what historical fiction readers really want

Last week’s post on the challenges of writing historical fiction garnered more copious feedback than my posts typically do, including a book recommendation from my uncle; some thoughts on the benefits and challenges of research from my former student Kandy Crosby-Hastings, a historical fiction writer herself (read her savvy observations in the comments to last week’s post), and some comments from my dad, which I’ll return to shortly. I also received a nuanced response and respectful critique from another former student and my occasional Twitter interlocutor (occasional because I’m really bad at Twitter), @Andy__Ford, and it is his epic series of ten tweets that I would like to spend most of my post engaging with today. And that’s because I realized, after reading his comments, that my previous post presented an unfairly generalized portrayal of historical fiction readers. Today, I’d like to complicate that portrayal a bit.

My post last week was directed toward historical fiction writers, not readers. I was also trying to be amusing, which sometimes gets me into trouble. I was also trying to keep my post relatively short. So I fell back on the bogeyman story that I tell the students in my creative writing research class: If you don’t do your research, those cranky historical fiction fans will find all your mistakes and eat you alive in a public forum!!! Although it supports the basic premise of my course—research is important—this story is based on a caricature, and like all caricatures, it is rather unkind. Here is Andy’s response: “I don’t think those Goodreads trolls actually exist, and if they do, they’re probably in the minority….As a reader I am happy to suspend my disbelief so I can enjoy a story, and I think most readers are like that.” In other words, historical fiction fans aren’t waiting to pounce on writers for committing an anachronism; they just want to enjoy a well-told story like readers of any genre do. My conversation with my dad reinforced this point: he sent me a really bad review that he gave a book classified as historical fiction. But he criticized the book for bad writing, not for historical inaccuracy, and so he applied the same standards that he would to any book. As Andy said in another of his tweets, “I don’t think the details matter as much as the feeling”–the feeling, that is, of what it must have been like to live in the world where the story is set.

While writing this post, I remembered something. Last week, I claimed that I had never written historical fiction except for a Civil War story I handwrote in elementary school. But just now, I remembered the short story called “Dinner Party, 1885” that I wrote at the end of the summer between the two years of my master’s program. I had spent the summer maxing out my check-out limit at my university’s interlibrary loan department, reading everything I could get my hands on from and about the Victorian period, including a number of 19th-century health and hygiene manuals, which related directly to the topic of the thesis I was about to start writing. By the end of the summer, I felt like I was a Victorian, and so that short story flowed out of me in a way that no piece of writing has since then (certainly not these blog posts!). I was proud of that story, and it ended up being published in my university’s literary magazine. (P.S. A long shot–If anyone still has that issue of Lamp, could you scan a copy for me? I don’t have the story anymore.) But here’s the key: I don’t think I spent much if any time looking up details like what the exact cut of my protagonist’s waistcoat would likely have been. I wrote the story from the feeling I got from reading all those books, from immersing myself in the period. Yes, if I were to expand that story into a book and/or try to market it to a wider audience, I would probably do some fact-checking. But that would be an afterthought, not the heart of the story. And so we return to the point I made at the end of my last post: no amount of accuracy can make up for a bad story with stilted characters.

I hope I’ve done some greater justice to historical fiction writers and readers this time around. Keep the comments coming!


India in Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair

Over the weekend, I watched Mira Nair’s 2004 adaptation of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. I had seen it several years before, and even before I rewatched it, I remembered that the movie left me feeling more affectionate toward the characters than the notoriously satirical novel did. I tend to have this experience in general with adaptations–it’s usually easier to like a character I am seeing portrayed by a flesh-and-blood actor as compared to a character described by a (sometimes vicious) narrator and perhaps, in the case of a Victorian novel, illustrated in a cartoonish style. But I think there’s an additional reason why Nair applies a more charitable interpretation to the characters, which is simply that she’s a woman. This is no doubt why main character Becky Sharp, while every bit as strong and smart and (a little bit) ruthless as in the novel, appears less like a shrew and more like a woman who has spent her life striving to overcome the disadvantages of poverty and orphanhood.

I also remembered that India, a distant backdrop for some of the plotlines in the novel, takes a more prominent role under the direction of the Indian-American Nair. But not until this latest viewing did I realize the extent and nuance of India’s presence in the film. Unlike some other movies of the last few decades, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel (which I have to admit I really do enjoy), Vanity Fair does not carry the message that if British people (or white people in general; I think this message is also implied in Eat Pray Love) go to India, they will have a magical experience and all their problems will be solved. While Vanity Fair celebrates the music, cuisine, and clothing styles of India, it doesn’t slap a simple, single symbolic meaning on the entire nation or its culture. For example, in one scene, India seems to represent heartwarming family values (when the lonely Dobbin, who has escaped to India to nurse his unrequited love, watches the happy parents and child), but in a later scene, Indian music, dance, and costume are associated with moral degradation in Lord Steyne’s creepy-sexy “ballet.”

The connection with India is, I think, the reason for Nair’s significantly more positive portrayal of Jos Sedley, a British colonial bureaucrat home on leave from India and also the first man who makes a bit of a fool of himself over Becky Sharp. In the novel, Jos is a minor character who is regularly mocked by his fellow characters and the narrator–for being fat, for being nonconfrontational (or cowardly, as Thackeray seems to present him, but I think it’s a good thing to have a peaceful young man in a novel full of hotheads and warriors), and for having, in the eyes of his hidebound friends and family, nearly “gone native” in his affinity for Indian clothing and cooking. Although Jos is part of a colonial machine whose purpose is to impose British rule and culture on India, as an individual he seems to be doing more absorbing than imposing. Whenever he appears in the film, he is portrayed as a respectful and delighted fan of Indian culture, which he (again respectfully) tries to share with the folks back home. Although he remains a minor character in the movie, he does not, as in the novel, finally and ignominiously drop out of the story about halfway through, fleeing from the Battle of Waterloo. Instead [SPOILER], he shows up at the end, after Becky has lost her love and many other things, and we learn that he’s been looking for her and hoping to take her back to India with him. The film ends with the two of them riding an elephant in what surely looks like a wedding procession. And while the scene looks a little bit like an India tourism commercial, I love that Mira Nair found a way to celebrate her family’s ancestral land and set Becky Sharp up with the man who’s loved her all along. Thackeray purists may have a problem with the ending, but I think it’s lovely.