revisiting the question of history vs. historical fiction

The value of fiction, the pitfalls and dangers of historical fiction, and the concept of the proper way to read historical fiction, are topics I’ve discussed here from time to time. [See bottom of post for links.] I like to read nonfiction, and I like to read historical fiction, and I find it interesting to ponder that deceptive and elusive line where fact meets fiction. Even within “nonfiction,” in fact, I think it’s important to question the boundaries. [Just the other day, in my review of Blaine Harden’s Escape From Camp 14, I mused over the hidden impact of the interpreter to Harden’s interviews of his subject.] Memoir is famously a genre of nonfiction where that line is blurred and amorphous; often the narrator/memoirist is the only one who can confirm what s/he writes, and as we all know, memory is a faulty beast. The relatively new genre of “narrative nonfiction” to me refers to nonfiction that is written with a more literary voice, and is usually more readable to a general audience that tends to balk at nonfiction; but some have suggested that it is less reliable and factual than traditional (drier) nonfiction. I enjoy the entire range of work – from historical fiction to memoir and creative nonfiction to textbook-style, heavily cited, academic writings – and mean to disparage no one here; I just find it interesting to poke and prod at the distinctions.

I always appreciate it when an author addresses the issue head-on. [See Sharon Kay Penman's author's notes at the back of her books. She does a lovely job.] And so I was intrigued by the foreword to Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. Here is the first paragraph:

Recreating the last days of six men who disappeared at sea presented some obvious problems for me. On the one hand, I wanted to write a completely factual book that would stand on its own as a piece of journalism. On the other hand, I didn’t want the narrative to asphyxiate under a mass of technical detail and conjecture. I toyed with the idea of fictionalizing minor parts of the story – conversations, personal thoughts, day-to-day routines – to make it more readable, but that risked diminishing the value of whatever facts I was able to determine. In the end I wound up sticking strictly to the facts, but in as wide-ranging a way as possible. If I didn’t know exactly what happened aboard the doomed boat, for example, I would interview people who had been through similar situations, and survived. Their experiences, I felt, would provide a fairly good description of what the six men on the Andrea Gail had gone through, and said, and perhaps even felt.

From here he indicates which dialogue he has confirmed from recorded interviews (in quotation marks), what dialogue has been reconstructed from the memories of those involved (without quotation marks), and where radio conversations have been recalled from memory (in italics). While I appreciate the effort, I should note, these guidelines did me little good in listening to the audiobook! That’s all right, though. I’m comfortable knowing that Junger paid such close attention and stuck to self-imposed guidelines. Knowing that, until I have a research paper to write on this subject, I am content to let the line between confirmed & merely recalled blur in my mind.

Most importantly, I appreciate that Junger acknowledged the challenge here, and I acknowledge it back at him: recreating a real-life experience at which he was not present does present some concerns, and I respect his plan here. Moreover, I think it turned out really well. His narrative telling of the events leading up to the “perfect storm” (recreated largely through interviews with the surviving players) flowed very nicely. He frequently interjects bits of local or regional history, or the accounts of people with unrelated but similar experiences, as mentioned above. In this way, the structure of this story is similar to that of Escape from Camp 14. I feel that it worked well in both cases: narrative storyline interrupted by backstory that expanded my understanding. And I was confident in my storyteller, thanks in part to his helpful and brief foreword.

I guess the point of this post is just to nod my head to the question of fact meeting up with conjecture, in various genres of writing, and mention one way of dealing with it. Is this something you think about as you read?


If you’re interested, here are a few past posts where I’ve contemplated this issue.

3 Responses

  1. [...] the physics of boat building, wave formation, and what exactly happens when a person drowns. As I wrote before, Junger is fairly strict and journalistic in following the facts. Where parts of the story he tells [...]

  2. We did a session (two, actually) at the Key West Literary Seminar on historical fiction and brought in a few historians to keep us honest. Several of the talks and panel discussions are available as free podcasts here: http://www.kwls.org/category/podcasts/?select=2009 Eric Foner’s is probably the most on point for the history vs. fiction question. Allan Gurganus’ is the most hands-down entertaining.

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