As a response to some of the questions I posed in my recent review of Lily Tuck's The News from Paraguay, The Little Professor points to this essay by the historian and historical novelist Jeanne Reames-Zimmerman. Reames-Zimmerman does a very thorough job of elucidating what she takes to be the task of historical fiction, but for my purposes this passage seems particularly revealing:
I grew up with one foot in a culture that regards storytelling as teaching, not just entertainment. Both my grandfathers told stories, but one told stories that meant something. He never got beyond an 8th grade education while here I sit with a Ph.D, hoping that one day, I live to be as wise as he was. That's my tradition. My mother told stories, and so did her brother and another sister, and now, so do I. My niece tells stories in her art, and one of my cousins directs theater. We're a family of storytellers. It's sacred business. I even use stories in my classes -- which I think my students basically enjoy, but some aren't too sure what to do with because it's not standard Western pedagogy, especially when I don't then lay out the salient points in nice bullet-style format. I want them to string the beads themselves.
Thus, I'm a big believer in narrative instruction. Stories touch the capacity of the heart, move us in ways visceral as much as intellectual. They inspire us to good or to evil. They're powerful things -- strong medicine -- and should be treated with due respect. They move us so deeply precisely because we don't live amputated at the neck. The best stories evoke our compassion.
Perhaps this is why, by and large, I've never much enjoyed historical fiction. I said in my review that I didn't quite understand the purpose of historical fiction, but Reames-Zimmerman spells out quite explicitly what must be the purpose of a great deal of such fiction: to teach us about the past, or help us draw some moral lesson from it, to make history (and thus fiction as well) have "meaning" and evoke "compassion." I have explained in a number of previous posts why I don't have much patience for this view of both storytelling and the art of fiction, so I won't go on further about it here, except to say I am dubious that fiction can have the kind of instructional value Reames-Zimmerman so urgently wants it to have. And it my opinion it really does no service to the aesthetic possibilities of narrative to so firmly tie it to its putative ability to teach. Taken to its extreme, this approach takes all the joy out of storytelling indeed.
But Reames-Zimmerman makes another point that is well worth heeding:
Historical fiction is never really about who any given historical figure actually was, but with who we are now and what it's possible for us to become -- or what we might want to avoid at all costs. And in truth, don't we study the past in order to understand where we're going now, too . . . and what we might want to avoid at all costs? Pursuing the details can be fun -- I'm one of those nutty people who actually enjoys spending hours in a big research library chasing down epigraphical evidence for the origin of a name -- but it's never purely an antiquarian pursuit for me. I find myself asking, 'What's the POINT of this? What do we learn about ourselves in the process?'
This may sound like amplification of the underlying argument about the pedagogical value of historical fiction, but to the extent that Reames-Zimmerman is suggesting that "history" really isn't the point of historical fiction, that it is just another way of approaching the present, as well as the ongoing dilemmas human beings continue to face, I think she goes some way toward justifying historical fiction as a form of literary art.
Although we would also have to accept the further distinction she makes between two kinds of historical fiction:
. . .To my mind, the primary division is between historical fiction and historical allegory. While as I said above, historical fiction is never really about who any given historical figure was, the sleight-of-hand is less evident. The mark of good historical fiction lies in the quality of research as well as how effectively the author draws the reader into the world of the story.
Historical allegory, however, succeeds or fails by the strength of the symbolic hermaneutic between the past and the present. The veil between past and present is mighty sheer -- and should be. One of the best examples of historical allegory that I've found in ATG fiction is Indo-Irishman Aubrey Menen's wickedly funny A Conspiracy of Women. Ostensibly, the book is about the final years of Alexander's reign, his time in India, and the mass weddings that followed. But it's really about the British in India and the clash of an imperialistic nation with a Traditional one. It holds up a mirror so we can see ourselves more clearly.
I will accept this argument if it also means that among the things to which a mirror can be held is history itself. If, as I said in my discussion of The News From Paraquay, the fiction writer might view his/her approach to history as one of "interrogating it, forcing it to testify, as it were, to the veracity of accepted representations of it, to the hidden truths behind these representations that have been hidden so well their revelation seems as surprising as any unexpected plot twist in a skillfully told tale. For these writers, 'history' becomes just more material for the novelist's imagination to transform, at times simply offering itself up as the inspiration to the novelist's own powers of invention."