If you have me on a press list, you deserve everything you get in terms of my utter failure to write up my experiences at whatever junket I have swanned unpayingly into for up to a week afterwards. Wired in I am not. Fortunately for me the Institute of Ideas has been slow to tumble to this, and so it was that I found myself in the Barbican for the Battle of Ideas last weekend. Or rather didn’t, because nobody can find themselves in the Barbican, never mind their friends, their event, a view with a helpfully orienting skyline, or a cup of tea.
I’ve been to enough political conferences to know that most people turn up with a hobby horse which they spend as much airtime as they can humping determinedly pretty much regardless of how the debate is proceeding around them, and in this I include the speakers, the chair, the audience and myself. But I suspect most Battle of Ideas sessions stand out even in this company. For a start, there’s the background, and the fact that the little blurbs in the programme are exercises in self-conscious sixth-form debating champion goadyfuckery, of which more in a moment. Plus the name alone attracts the sort of people – like me – who quite fancy the idea of lolling around in the Barbican thinking Very Important Thoughts to no real purpose.
Nonetheless I very much enjoyed the Historical fiction: good literature, bad history? session, which was packed out beyond the beanbags, somewhat to the organizers’ surprise probably; the literature strand offering fewer opportunities for harrumphing than, ooh, the education strand say. The premise was, of course, terribly silly. Nobody would seriously argue that historical fiction is a substitute for academic history or vice versa, and indeed nobody did, despite the blurb:
‘We really should stop taking historical novelists seriously as historians,’ says David Starkey, the historian. ‘The idea that they have authority is ludicrous.’ On the other hand, ‘All history is in a sense historical fiction,’ says Philippa Gregory, the historical novelist.
This is essentially an invitation to everyone who decided in 1996 that they hated postmodernism to let rip at a farcical placeholder, and I was rather pleased that the entire debate left those quotes alone and was able to come up with the following points of genuine interest.
Historians sometimes write bad history too. This was a point made in different ways by three panellists, Alan Massie, Paul Lay and Elizabeth Chadwick, and while I found the latter’s actual examples a bit trivial – Eleanor of Aquitaine’s appearance, about which, really, who gives a farthingale – I think the underlying criticism is always worth bearing in mind. Writing history – writing anything – does force you into a certain narrative way of thinking, and if you aren’t careful you will end up filling in gaps in ways that you may not be able to support.
You can tell this is happening to you when you get to the writing stage because the material you’ve been reading about and absorbing for months suddenly looks oddly different, doesn’t it? Writing causes you to start making connections you did not make when contemplating the exact same material without a blank doc open in front of you, and while this is essentially a good thing and, indeed, why we get on in the world as a species at all, it it also a process with a seductive self-fulfilling logic to it. Julia Cameron in The Right to Write talks about the act of “tuning in” as a writer, and she is talking about the creative process in the broadest sense, not just as applied to fiction writers although those are probably the people who mostly read her books. We’ve all had that experience of feeling like we’re plugged into something that is telling us what to write next, and it’s very easy to get carried away with the belief that because you’ve been studying this stuff, and something has occurred to you in the process of writing, that it can be privileged above other thoughts you might have subsequently, or that others might have. But this is a fantasy. You’re in a fundamentally creative process, not a revelatory one, whether you like it or not. The need to keep reminding yourself of this is part of working in a discipline with generally qualitative problems and unfalsifiable data, and there’s nothing wrong with the odd friendly caution that you’re basically shaking a series of trees and trying to create meaningful abstractions out of whatever hits you on the head, and you might not even be shaking the right trees.
It is down to a whole series of culprits from Herodotus to the modern publishing industry, I guess, that we find ourselves in the strange position of having to Write Books about history at all. Why, out of all the ways we could assemble and disseminate concepts, have we arrived at the three-hundred page hardback delivered in an essentially omniscient academic voice (even where the voice is expressing doubt)? This is a suitable format for stories more than academic history, for expressing what Paul Lay characterised as the certainties of fiction as opposed to the endless argument of historical enquiry. A book is a closed loop. People expect it to have An Ending when it ends. This is one of the many reasons I think self-publishing is a force for good in the world. It doesn’t just allow us to shrug off the editorial and financial baggage of traditional publishing, it (re)opens us to the possibilities of alternative formats, of which the one most useful to historians might be the pamphlet – something which speaks to a particular matter with a scope entirely determined by the author, thereby limiting the opportunity to do damage to the material by making unsupportable connections.
As an aside, Chadwick’s contribution was also interesting for the fact that she evidently views historians as empiricists, and history books, or as she called them at one point “history reference books”, as being about getting the facts right. I can only say I’ve never read such a history book. Indeed, academic prefaces more often get pilloried for self-effacement and general pessimism about their own understanding of the fundamentals of their subject, and they’re by no means all doing it as a pose. The preface to John Watts’ Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship, which is a masterpiece of this art, contains a line I’ve frequently used to orient myself over the years when thinking about what to write next:
I think that, on the whole, I am asking the right questions, but it is difficult to be supremely confident about many of the answers.
This is not, plainly, the manifesto or even the agenda of an empiricist. Novelists are the empiricists, historians the hazy, hesitant conceptualizers who agonize – if they’re doing their job properly – about how they are situating “facts” in relation to each other much more than they do about the facts themselves. Historical facts qua facts are generally either falsifiable or not and there isn’t really much you can do about it one way or the other, your selection and use of them is the only thing you can influence. Whereas the way Chadwick described the process of researching a historical novel – finding out how people travelled, what kind of place they might stay in en route, how it might be furnished, what they might eat, what they would be wearing, and so on, before a word of dialogue is written – was doggedly empirical. Nothing but facts.
Which brings me neatly on to Game of Thrones. Somebody who asked one of the questions from the floor had a hobbyhorse I loved so much that I borrowed it myself. I haven’t noted the exact form of the question, so I may in fact be viewing it from the perspective of my own modifications to the hobbyhorse (new felt ears, additional bell on the collar, that sort of thing). But in essence it was something like this: why are Game of Thrones and the Lord of the Rings more compelling as stories than some of the “real” histories that get retold in fictional form? Does it reflect a sort of collision between fiction and reality and is this a problem?
I think the answer to this is about the extent to which, as a fiction writer, you are interested in systems. Not facts. Not what people wore or what they ate – those things are empirical, trivial, the how of historical events rather than the why, and most people who teach or guide creative processes will tell you that the why is the real thing. As such, it seems to me that fantasy novelists have a clear task in front of them. They have to create the why – it is obviously the first thing that needs to be done. They have to create the systems of the world in which they are setting their story. They have to do more than illustrate the economics, the geography, the political and cultural milieu – those things have to actually drive the story, cause events to happen, set individuals on collision courses with each other. Otherwise you are basically writing isolated sentences about bosoms and fighting, and there are specialist markets for that.
Yet only the best and most successful historical novelists also see the (re)creation of the why as their primary task. Many, many more do not seem to be particularly interested. It shows, and it’s why, for my money, Gladiator is a better historical film than Elizabeth despite being almost a total fabrication from start to finish. Why do some (most?) historical novelists neglect the “whys”? Well, I suppose the events damn well happened. No-one’s going to say, “That doesn’t hang together as a story” because it did. There’s no external drive to explain why, as distinct from how, so as a historical novelist I guess it’s incumbent on you to create that drive, and be responsible enough to your material that you’re at least going to try to understand why things are really happening, rather than seeing history through a prism of, well, bosoms and fighting usually. A lot of historical novelists don’t do that, preferring to, as Paul Lay said of the televised version of The White Queen, play out essentially modern compulsions in a cod-historical setting.
Is it a problem? For the historians, maybe, if you’re learning all your history from fiction, but then nobody in the session was defending that. It might well be a problem from the point of view of literature, though. We never got on to the first part of the question in the session’s title. But I suppose if one reasonable definition of “good literature” is “depicts a world that is both coherent and other”, a great many historical novels would fail on that count alone.