As you may know, I’ve just written a story about events in 1970’s Cambodia. A real place in time, but I’d be horrified if it was dubbed historical fiction. It was an attempt to find a metaphor for something that defied the everyday human scale of experience. I am a historian by training and can’t quite see the raison d’etre of historical fiction. Either it is good literary writing and poor history (imagination over fact), or good history and rather dull literature (dry litany of facts). My Cambodia, as with my Omagh, my Florida, my Wakefield, my Corfu and other fictional settings of mine) exist only in my mind – I have never visited any of them. I haven’t even really fictionalised them, since I don’t really spend time describing them, other than their symbolic meaning for the character.

So much for referencing places and periods. How about cultural markers such as songs or films? Roberto Bolano drops in Mexican film maker Robert Rodriguez in his opus “2666”, but deftly turns it into fiction by talking about a fictional prequel from which his trademark actual style germinated. The problem with referencing films is a) the reader may not have seen the film and b) the writer is asking the film itself to carry meaning within their own book. I am always skeptical about pulling this off, since either the writer digresses into an exposition on the film, or undercooks it and expects the reader to share the same reading of the film as the writer himself. The same goes for dropping in other books into your own. Songs are not quite so awkward, as you might be able to quote a snippet of lyric if you’re lucky.

Real people pose problems because again there are several readings of them – witness the plethora of biographies on the same person, taking entirely different lines about their subject. However, if like my use of place, you take a name/signifier of a person, but then run with it in an entirely new, wholly fictional direction, as Oli did with Nick Nolte, then that is absolutely fresh and does not fall under the restrictions I am debating here.

Okay, now the biggie. rather than merely referencing, how about homages to writers and artists we like and admire? Dan is very open to namechecking his influences behind his work, Murakami and Tracy Emin etc. He’s already cited the influences behind his new book. The thing is, even though I read “Norwegian Wood”, firstly I didn’t make any connection to “Songs From The Other Side Of The Wall” so that passed me by and influenced my reading experience not one iota; and secondly, that is just as well, since although I loved some of Murakami’s following works (the weirder themed ones), I hated “Norwegian Wood”. If Dan’s blurb had cited it as an influence and I’d been browsing in a bookshop, I probably wouldn’t have bought the book. (There’s an echo here with when I used to cite in my submission letters, which current authors or books mine was like – through gritted teeth – and I’m convinced I always picked strategically wrong authors and did myself no favours).

Maybe this last point about citing influences is merely one about timing. Once the book is out and is starting to provoke public debate and the author is getting asked questions about it, then of course discussing influences behind it is absolutely valid. I would just favour the public opening up the debate, rather than the author being very open and honest and slightly spoon feeding in this regard. Is this not the author closing off options for the reader, whereas if the reader makes the connections for themself and then brings it to a debate on/with the author then that may have more validity and maybe suggest a more active, two-way relationship.

Confession time, in my novel I do cite “Marathon Man” the bit where Larry Olivier sets to work on Dustin Hoffman’s teeth with pliers. So I guess I don’t even practise what I’m preaching here. But in the main I do try and leave out specific references. I find them distracting, dating of the work (especially pop cultural references, imagine citing a Big Brother or X-Factor contestant in a novel) and sometimes I think the writer overburdens them with the amount of work he expects such a reference to convey. It may just mean that the author has actually skimmed on the work needed for that particular paragraph, by relying on the crutch of the reference.


~ by yearzerowriters on January 16, 2010.

38 Responses to “Refer-hensible?”

  1. In my first novel, Doubts, I have a lot of lyrics, maybe lines from fifteen songs, but to avoid any copyright issue, the mc gets all of them slightly wrong. There are also 26 famous people mentioned – one for each letter of the alphabet, but again they’re not cultural markers – only there in terms of the mc’s state of mind.
    I’ve also got one dead famous person making a cameo appearance in the second book, Back to Life. I have thought about others – in fact my first thought when I heard Michael Jackson had died was ‘I could put him in the book.’

  2. Oh fiddlesticks! Your timing is gruesome. I’ve been up all night writing about Tracey Eminent & Damon Heist & an octopus. + ”Bloody Head” by Mark Quill…

  3. Marc, I have to disagree completely and vigorously with “[I] can’t quite see the raison d’etre of historical fiction. Either it is good literary writing and poor history (imagination over fact), or good history and rather dull literature (dry litany of facts)”.

    The raison d’etre (if one needs it): historical fiction is what makes history come alive; it is, for most people, the place where history happens. Well researched HF can allow a reader to encounter and understand things about their history and their heritage, about the collective baggage that we do or don’t carry around, about why people made the decisions they did at the time, and how they coped with the unintended consequences. Well written HF can do all of that without beating the reader over the head with it.

    I’d challenge your either/or, too. I’ve seen a few examples of both, but plenty, too, of good literary writing and good history (start with Dorothy Dunnett and go from there) – and FAR too much poor history that doesn’t even have the merit of being well written.

    • Ben – all you describe can be rendered by just reading history (of course there are poor history books that are turgid to read). As a historian I was told that the subject was a marshalling of the facts (records, documents etc), PLUS the historian’s ability to enter empathically the matrix of thought of the time – what you propose works of fiction can do should be covered by history books themselves.

      I’m not calling for a blanket ban of HF (!), merely that I have no desire personally to read it. Of course it has a huge fan base and following and I would not decry that, but I still maintain what I originally said. I don’t think it offers an access reading return to getting into history, because it is still fiction. Do people move from an HF novel to research the period itself? You would know far more than me.

      Any history that dabbles with psychology, ie why Stalin made the decisions he did or why Socrates took his hemlock, is speculative, cod history.


      • I think I stand half way between the two of you (and having read Nicola’s post and the comments thereafter I am reconsidering by the minute), but I think the difference between us was clear from the muse post – for me a historical novel that does its job always lives in the penumbra of the present – what matters is taking the lived experience of your MC and leaving her/him just enough in the shadow of your audience taht a connection is possible.

      • No… missed my point completely… but not worth pursuing.

  4. Before I go any further, I should link to a great and highly related post from yesterday by Nicola Morgan, in answer to some questions I’d put to her on historical fiction – the two could almost go together:

  5. Let me deal with the influences first. Citing Murakami did, as you hint, originate in the days when I thought I might want an agent – it was an “if you like x you’ll like y” thing. I also felt honour-bound to. I wasn’t thinking consciously about Norwegian Wood when I wrote it, but I did read Norwegian Wood at a key moment in writing Songs, and I can see the influence write so clear it strikes me it would be disingenuous not to cite Murakami.

    I’m also not ata point in my writing career where I think I’ve found a voice of my own – A Life Drawn Freehand is only my 5th full length book (not counting SKIN BOOK) – going by Gladwell’s 10,000 hours there’s a way to go before “my” voice starts to emerge. Until then my writing will probably be little more than pastiche. It may be good pastiche, but it will remain pastiche. Again, it strikes me as fundamentally dishonest not to say so. And where a writer genuinely thinks they are NOT writing pastiche at so early a stage of their career, it strikes me there are being fundamentally dishonest with themselves – and how are they then to learn and progress? I’m newer to the writing game than most of you. And very much more limited in my ability than the stars in our midst.

    I see citing my influences as the equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s calves (to repeat the story for the 500th time in case there are people who haven’t been bored with it). When arnie started bodybuilding back when he still lived in Graz, the bodybuilders he knew used to show off their best body parts to impress people. He realised that ridiculous, and, having identified his weakest body part, his calves, he cut the bottoms off all his trousers to expose his weakness and make himself work on it. My weakness is the lack of an original voice. I synthesise. On the other hand I know I use language well – I can make sentences sound poetic very nicely. It would be very easy to showcase that, but how will that make me a better writer? So, for me, it’s a choice between trying to convince the world I’m something I’m not, and exposing myself to humiliation in the hope that I will actually become it.

    • I think you do yourself a disservice. You do have your own voice – may be something in your personality that denies this, but outside eyes would most positively assert that you do, myself being one of them. Malcolm Gladwell – is not GOSPEL.

      Who do you think I’m pastiching? (Almost rhetorical). I get myself in a mess because I resolutely refuse to tip my hat to any idols, but instead am determined to overthrow their statues Saddam/Stalin style.


      • First up – I don’t think you’re pastiching – but you’ve been writing a lot longer than me.

        Gladwell isn’t gospel, true, but on this I happen to think he’s right. I DO think I have a distinctive voice in my non-fiction – but then I’m being myself, and I’ve been myself long enough to develop a me. I may be able to hide the pastiche from readers, but I can’t hide it frommyself – I know I picka nd choose rhythms I’ve heard elsewhere, scene lengths I’ve seen work for other writers, ways into dialogue (my use of the word “said” for example, is a fine-tune of Murakami – but a fine tune is pastiche nonetheless). There MAY come a time when the disparate pieces of pastiche meet up and form a synthesis so unrecognisable it could actually be called “me” but that’s a novel or so off.

  6. I ought to say, in light of what I just said, that those authors who are genuinely themselves in their fiction will not be pastiche – they have been themselves a long time. Sadly, the only time I am genuinely able to be myself on paper is when I’m blogging. I tried it with SKIN BOOK and it nearly finished me of. I don’t think I could do that for a full lengther – maybe I should try.

    • But Dan, I don’t get this ‘being in myself’ when writing. Where does any idea come to us from? Even if the spark is external, we internalise it, it strikes a chord with us, has resonance, we turn it over in our minds, we remember it… It becomes us and part of our experience. No one writes from outside of themselves, even if they distance it with a polar opposite MC or hugely alien setting, it still comes from a lesser trodden part of themselves. For me this is my journey through each book, unlocking those ectopic parts of my psyche and being introduced to parts of me I am unfamilar with. That’s what keeps it fresh and vibrant for me and hopefully live enough for a readership not to be a stillbirth.


      • I think the way I experience it is the same as learning anything. I am aware of lots of disparate ideas and lots of disparate tools inside myself, all floating around separately – and after I’ve used them a lot, they connect up with related tools and ideas, but it’s not until they’ve all connected up that I feel in control. Take the scene in songs where Sandrine first reads Claire’s diary. The image I have in my head is absolutely distilled – as are her feelings – I can feel them for myself, they have been swimming around me for so long. But how to put them on the page? I only have the tools I’ve been taught trhough reading and practice. The more I use them, the more connections form between them, and out of those connections eventually new tools will grow – but until then… internalising something means no more than putting one new external into the miasma of past externals – eventually those exterbnals get all jumbled up and form “me” but they’re still externals (that’s the point I was making in the paper in the appendices to Songs about identity). And now I sound worryingly like an empiricist. Which I am not.

  7. Dan we are all magpies to a certain extent. We do not exist in a vacuum. I pick up all sorts of snatches of words – from real life or books. I get ideas from images in films or TV documentaries. But they do not remain external as soon as I absorb them into me for I start working on them, debasing them in my silky cocoon for a nice liquified treat later on when its finished marinading (with thanks to the arachnid for the image).

    I still think you are being too down on yourself- the non-fiction DH may be a different timbre of voice from the fiction writing DH, but one is no less you than the other. Are you saying Skin Book is not representative of a single part of you? I understand that its process was so debilitating you may have no wish to further tread that particular path, but it still emerged from you, no one else.

    I really don’t think time is a good marker of who are writers and who are not. To me you are irrefutably a ‘mature’ writer in the sense of being fully developed and having full authority and command of the craft, unlike me who is still at present at a stage of adolescent rebelling against the venerable parents of literature. Thus the fact that I may have been at it longer counts for nothing. Attitude of mind?


    • II guess I always inmagined writing would be like sports, or how people describe driving (like you, I never got my test) – that there comes a stage when one ceases to be aware of the mechanics and can focus on the real craft. Certainly when I was playing bridge that’s how it was after about 6 or 7 years of playing most nights. And as a writer I’m very much still aware of the mechanics.

      • Sports being very physically led I’m not sure that holds up. Writing is all about the inner life and expressing it on paper. All or virtually all young males in our culture dream of being a sports star. Very few initially dream of being a writer.


  8. Hi Marc – very good piece. I have also wondered about the realism of my Solomons; my closest location to them actually visited is Singapore. Still, as I tried my utmost to build the WW2 part into a coherent and historical entity, I am still internally divided whether it worked or not. Your essay helps me sleep at night.

  9. Oh, the soprific! I first thought you referred to my boyhood hero, the spaceman Valerian!

    But that’s just how I am.

  10. But much of what are called ‘the facts’ of history in history-writing are actually not the facts but the record, and the record is far more problematic. In Margaret Atwood’s paper On Writing Alias Grace, she says of using the often contradictory records of the real-life Grace Marks, “The past is made of paper”, but there is “no more reason to trust something written down on paper then than there is now”; Grace’s account in Atwood’s novel is simply one more “something written down”. It’s actually impossible to draw a firm boundary between history-writing and fiction. As soon as the historian starts making decisions about what to put in and what to omit, and drawing inferences or interpreting the facts, they’re doing what a novelist does: shaping their material to suit their purpose, using the storied nature of human consciousness to make sense of individual and collective memory and experience.

    Making any kind of narrative involves what Ricoeur calls the ‘triple circle of mimesis’ (‘mimesis’ meaning both to invent and to discover, by no means always by imitation in the crude sense). As Kearney puts it, the narrator/storyteller takes the prefigured world, the ‘facts’, the ‘bits and pieces’ of collective and individual experience, and spins them – configures them – into a single strand which connects and makes sense of them: the narrative. At the end, the audience has a refigured sense of that experience and the world in which it and they exist.

    History-writing makes a narrative out of such facts as can be gleaned and proved from physical survivals, and the record in all its problematic nature, in order to try to understand what probably happened. Fiction set in history makes a narrative out of those same elements, adds in knowledge of human nature and emotion, in all its perennial and contingent complications, in order to do the things that fiction does: to make connections which illuminate, explain, console or entertain. The truth-claims of history-writing are to veracity and probability, saying “We think this happened”, in order to re-figure the reader’s idea of the world and their place in it. The truth-claims of historical fiction are to verisimilitude and possibility, saying “As if this happened”, in order to re-figure the reader’s idea of the world and their place in it.

    • Oh no, we’ve crossed over each other between this thread & Nicola’s!

      If history is such a fiction for being partial – and I agree with you it is, then why create a separate genre for HF as if it’s any different from fiction set in the here and now. Isn’t it dressing it up to be something other than it is, again fiction set in the past? As said on Nicola’s post – possibly by you, forgive me if I’ve got that wrong, non-HF fiction too asks what if questions, whether set in the now, or in the future or in some fantasy landscape.


  11. One more thought: Michael Bentley suggests that the standard translation of Ranke’s phrase ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ – ‘history as it really is’ – encouraged a mistakenly literal ‘cult of objectivity’ among historians, whereas Ranke’s use is better translated as what happened ‘in essence’. To enter into the essence of what a time was really like – what historical processes meant day-to-day for those who lived then – takes more imagination beyond the facts than is legitimate in the discipline of history-writing. And yet, is it not worth doing, as part of our effort to integrate our understanding of the past – our collective memory and experience – with our understanding of our present?

    The big mistake is to think that historical fiction is history in palatable form, history lite, a docu-drama, a bio-pic, or to append a list of sources and references. In striving for academic respectability such fiction is actually confessing to a lesser status, as John Mullan puts it. There’s plenty of historical fiction like that, of course, but it’s usually poor fiction as well as poor history: treating the material merely in a Hegelian ‘Original’ manner is treating history as set-dressing which is a betrayal of both history and fiction. Good historical ficiton is an imaginative enlargement from the historical facts, such that it illuminates both ‘then’ and ‘now’ – Hegel’s Reflective mode. And some of the best historical fiction, on the whole, moves into Hegel’s Philosophical mode, illuminating both the characters’ and our own relationship to time and historical process.

    • A very nice way of putting my adumbrations and penumbras. For me all writing is about teh author standing in the shadow of their readers, and, as they carve and craft the strands of narrative from within, using research from without – but only ever secondarily – always retaining the memory of that shadow so that, in the crafting they learn from the reader, and in having the story set before them the reader learns from them.

      What you say about the relationship to time reminds me of Kierkegaard’s “The aesthetic Validity of Marriage”, in which he argues that the aesthetic is defined by its grist against time – it is the attempt to oppose and reverse entropy – to that extent he is saying what Marc has said elsewhere – all writing is ultimately about death.

  12. In response to the “not needing to read HF because you can go read a history book”, I could just say that I don’t need to read modern fiction because I can just go talk to people in real life.

    • fair point, but I ask what is it exactly within our psyches that HF appeals to? Is it an historical sense, in which case I maintain what I said. If it’s something else in the imagination, in the way that horror or SciFi clearly do, then again fair enough. I presume HF has a spectrum of readers along a very diverse range between two such poles.


  13. Good question. Fiction is all about the interface between what you might call the documentary impulse, and the imaginative impulse, because it synthesises the two into a single creative work. (Certainly in teaching writing that process of synthesis is a lot of what one’s trying to teach). Hist fic has a lot in common with speculative fiction, I agree: thinking/talking/telling stories about otherness, both for what you might call orientalist pleasures – otherness for itself (we’re back to Hegel) – and for refiguring our sense of ourselves, as any kind of otherness always does. Where hist fic diverges from spec fic (and you’ll have to forgive me on this, as I’m not much of a reader of spec fic), is that the verisimilarity the writer is conjuring/claiming is to a world which did, once, exist. You could say that you’re writing the novel ‘as if I was there’, whereas in spec fic you’re writing the novel ‘As if it happened’. Both writer’s and reader’s relationship to the ‘bits and pieces of experience’ which are spun into the story is different in the two different genres, because in hist fic that includes the past which the reader in some sense possesses. When I’m writing A Secret Alchemy, giving voices to Elizabeth and Anthony Woodville, they are characters which we all, in a sense, own: part of our history (literally: Elizabeth is an ancestress of a surprisingly large proportion of the population). That’s not the case with spec fic, I would argue, because even if some of the bits and pieces of human experience spun are ours, the world it’s based on isn’t: that political/social/biological world never existed. (Depending, obviously, on exactly what it’s made of…)

    • I understand the distinction between spec and HF, but I’m unsure what it brings to the debate. Firstly HF is possibly a more exclusive literature than general fiction, because I wonder at the state of historical sensibilities within our contemporary society. History is less and less valued within school curriculums here in the UK and I wonder what the readers of the future will possess as a base line knowledge with which to be able to tackle any HF.

      But even that isn’t my main caveat. The fiction I write and here I’ll freely admit it is a very idiosyncratic approach that veers from the majority of my peers, seeks to approach mankind through language rather than describing physical/material worlds as illustrative of whatever they might. I go back to the rockface of language as it were and I probably do make the reader aware of our mutual tool of language in order to open up seams of the human psyche. A similar approach to Brecht’s theatre I suppose. To open up the artifice and explore through that what it tells us about being human. None of my written world exists, except within the mind. that is exactly the thing I want to make evident, not blur with regard to how it differs from a version of reality we may have from history.


    • i think the test case for your idea on the differences would be speculative reworkings of the past – I don’t mean in the Steampunk sense, but taking events from our shared past and transplanting them to another world altogether – as the film Forbidden Planet did with The Tempest. There is still a claim to verisimilitude with the past – yet it has nothing to do with actual physical details. Such worlds can be more not less accurate representations of the colective pull of the past upon us because they get to the emotional core of the events, their significance rather than their detail. And if this is true here, I have a feeling that it may be so also for spec fic – as with the obviously fantastical elements of magical realism what happens is that the unreality takes our focus away from the irrelevancies and focuses us more sharply on the human truth. It is what Modernism can do by pushing and pulling form until it breaks – making fornm irrelevant to us and focusing us on what lies beneath.

      • A propos of nothing Dan, how does a debate on HF fit in with your WIP? That’s not got a particularly historical setting unless I have misread it? “Songs” clearly had a recent historical backdrop and I get that. But you seem to be saying it is a vital debate for your work here and now?


  14. Do I? It IS a vital debate, but I don’t think so for my current work. That’s very much of the “now”. The questions are just driving me nuts, I guess.

  15. “Such worlds can be more not less accurate representations of the colective pull of the past upon us because they get to the emotional core of the events, their significance rather than their detail.”

    But I don’t think you need to get away from the historical world, in order to get at the emotional core of the events. You only need as much detail in any novel as it will take to convince the reader to buy into your world – not to believe for truth that it actually exists, but to forget to remember that this is ‘as if it was’, not ‘it was’. Sure, lots of readers enjoy hist fic for those details: for, as it were, the documentary, orientalist pleasures. But the main purpose is to tell a story about human beings in all their messy glory. If it doesn’t tell a story with some core of emotional and human truth, by whatever means, it isn’t a novel.

    I agree that history-teaching has changed, in some ways for the worse, in some for the better: I wasn’t taught at school-level to think of sources as open to scepticism and interpretation as my children have been taught; on the other hand I have a far better framework of history on which to hang what I stumble across than they do.

    Mind you, Brecht doesn’t practice what he preaches. Yes, he wants readers to bring their everyday common sense and idea of human reality (keep their hats on, smoke a cigar) to the theatre. But his pronouncements are a lot to do with the 19th century theatre he’s reacting against, with its fourth wall and illusionism. Far more fundamentally he’s a storyteller wanting you to have the full storytold experience, using mimesis, pity-and-fear, suspension of disbelief and all the rest of it, as playwrights have since Aeschylus.

    • Yes, “buying in” is the key – it’s just that sometimes it’s easier for people to buy into a wholly fictional world – because they’re not always looking for cues and thinking (albeit often subconsciously) about detail. of course it CAN be done with history 🙂

  16. Dan, you’re absolutely right about not wanting readers to look for clues. Refer back to their own lives, Brechtianly, yes, excellent. But cross-check against the last non-fiction book they read, heaven forbid! Which is why I’d never put a bibliography in my fiction, and why, although I do of course do lots of research, I find it the least interesting aspect of my work to talk about: it’s what I do to leave it behind which is interesting.

  17. Historical fiction may have its appeal and merits but it is nowhere as off-putting and hokey as historical *meta*fiction

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