Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Aristotle and Accuracy in Historical Fiction: A guest post by David J. Cord

David J. Cord, author Dead Romans, is my guest today, and he's contributed a provocative essay about historical accuracy a subject of perpetual importance and the ways in which writers can choose to interpret their source material. For his discussion on the matter, he goes back to the classics.  Welcome, David!

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Aristotle and Accuracy in Historical Fiction
David J. Cord

In the 2006 film Marie Antoinette, there is a scene of the young queen trying on shoes. Amidst all the footwear scattered across the floor is a pair of light blue Converse basketball shoes. The shoes were only one of many deliberate anachronisms put into the movie by Sofia Coppola. This loose adherence to historical accuracy annoyed many viewers and critics, but was it really all that bad?

One prominent authority might not think so, and he is a weighty authority indeed: Aristotle. Aristotle was one of the first thinkers to write about literary theory in his Poetics, and many of his ideas still form the backbone of drama today. He wrote about how to structure a plot, make the main character suffer, have a reversal of fortune and many other things that are integral parts of storytelling.

In Aristotle’s time, many of the plays dealt with characters and situations which were familiar to the audience. This was very similar to historical fiction today, where the reader knows the historical facts behind the story. Interestingly, Aristotle did not insist upon historical accuracy.

In Poetics, Aristotle says the difference between a historian and a writer of fiction (or poet) is “that one tells what happened and the other what might happen… poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts.”

This is because Aristotle says the primary job of a fiction writer is to arouse emotions and to create a representation of life and action. Her goal “is not to tell what actually happened but what could and would happen either probably or inevitably” according to the rules of the world in which the story is placed. Here is how I interpret Aristotle, using my book Dead Romans as an example.

One of the main characters of Dead Romans is Panthea, the mistress of the Roman Emperor Lucius Verus. She was a real person, but the information about her is limited. One source says she came from a poor family, another says she was very intelligent and beautiful, and a third claims she was uncommonly devoted to her paramour.

But I believe that it would make a better story if Panthea had not always been so devoted to her lover. I think it would be much more interesting if she was once habitually disloyal, in fact. Do we have any proof Panthea betrayed Lucius? No – in fact, we have proof that she probably didn’t, because Marcus Aurelius cites her loyalty in his Meditations. Yet to fit the rules of my story she is a frequent betrayer, and Marcus’ idea of her loyalty is eventually explained in the book. This was my way of prioritising the story but still remaining true to what we know of her based on our sources.

author David J. Cord
Many people (myself included, I admit) sometimes get angry when there is an inaccuracy in historical fiction. Sometimes we have a right to be upset, if the inaccuracy is because of carelessness. But sometimes the storyteller does this on purpose because her story is the priority. Hilary Mantel is a good enough writer to have won the Man Booker Prize twice, but still feels it necessary to justify herself if she tweaks the historical facts, like she did at the end of Bring Up the Bodies. If she hadn’t explained herself, the press would have been full of irate people talking about her “mistake.” Instead of insisting on accuracy reminiscent of peer-reviewed journals, maybe we should give the writer a bit more freedom and the benefit of the doubt to tell a story.

In the movie Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola did not try to accurately depict the life and times of the queen. If she had wanted to do so, it would have been a different movie. Instead she wanted the modern audience to understand the emotions of the character as a teenager, and to do that she used modern teenage images, like Converse sneakers. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even notice the shoes when I first saw the movie. I was so drawn to the story that I wasn’t paying attention to historical nuggets, and even if I had seen the shoes I probably wouldn’t have minded. I suspect if Aristotle was alive today, he wouldn’t have minded either.

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David J. Cord is a writer living in Helsinki, Finland. Dead Romans was published by Stairway Press in September 2013 in trade paperback ($19.95). For more information, see the author’s website at www.davidcord.com.

22 comments:

  1. I agree with your post, up to a point. As we cannot know every single detail about the distant past, a novelist (hell, even a biographer!) needs to do a certain amount of "filling in the blanks." What offends me is when a novelist takes historical characters, and has them doing things we *know*--or, at least, feel quite certain--they did not, could not, do. That gets into "exploitation of the dead" territory.

    As for your example of Marie Antoinette wearing sneakers--eh, that just sounds more like Coppola trying to be cutesy than anything else. No wonder that movie bombed.

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    1. Yes, Aristotle mentions when characters are put into situations the audience wouldn't agree with. A famous example is to make Achilles a coward.

      Thanks for your comment!

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  2. Interesting.

    Sounds like Aristotle prefigured Cinderella.

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    1. ... or many very old stories. Aristotle was very good at recognising what already existed.

      Thanks!

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  3. A very interesting post concerning a dilemma I am struggling with myself. Thank you.

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    1. Great! I'm glad you liked it.

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  4. I agree with David Cord's post. And if you say you write historical fiction you are clearly defining yourself, not as a historian, but as an author of fiction, albeit historically originated. If an author "adjusts" the historical facts to suit the story, we readers know to always look at the author's notes at the end of the book, or sometimes on their website. (Or perhaps a disclaimer preface would better suit the more historically pure.) Thanks Sarah. I will be reading this fascinating story - Dead Romans

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    1. Thanks, Judith! I hope you like it.

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  5. A great post. Thumbs up David J. Cord. I'm leading a library discussion on historical mysteries soon and I will use your article here to help them understand the authors' use of history as a factor in setting.

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    1. That's wonderful, Donna. I hope it helps your discussion!

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  6. I agree completely with David about historical accuracy. There is a popular author who is frequently criticized, and criticized vehemently, for "bending" historical fact to make her books more readable, or for whatever reason she does it. Doesn't bother me in the least. I'm not a historian, just a book-lover. And for the record, I loved the movie Marie Antoinette, and didn't even notice the high-tops.

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    1. I suppose readers are more unforgiving for something that seems like a mistake - like giving ancient Romans stirrups - than something that was changed for the story - like putting a historical figure in a situation which never happened but was necessary for the plot. It is a fine line.

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  7. Excellent post and fascinating discussion. As a historical fiction author myself, I try my damnedest to stick with known facts. Where there is some question, I always include notes in the back to explain some of the choices made.

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    1. I think many authors do that. Mantel did it for Bring Up the Bodies, and I recall Vidal doing it at the end of Julian. There was one old pulp author who used to put in footnotes to explain whenever he deviated from facts.

      Thanks for your comment!

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  8. As you say, it depends a great deal on the author's intent.

    But there are authors who don't know enough of the history and don't know they don't know, and they commit non-amusing bollocks up in their work. As one writer recently, focused entirely on the pretty clothes of the French Revolution and Empire posited some of the most ludicrous relationships between Josephine and people of color. She screwed the pooch in every way when it came to people of color from the West Indies in the period because she didn't know anything about the history, the geography and the cultures of anything to do with the Caribbean.

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    1. Yes, I think it takes a great deal of research to make the setting believable.

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  9. Like others, I think it depends a lot on the intention of the book or film. As a non-American, the level of careful detail in the film 'Lincoln' led me to think that the historical stuff was accurate. Later an American told me that in fact there were many deliberate changes, such as presenting some officials as anti when they were in fact pro (and presumably vice versa). So then you start to wonder what the agenda of the film makers was? If you are going to deliberately change something (as opposed to making educated guesses between conflicting evidence) then I think there should be a clear signal that this is what you are doing.

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    1. Why, hello again Richard!

      I'm not familiar with Lincoln. I wonder what the reason behind such changes could have been? It may have been to better fit the plot, perhaps, or maybe it was carelessness. It is hard to tell, and I think this is one reason why people get upset about changes. They tend to think it is a mistake, and they might be right. If it had something to do with an agenda it makes it even more suspicious.

      Thanks for your comment!

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    2. I am surprised at how some novelists seem to change what we know about history for no clear reason. I've read about a six foot Julius Caesar with a face like a Hollywood star, medieval soldiers with the sword-arm strength of super-heroes and people of almost two thousand years ago using phrases from the day before yesterday. I think that it is futile of a historical novelist should strive for accuracy, it will never be achieved. But we should strive for authenticity. Martin Lake

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  10. Sometimes they change things that really should not be changed, which the 'creators' would know should not be, if they had any actual empathy with the proverb, "The past isn't past."

    To re-use my previous example: there is so much concerning the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era, and U.S. history that continues to affect the people who are descended from the people alive when those actions were taken and the decisions made. This include horrible economic conditions, the place of spiritual practice in everyday life, to malnutrition, bigotry and white supremacy. These are not abstracts, and the people involved know well what happened.

    To ignore all that in favor of 'the story I want to tell' is supremely disrespectful and ultimately leaves the work with value, even as entertainment -- except perhaps for the supremely clueless.

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  11. Great post, David, and timely on a personal level as I am currently working on my first historical fiction novel in which I am using actual historical figures (in this case Edward Teach AKA Blackbeard the infamous pirate.) In my first book, Sea Snow, I was only concerned with getting the facts straight regarding life at the turn of the 20th century. I think a reader will excuse a fiction writer's changes in a historical figure's storyline easier than having something show up like zippers in the 1800's. Fiction is, after all, a "what if..." scenario.

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  12. (Try again! ) And of course our perceptions of history are inevitably shaped by those who record it, and many of them had their own agendas. We could say that to some degree all history as we know it is fiction :)

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