Tuesday, August 30, 2011

It's Fiction, People.

Last night I walked into the room where Pisces was watching Q & A which was coming from the Melbourne Writers' Festival. For those of you in other countries this is a show where a moderated panel, which can include politicians, activists, journalists, social commentators and even comedians, answers questions from the audience on various subjects in the news. As it was from the Writers' Festival last night's panellists included, among others, novelists Kate Grenville and Anna Funder and I came in just as they were discussing Kate Grenville's latest novel Sarah Thornhill.

Kate Grenville has been on the receiving end of much criticism from some historians who see her novels as historical accounts. (Her rebuttals are here.) This would be justified if the books were intended as that but, of course, they are not. They are novels and the definition for that is a work of fiction, a story. In Grenville's case she has taken historical events and characters as the jumping off point for her story and even used some of the actual words of the real characters when it suited her purposes but this doesn't make her novel into a piece of historical research. Instead she allows her imagination to run free, putting her imaginary characters into a setting which is an actual point in time but letting them tell their story.

After Kate Grenville carefully explained this the moderator turned to Anna Funder saying, 'You're also writing history.' She then had to go through the same thing again to make it clear that she has written a novel! A work of imagination. You can catch the whole show here on ABC Iview.

What is so hard to understand about this. These are novelists, writers of imagined stories, stories they made up in the same way as any other novelist does. No doubt they have tried to make the setting feel historically authentic, maybe including actual artefacts or dates of historical events, because if these things jar the reader finds themselves thrown out of the story but this is simply background. In the same way a novelist might describe a modern day New York street to set their characters in place but when a novelist puts a serial killer into that streetscape we do not assume that if we were there we might be his next victim.

t's not historical research. It's not real. It's fiction, people.

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