Accuracy in fiction

comments that I am being rather kind about historical fiction when I suggest reading it for style rather than accuracy. I’ve thought about this at lngth, mainly in the course of futile debate on the usenet group humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare with one Paul Crowley (not but a much less mellow Irish gentleman of the same name).

In particular, I found myself wrestling at various stages with Crowley’s statement that Shakespeare had an unparallelled “sense of history”. For me this statement is clearly false; the “historical” plays are full of inaccuracies for dramatic effect, eg the characters of Richard III, Macbeth and Brutus, the clocks in Julius Caesar, etc. This doesn’t make them bad plays; the point is the characterisation and the drama, not the accuracy of the setting. Crowley may have meant something different by it but I never became clear what that might be.

Now, of course, to make a convincing story the author does have to engage with his or her audience’s level of knowledge about the setting. Connie Willis’s otherwise excellent story “Fire Watch” is ruined for me not because of her portrayal of 1940’s London, which is no doubt rigorously researched and fully accurate, but because of her depiction of mid-21st century Oxford which is completely implausible. The result was that I spent most of the story picking up on the deliberate hints about the fate of St Paul’s and at the same time wondering what the author was trying to hint about the fate of Oxford. By making her future Oxford so similar to yer standard 20th century US campus, Willis no doubt intended to propel her readers from a familiar environment into an war-torn city, and it probably succeeds for most of them. For this Oxbridge graduate who grew up in Belfast, it just didn’t work.

But I try not to let that happen to me too often. As an sf reader I read stories at least in part for the imagination and vividness of the setting. In the case of a “real” setting that the author has not directly experienced, like the 12th century, Ancient Rome, Willis’ Oxford or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars, it’s a more difficult task to pull off, but the rewards are the greater when they do.

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