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Obligations of H.F. Writers to be Factual

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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Misfit
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Post by Misfit » Wed October 20th, 2010, 9:30 pm

Aside from the problem of reviewers attacking an author, I notice another problem, which I call the Number One Fan syndrome.
That has become all too common and I was glad to see Christy's response as well. They aren't always fans though, there have been several where the commenter was traced to a relationship with the author. Tasha Alexander's latest is a perfect example. The commenters were quite nasty to several critical reviewers, but in the end a definite connection to the author was made (careful about putting your pals on your website/blog). I received one via an anon commenter and I won't name names to save the author further embarrassment, but the author did end up admitting that comment had been made by a person known to him/her.
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Margaret
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Interest in HF: I can't answer this in 100 characters. Sorry.
Favourite HF book: Checkmate, the final novel in the Lymond series
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Post by Margaret » Fri October 22nd, 2010, 12:15 am

The business of where a critical review crosses the line is very tricky to judge. No author likes a bad review, but different authors vary in how likely they are to take a bad review personally, and whether they're more likely to brood in silence or launch an attack mission against the reviewer. Likewise, different reviewers vary in how tactful they are about the flaws they see in a book. Just taking myself as an example, I try to be aware of the varying reader responses to different kinds of novels and characterize the nature of a particular book in such a way that readers who will hate it will be tipped off, while readers who will love it will still feel inclined to read it. That's not tact so much as it is an awareness of the varying tastes of the reading public, but the effect is similar. On the other hand, there are a few novels I just find morally reprehensible in whole or in part because they seem to promote attitudes and behaviors that I can't condone. For example, I read a Clive Cussler novel once, before I was reviewing, and have no plans to read one again. The whole thrust of the book was aimed towards a cathartic explosion of violent revenge at the end that essentially invited the reader to cheer the violence on.

Phone call. More later.
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings (probably well over 5000 by now, but I haven't re-counted lately) and over 700 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

Lucy Pick
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Post by Lucy Pick » Fri October 22nd, 2010, 11:31 am

[quote=""Miss Moppet""]
This is a very long-winded way of saying that I think honest opinions are not always appropriate in social situations but they are in the world of reviewing, be it books, theatre, music or electronic goods.
[/quote]

This is why I only do unsolicited reviews of books that catch my eye. My critical integrity is very important to me so I will not say on my blog that I enjoyed a book if I didn't. At the same time, I decided that I would not post negative reviews on my blog --- they do definitely have a place and I appreciate them, but mine is not primarily a book review blog, and I just want to use it to spread the word about special books I have loved. If I accepted books from authors, I would be in the position of sometimes wanting to write a negative review.

As for inventing things about historical figures, that is a delicate line. I think most HF authors accept some version of, if it doesn't contradict the known facts and if it fits in with the story, it is fair game. Pedophilia could easily be worked in under that reasoning. But it is an awful thing to accuse a real but dead human being of doing --- I do think even novelists owe a debt to the past to be ethical in their portrayals. I don't think I'd go there unless I had some kind of historical hint that would make it plausible to me.

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Fri October 22nd, 2010, 2:54 pm

Now that the topic of reviewing has come up, I have to say that there is a dichotomy between the two. I do not think the writer has any obligation to be factual, but I DO think the reviewer has one. That is because their purposes are different: the writer is in it for the money (nothing wrong with that; we all have to eat) and they are their first client. If it sells, well and good. The reviewer, on the other had, presents themselves as serving the reader, not the writer. So if the book, in the reviewer's opinion, purely stinks, they have an obligation to the reader to say so.

I confess to being one of the harsher reviews of Wolf Hall. But there are gazillions of people, including the Booker judges, who disagreed with me, so I don't feel any particular need to soften my criticism. I'm just representing readers with my own taste. Reviews where the critiquer lies to spare the writer's feelings are just that: lies.
Last edited by MLE (Emily Cotton) on Fri October 22nd, 2010, 8:25 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Fri October 22nd, 2010, 6:20 pm

The reviewer, on the other had, presents themselves as serving the reader, not the writer.
This is the key point. With so many online reviews being done now by bloggers rather than professional reviewers, there's a temptation to make reviews overly positive so as to get publishers to send more books. Actually, I don't think it works this way - publishers send books to get reviews, because they realize any review that readers pay attention to is a good review from the standpoint of publicity. And if a blogger's reviews are thoughtful, well-reasoned and readable, there's always the prospect that the next book they review after a bad review will be a good one. Insincere reviews full of obviously inflated praise are going to turn readers off rather than on, so they really don't serve writers any more than they serve readers.
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Katherine Ashe
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Post by Katherine Ashe » Fri October 22nd, 2010, 9:49 pm

There is the problem too of how much a reviewer knows of a subject and brings that supposed knowledge to bear in a review negatively when a book differs from what she or he believes.

Judging the book on its own terms is the only fair answer, I believe. But I agree entirely that works one finds morally reprehensible, accurate to history or not, earn censure. I'm not saying that virtue-in-a-bundle-of-historical-vignettes, a la Scott, is the only way to go, Heaven help us. Rather that who we are rightly colors our views and readers need to -- and often do -- understand that.

Online reviewing is exceedingly important I believe, as fewer and fewer people read newspapers and newspapers give less and less space to reviews. Specialty publications are a help, but the internet is increasingly what people read. This places a need for responsibility where it probably cannot be effectively placed -- on the online contributor. A newspaper reviewer who abused his position or made too many factual errors would be knocked back by his editor to beat reporting or the Rim.

But perhaps readers of online criticism are gaining a sagacity -- perhaps that is precisely what we're discussing here?

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Margaret
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Interest in HF: I can't answer this in 100 characters. Sorry.
Favourite HF book: Checkmate, the final novel in the Lymond series
Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
Location: Catskill, New York, USA
Contact:

Post by Margaret » Sat October 23rd, 2010, 5:26 am

perhaps readers of online criticism are gaining a sagacity
One would hope so. Certainly, any reader who gets burned by paying good money for an overpraised novel and finds it almost unreadable will quickly learn to read similar types of reviews with greater scepticism!
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings (probably well over 5000 by now, but I haven't re-counted lately) and over 700 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

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Shield-of-Dardania
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Post by Shield-of-Dardania » Thu October 28th, 2010, 5:29 pm

I do glance through reviews out of curiosity, but I've never actually gone out to buy a book, or consciously made a decision not to go out to buy one, based on a reviewer's writeup. I prefer to make my own assessment.

The way I see it is, why spend your hard-earned money on something based on someone else's judgement? Or, to put that in another way, if you're going to splurge on something, wouldn't you rather do that as a result of your own judgement and decision, rather than someone else's?

I just pop into a bookstore when I'm in the mood and browse around. If something catches my fancy, only then would I take it.

[quote=""Russ Whitfield""]Conn Iggulden's hugely successful "Empire" series is by no means historically accurate. But its a bloody good yarn. So I don't think that there's any particular obligation to be factual - unless its a self-imposed one.

I try to be as accurate as I can, but that's just me - and I think many other writers would say the same.

It doesn't really matter one way or the other I think. No matter how hard you try, someone will always come along and tell you you're wrong...even if they're wrong themselves (I've got a great one on amazon.co.uk recently where some bloke is accusing me of stuff that I didn't even write - now that IS hars *lol*).

The success of Conn's Roman books would be a good case study, I think. They're almost historical fantasy - but I loved them all the same. And so did LOTS of other people. Did they care if the books were inaccurate - probably not. Did it inspire them to go and find out more about Ancient Rome - I hope so. Did it matter to the publishers who are grinning from ear to ear... definitely not.

At the end of the day, the Internet Hive Mind often forgets the "fiction" part of historical fiction.

Cheers

Russ[/quote]
I have to agree with you there, Russ. I mean, if Conn Iggulden had had to curb himself and his creativity in order to conform to a certain line of thinking regarding the need/requirement for maximal historical accuracy in HF, it would have cramped his style, and so many readers all over the world would have been deprived of the pleasure of reading pure, unadulterated, unconstrained Conn Iggulden. To me, HF is still fiction, not history, well not in the truest sense of the word, and therefore should not be overly forced to pretend to be such.

I'm sure Conn himself would have spent countless hours in his neighbourhood library, researching Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, Brutus or whoever/whatever else of particular interest to him at the time. But as soon as he's at his PC, labouring away on his latest Empire project, he's no more Conn the researcher, but Conn the author, a completelly different creature altogether, playing a totally different game, with very different rules. And I think there is a Conn Iggulden in every one of us, isn't there?

Just my own two cents' worth, though.
Last edited by Shield-of-Dardania on Thu October 28th, 2010, 6:25 pm, edited 9 times in total.

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Katherine Ashe
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history vs. fiction

Post by Katherine Ashe » Mon November 1st, 2010, 10:09 pm

Shield,
I think you make the point exactly. There are two natures to the historical novel writer, the researcher and the novelist. The balance of research to fiction varies for each author, but the final work, of necessity, is fiction. As soon as you have dialogue and action (except in the rare cases where dialogue has been preserved) you have fiction.

And what of straight history? How “factual” is it? Every historian has his or her point of view, and many make their careers attacking the previous generation of historians’ accepted “truths.” Even the original documents are shaped by the prejudices of their writers, and historians add their own prejudices. Perhaps all that is “factually” captured of the past is what security camera record? And their view is distorted by their limitation.

So where are we with the responsibilities of the writer of historical novels? First always is the basic literary requirement that the work hold interest. (At least somebody’s interest since tastes differ.)

For myself, the next requirement is that the work make a concerted effort to bring the reader to an understanding of the mindset of the period, because otherwise the characters’ motivations will be distorted. But this in itself is a matter of taste.

My own approach in writing is to go back to original sources and ask – how could the recorded events have actually happened? And what might have been the prejudice of the person writing this original record? This may lead me to explore other lines of causality than are customary history – consistency and human nature is what I look for in this exercise of “connecting the dots” that original records offer -- and if one cannot explore alternative answers in a novel, where can one do it?

The argument may be that there are those who will mistake this exploration for “standard history.” But this is a risk that is ever present – in histories as well as novels. I remember one young gentleman explaining to another on a New York subway that Wall Street was originally a slave market and that the entire economy of the United States had been built upon the slave trade. When I was in school Wall Street had started beneath the buttonwood tree where shares in shipping and other enterprises were offered for sale. There surely was trading in slaves but it was not the core of the economy in New York City. Which version is “true”?

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Shield-of-Dardania
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Post by Shield-of-Dardania » Mon November 8th, 2010, 1:16 pm

Right. I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but my belief is that what the many, if not the most, of the readers want is entertainment, rather than pure fact, right? Entertainment with a decent historical grounding, and which sufficiently engages their mind, I grant, but still entertainment nevertheless.

And that's what Conn knows and gives, isn't it?

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