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Do historical fiction writers have an obligation to the truth?

The rules of writing historical fiction are notoriously murky. Just how factual does the story need to be if it is considered to be a work of fiction?

Recently, the issue has been raised in relation to the bestselling The Tattooist of Auschwitz, in which author Heather Morris recounts the story of an inmate at Auschwitz. Morris states on the second page that the book is a fictional retelling of Ludovit Eisenberg’s story.

However, the Auschwitz Memorial has criticised the factual errors in the book, which it claims could easily have been checked and changed. These errors include the contact between Lale and Gita in the camp, the layout of the camp and the harrowing sexual contact between Cilka and an SS officer.

A Facebook post on the Auschwitz Memorial site explains:

“Even fiction – if the action takes place in a real historical place – should describe this world accurately. In this case the real (sic) of Auschwitz that we know from thousands of testimonies and number of documents becomes an imaginary world… This story deserves better.”

The post claims that by writing a book more closely aligned with fact would be more respectful for the victims of Auschwitz and more valuable for readers.

However, not all believe that historical fiction must have this role, particularly when the author has so clearly stated that the book is a work of fiction inspired by the life of an inmate in a concentration camp.

One commenter claimed that the book served a valuable purpose in highlighting the suffering of Auschwitz and encouraging young readers to find out more about what actually happened.

“Personally, I think any book that gets people thinking about the impacts of genocide … and perhaps sparks people to want to dig deeper is a good thing.”

So, what do authors think about their responsibility to the truth when they are writing historical fiction?

When Hilary Mantel was asked about the importance of accuracy in writing historical fiction like her award-winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, she replied,

“I can’t see the point of doing it otherwise. Of course nobody can guarantee 100 per cent accuracy – you are never going to be completely free of mistakes. But I think you have to take your research seriously, otherwise there is no point in it at all. You can’t speculate emptily about the personal reality of people’s lives. It has to be grounded in time, place and context. If you don’t like research and don’t consider it important then it’s better, in my view, to leave the historical novel alone.”

Mantel said that this approach could make writing this form of fiction more difficult.

“You have to know that history isn’t tidy and that it doesn’t do what you as a novelist want it to. It doesn’t conform to your dramatic instincts. It often has a really awkward shape and so you have to make your fiction flexible to bend around it.” (History Extra)

Author of many bestsellers, including The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood is less clear on the role of fact in historical fiction, saying,

“Individual memory, history, and the novel, are all selective; no one remembers everything, each historian picks out the facts he or she chooses to find significant, and every novel, whether historical or not, must limit its own scope. No one can tell all the stories there are.” (In Search of Alias Grace: Writing Canadian Historical Fiction)

Australian novelist Hannah Kent carried out extensive research before writing her works of historical fiction, Burial Rites and The Good People, but then gave her imagination space to write the story.

The Good People was based on two newspaper articles and little or no biographical information, but Kent visited Flesk River (where events central to the story occurred), explored Irish museums, read academic articles about 19th century midwifery and books on fairy lore, herbal medicine and the power of plants to poison or heal. (Sydney Morning Herald)

This research and her own imagination come together in the story. Kent described her method in writing historical fiction in Burial Rites,

“I undertook a rigorous approach to the mixing of fact and fiction, deciding to research as widely and and thoroughly as possible. If facts were solid, I would not alter them. If facts were questionable, or contradictory, or openly prejudiced, I would use my wider research to select the most likely scenario. And finally, if there were gaps left unfilled, I was at liberty to invent, although such invention would need to fall within the parameters of the reasonable; parameters set, again, by wider research into the times Agnes lived in.” (Lit Hub)

Each form of writing has its own challenges, and in a genre like historical fiction, writers must tousle with their own ideas about their responsibility to truth. While I might be tempted to support any claims that the story is most important, above all, it is hard to ignore those who represent the Auschwitz Museum as they comment on the impact of fiction on the reality of those whose stories are being told.

This Post Has One Comment
  1. I agree with Hilary Mantel and Hannah Kent that the writer needs to get the research done thoroughly when writing a history fiction. While readers need to remind themselves that they are reading a fiction story and not to take the information in the book a ‘fact’.

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