How far can you change history?

‘Any resemblance to … is pure coincidence.’ Of course it is. Usually I don’t mind heavy borrowing from real life in a work of fiction. There is often a good reason and if used well there is no problem.

Now I do have a problem, and it’s not whether or not to blog about a certain book. I hope I can blog without giving away which book it is, since I don’t want to be mean, and this will most likely be a popular action/thriller book for a lot of young readers. It’s not out yet, and I only just received the proof in the post. I won’t be reading it, nor reviewing it, because I feel it has overstepped a boundary.

I suspected as much from the press release and by reading the first few pages and dipping into the book here and there. And then I found the Resident IT Consultant had read it in one sitting, since he wanted some light entertainment, so I was able to ask him for clarification on the details.

It’s about a real event, and one that maybe I know more about than the general public, which is why I was surprised to read the blurb in the first place. I assumed initially that the plot of this real event had been ‘improved’ by adding some adventurous children to make it suitable for a children’s book.

What has happened is that what the adults did in the real event, has now been done exclusively by the children in the book. What was heroic in real life has suddenly been taken away from the people involved, for fictional purposes. Is that OK?

I’m struggling to find something similar to make my point, but how does the novel about an Apollo 11 crew of three 13-year-olds strike you?

An author is welcome to model their plot and characters and setting on real life. But by using the real event, someone has first skimped on plot, and then they have taken away an achievement from those who accomplished the original deed. As for the setting, it strikes me that a little more research might have been useful. And since this is historical, it would have been worth considering whether things were done as we do them now, or if a past decade had a different flavour to it.

When I first saw the cover of the book and its title, my reaction was ‘Wow!’ and I felt it was right up my street. So much so, that I just don’t feel you can cheat quite this much.

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23 responses to “How far can you change history?

  1. So it’s a children’s literary output? Any chance of you disclosing the title? I won’t tell a soul.

  2. I think….’what if’ drives fiction, so there are no rules. Depends how well it’s done. Philip Roth — The Plot Against America? But as always, a book has to be GOOD, and not morally suspect (I think).

  3. This has always been my problem with “Boy in Striped Pyjamas”. I don’t think you can easily “play about” with real events, especially when they are such important events. I know that was never John Boyne’s intention, and he did not write it as a historical novel, but for me it was impossible to detach myself from the historical facts and therefore the story, and particularly its ending, did not feel right or believable. I think it’s a personal thing though as I know many, many people who loved the book!
    I have to say I’m intrigued now though, and would love to know what book you are talking about!

  4. As a writer of historical fiction I feel very strongly about this. Which is why I always give a note about what was factual and what made up, including characters. And I would never change a date of a historical event or make attested actions performed by another. I shall watch out for this book, whatever it is.

  5. Such a hard thing this. I can think of some highly lauded books of recent years that are troubling because either I know the circumstances, the culture, or the history well enough to know that there is something wrong or someone I respect with a similar background has pointed something out to me.

    Here’s an analogy to consider — the movie Avatar. Depending on your background, your knowledge base, your reaction to this movie can be profoundly different.

  6. Pingback: History and Art « educating alice

  7. This is why I won’t buy Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, or see the film. Sometimes it’s OK and acceptable and sometimes it isn’t and when it’s about the Shoah I don’t find it acceptable.

  8. Absolutely with you on TBITSP, Keren! It’s now being chosen by Reading Groups ffs and a friend wrote and asked my opinion. (bet she wishes she hadn’t!)

  9. It’s good that I can leave you to get on with commenting here. I don’t know TBITSP, not having read it, and not wanting to, so didn’t realise it was relevant in this instance.

    Mary – your Troubadour and also Theresa Breslin’s Nostradamus are good examples of history novels. You use real people and places and wars and other historical facts. Then you insert your own characters and let them take part. That is perfect, and I don’t mind that you may make an 800-year-old Duke say or do something he never did.

    My Apollo 11 is not a good example, since it was the first time of something being done, which can never be the first time again. Maybe just suggesting that you write a book about Britain in WWII, where there is a Prime Minister who is not Churchill, but who is described as doing all that Churchill did, and taking the credit, as well as confusing children who may or may not have thought differently.

  10. “I don’t mind that you may make an 800-year-old Duke say or do something he never did”. That’s exactly my point about TBITSP. Arguing about its validity with friends who liked the book, I had used the example of “The Other Boleyn Girl”. It doesn’t really matter that it didn’t really happen like that, as it is “ancient” history (an assumingly not very well documented either). It didn’t bother me in Reeve’s “Here Lies Arthur” either, for similar reasons. But something like the Shoah, so close in history and so sensitive a subject, as Keren said, it is just not ok.

    • It doesn’t really matter that it didn’t really happen like that, as it is “ancient” history (an assumingly not very well documented either).

      No, it’s Early Modern, and very well documented. The trouble is, Gregory is adept at convincing herself that things she’s invented are factual, and in promoting herself as a ‘historian’.

  11. It’s OK to have a fictional person work close to Churchill and talk to him and have Churchill reply, saying things he probably never said.

    And Mary never (I think) made her Duke’s exploits those of some newly invented children’s. Inventing new things for the Duke to have done, in fiction is also OK. It’s removing something good that he did do and give the reward to someone else, that bothers me.

  12. How much can we define history as separate from fiction anyway (isn’t all history a story written by the victor…)? I guess it depends somewhat on which piece of history is being used for fictional purposes – how well it is documented, or how recent – but also on whether the writer is solely interested in telling a good story (or selling lots of books) or feels an obligation to be true to real events and people.
    Considering how politically charged history is, and how governments manipulate and ‘make-up’ history for their own purposes (for example, Soviet forces digging up Polish corpses at Katyn and planting evidence that they were murdered by Nazis and not Soviets) then I think novelists should probably think a bit beyond what tells a great story or sells lots of copies.

  13. But just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean “anything goes”! If I say Germany won ww2 I am writing speculative fiction not historical.

  14. Ah, but anything does go, Mary. Back to Roth’s The Plot Against America. Boy in the Striped PJs was an awful book, which means it’s a waste of time discussing whether it was historically accurate. The fact that it was a best seller is tragic, and i hate to see it on GCSE reading lists, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been attempted. Historical fiction and speculative fiction are not separate categories. What’s Wolf Hall, then? And any book on Arthur (TH White or P Reeve) is pure speculation.
    In my opinion, intelligent writing can get away with speculating on anything. Faulty research and lousy writing is never anything but junk. But there are no rules to tell writers what they’re allowed to try.

  15. We’ll have to agree to disagree, Meg!

    It annoyed me that Philip Reeve didn’t seem to know that no-one would have called himself Saint Anything and deceived anyone, since canonisation happens after death.

    And yes, such a fault does mar my enjoyment of a novel.

    Waiting for husband to finish Wolf Hall so i can read it.

  16. It seems to me that the problem with TBITSP is that it tweaks the details of history to suit the author’s premise…not exactly speculative fiction, not exactly historical fiction, just emotive mushiness. It’s then served up to an audience so young that they are only just being introduced to the true history of those years. This seems to me to play into the hands of Holocaust deniers in a particularly cynical fashion.
    I thnk children’s writers have a particular responsibility to the truth when writing about history because children don’t always know when the facts are being twisted.

  17. As a child reader, I’d have been terribly disappointed in the author when I went off afterwards to find out more about the event (which these readers will be able to do much more easily and quickly than I’d have been) and found out that, basically, s/he’d lied.

    As an adult reader, I’m still quite upset that the author would knowingly let him/herself in for that…..

  18. OK, I wasn’t going to chime in here, because I think a general discussion like this rather pointless. Name names, and get on with discussing the problem in context. Neither meanness nor fearfulness should come into it. PC behaviour in child/YA lit blogging doesn’t serve the cause of fruitful discussion. (And yes, I would always prefer a critic to be open and frank about my own work!)

    That said, I tend to agree with Meg Rosoff: in fiction, anything goes. In fact, I would go so far as to speculate that historical fiction is necessarily a falsification, or at least a reinterpretation, no matter how exacting the research. Of course it’s a matter of degree: M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing is wonderfully and carefully done, but … could it be anything but written by a contemporary?

    I’m so glad Keren David mentioned emotive mushiness, because I struggle to write against it all the time – and I think YA lit is terribly riddled with it, even many of those novels which are considered gritty and realistic. (This is why I argue that fervent adult readers of YA fiction must read the best adult lit available as well.)

  19. When I met Andy McNab the other day, I was able to ask his opinion on this subject, which was relevant as he’s in a position to see it from the other side.

    Then I saw this obituary in the paper today, and decided to let caution go somewhere else.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2010/mar/11/jens-anton-poulsson-obituary

    Another of the people involved died at Christmas, so I had it fresh in my mind as I raged. I don’t know if this was the last one or not. Norwegians live long.

    But read the obituary and replace the people who succeeded, and the ones who died in the course of duty, with fictional children. And see how you feel.

  20. It’s Mission Telemark, isn’t it? Let’s not beat about the bush.

    One of the problems is that too many people, young and old, have too little historical education. Too many get their historical knowledge from novels and films. This is dangerous, especially when many novelists have little in the way of conscience about what they do with real people.

  21. As you can see, I sort of stopped beating about the bush a while ago. I just got more and more annoyed.

    For me Telemark is a big thing, and I recognise it may not be to others. I’d have been far happier with a very similar story, allowing the author to borrow heavily, but not completely.

    I also feel that if you rewrite history, you should get your facts right, which she didn’t, altogether.

  22. I also feel that if you rewrite history, you should get your facts right, which she didn’t, altogether.

    Yes. I particularly dislike real people and events being reinvented at will. I’ve mentioned on the Guardian book blog my opinion re: Graham Shelby’s Kings of Vain Intent, but that’s just one among many. The author took a real man, under his real name, and turned him into a poisoning sadistic pervert. There were no historical grounds for doing this, no justification other than sensationalism for commercial reasons. The fact is, the character in question had a good reputation in his own time: Walter Scott, however, used him as a villain in The Talisman, and that seems to have coloured other novelists’ approaches.

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