Sunday, April 30, 2006

Bibliographies for novels

Miss Snark has suggested that bibliographies within novels are "last century." She's already stated that she doesn't deal with historical fiction, so this may explain her remarks. (And, as mentioned previously, Da Vinci Code and novels of its ilk are not historical fiction regardless of what the newspapers think, even though I'd like to see bibliographies for those types of novels, too... for the same reasons as given below.)

In a way, she's right. Bibliographies for novels are very last century - as well as 9th century, 16th century, 18th century, and so forth. They're very common in historical novels, and calling them either outdated or undesired ignores the need that many readers have to learn more about the novels' historical subjects, right then and there. Who better to lead readers in this direction than the author? And on the chance that a reader feels an author messed up in his/her research, or if an author provides a non-traditional interpretation of a historical character's actions, a bibliography compiled by said author can be helpful in another way as well.

Miss Snark suggests that bibliographies be placed on author websites rather than in the novels themselves. Many historical novelists do this, and it is a good way of drawing in new readers. However, this doesn't do current or prospective readers much good unless they're told that such a bibliography exists, and is on the author's website.... or if readers generally go immediately to an author's website upon reading a novel. (I wouldn't assume that all readers will do so.)

I also don't know how such a bibliography would become outdated, because normally bibliographies contain only those books used by the author in the course of his/her research for a given novel. As such, those lists aren't likely to change, unless the author suddenly realizes that a major source was omitted (oops).

If the author's already going to be providing an author's note, historical epilogue, etc. - which are incredibly helpful to readers, and which I personally appreciate - why not make things easier for readers and list some sources right there? Bibliographies aren't written for marketing one's novel to people who haven't read it, although they certainly can be used as such. They're meant to guide existing readers of a novel in learning more about a subject, and in providing insight into the author's research methods. And if so, where better to put such a list of resources than the end of the book. If an author has a website, sure, put it there too. We aren't talking dissertation-length bibliographies here, so the publisher can relax. A page or two of major research sources (or less) is all that most novels provide. Anything longer can go online.

A trawl through my personal library quickly reveals a number of historical novels containing bibliographies or narrative lists of research sources at the end. I submit the following list:

Tracy Chevalier, The Lady and the Unicorn
Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman
Emma Donoghue, Life Mask
Clare Dudman, 98 Reasons for Being
Sarah Dunant, The Birth of Venus
Mary Sharratt, The Vanishing Point
Beverly Swerling, Shadowbrook
Barry Unsworth, The Songs of the Kings

All very 21st century novels, indeed. What do you think - are these authors out of the loop? Should unpublished novelists who "play with history," or who "base their novels on solid fact and research," follow their example, or ignore it?


  1. I love seeing bibliographies in historical novels (as well as on websites), and I've used them as guidance in choosing nonfiction books to read on a subject I've become interested in. Even if the bibliography is outdated, it's still useful as a means to see what sources the author relied on and what books have been written on a subject but may no longer be in print.

  2. I hate it when authors don't include bibliogrphies. I have found some of my favorite books by reading through bibliographies and using the books listed as a way of continuing my interest in that historical period.

  3. First of all, I want an Author's note about how (s)he used the historical sources. If a bibliography is included, the better.

    And I definitely want a website with material about an author's research, including a bibliography. If it's a very large one, G.G. Kay's way of listing the most important books on the site and offering to send the whole thing via email to interested people, is a good compromise. You don't want to scare non academic website visitors off, after all. ;-)

  4. I like the style of bibliographies that GG Kay uses on his site. His annotations are very helpful and not stuffy in the least :) The lists of sources in his books (within the acknowledgments) are quite a bit shorter, but they're still there. A good way to handle it, IMHO.

    I remember that Jean Plaidy regularly cited Agnes Strickland's Lives of the Queens of England as a source. I found this set on eBay once and was surprised to see it was published in 1851! (I wasn't tempted to buy it...)

  5. Ouch, that's not exactly the latest development in research.

    Sometimes those old books can be interesting as collections of source material (like Gibbon) but the interpretation of said material isn't up to date, and the sources collected may be incomplete (though I think in case of Gibbon not many lost texts have appeared since).

    I have some fun with 19th and early 20th century research about French epics for my PhD. Outdated, but impossible to ignore since so many other books quote those old ones, often in a critical manner. And Gaston Paris and Joseph B├ędier still have the most comprehensive collection of material concerning quotations from - often obscure - French epics. Some of the manuscripts haven't yet been edited.

  6. I'm all in favour of bibliographies in historical fiction. LOVE them in fact :-) For contemp fiction, though, I do see Miss Snark's point.

    PS - I updated my blog yesterday!

  7. Anonymous11:29 PM

    Hello Sarah - hope you don't mind if I comment. I found this post and comments so very interesting - and reassuring too to see everyone is in favour. I lke bibliographies too - but the main reason that I wanted to put in sources for my novels was that I felt I owed it to their authors - they had done all the hard work researching their field, and I had come along and used it - it felt like it was the least I could do. Some of them do notice and are grateful - so I think it is good for everyone.

    I hadn't thought of putting my bibliography on my website though - excellent idea - so thank you.

  8. Hi Clare - thanks for stopping by and commenting. I hope you don't mind my using your novel as an example! As an academic type, I understand where you're coming from. I think bibliographies for historical novels are good things all around. To me as a reader, their absence doesn't necessarily mean anything, but it's helpful when they are included.

    Since I started this blog, it has been interesting to see the number of people actively googling book titles - even out-of-print ones. If including a bibliography can increase traffic to one's website, so much the better.

  9. Anonymous4:48 PM

    Nice site! genealogy search is a resource too for genealogy search tips.