others have made before them. It's a wordier version of "history repeats itself."

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Mythica
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Post by Mythica » Thu December 30th, 2010, 6:46 pm

[quote=""Divia""]I read for entertainment.

If I want to learn about history I'll pick up a history book. That's just me though.[/quote]

Same here - of course I do wind up looking up a lot of stuff in novels to see if it's true or not. But that's not the reason I read novels.

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Post by Ash » Thu December 30th, 2010, 6:57 pm

[quote=""LoveHistory""]. He did not say we shouldn't study the past, just that most people don't learn from it and make the same mistakes others have made before them. It's a wordier version of "history repeats itself."[/quote]

Thats how I read it too.

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Post by annis » Thu December 30th, 2010, 7:12 pm

To me, the word "didactic" in relation to fiction equals the kiss of death for the author. Readers buy novels in order to be entertained, and vote with their money- they aren't going to buy fiction which lectures or preaches at them. Of course the best HF informs as well as entertains, but does so without hitting the reader over the head with the results of the author's research. As Mythica commented, many readers these days supplement their fiction reading with their own research anyway if they feel they'd like more information, an option the internet has opened up for us.

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