At this present moment, historians and artists fail to understand each other. Not only is this due to fundamental differences in approaches, but also in the goals and expectations placed on them.
One of the most successful books about the Holocaust in children’s literature is “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne. It was turned into a movie and featured on many school reading lists. Yet the novel is also controversial, with some commentators, such as A.O Scott finding fault in the disclosure of historical information. Most controversially (and polarizing), the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum commented in 2020 that the book ‘should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches about the Holocaust.’
I am both a novelist and a historian. At least in training: currently, I’m editing my second novel, which I plan to share with others. While this occupies my time, I’m preparing an application for a Masters degree, where I’ll research a topic related to medieval and modern Europe. I began my historical studies in 2017 by majoring in Modern History at Macquarie University. Since then, I’ve noticed crucial differences between historians and artists (especially novelists). This has resulted in numerous misconceptions about each other as well as some competition regarding ‘who gets to tell the past.’ Yet both historians and novelists have their shortages and weaknesses. In this article, I will discuss the differences between both, but also encourage historians to engage with fiction, and for novelists to take an interest in historical research.
There are obvious differences between historians and novelists. The former aims to understand the past through the collection of primary and secondary sources. Sometimes this involves fieldwork, oral history, consulting archives, collaborating with museums and governments, engaging with archeology and others. A historian can present his or her research, analysis of findings in multiple ways.
A good example is Dominic Sandbrook. He has lectured at the University of Sheffield and published peer-reviewed articles and monographs in academic, high-ranking journals. That’s not all. He, alongside Classicist Tom Holland, runs the podcast ‘The Rest is History’ where both engage with historical events and their contemporary relevance. Sandbrook has a keen presence in trade publishing, with books such as Who Dares Wins, covering the late 70s and early 80s in the United Kingdom. He has also written for Unherd. All of this demonstrates the dynamic possibilities of a historian. There are so many ways for a historian to share his findings and to engage (often critically) with the past.
Artists are defined by aesthetics and medium of choice (such as painting or fiction). There is no expectation for novelists to dialogue with previous eras, although many, such as Hilary Mantel, desire to. Narrative requires a different structure and approach than traditional historical research. Yet both disciplines, history and novel-writing, as underpinned by the desire to add something new or fresh to existing disciplines. This is why originality and critical thinking is rewarding alongside competence and knowledge.
Historians can learn from a novelist’s aptitude for storytelling, narrative, characterisation and theme. The ability to spot and consider the narratives of the past and present is a useful skill for any historian to have. I recommend for historians, when critiquing novels as sources, to emphasize the process of writing a novel. It is impossible for a novelist such as John Boyne to include every detail about the Holocaust. Traditionally, historical fiction writers use symbolism, metaphor, genre, archetypes and narrative points to illuminate the horrors and tragedies of previous eras. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is no exception. It’s sad for contemporary historians to take little interest in literary devices and storytelling traditions. Rarely does fiction fit into binaries of ‘historically accurate’ or ‘inaccurate.’
I appreciate the work done by the Auschwitz Museum. But I disagree and question their methodology in reaching such an anti-literature conclusion regarding John Boyne’s novel. My concern is for novelists, who have a genuine interest in writing about the Holocaust, are turned away from this due to the impossible demands placed onto artists. Advice about historical accuracy is not the same as storytelling wisdom. So often, the viewpoints on ‘how to portray this historical event properly’ are not done by novelists.
Likewise, authors can learn from historians. The best works of history have terrific detail, offer in-depth analysis, pose interesting and unique questions and focus on careful research. So often, I am frustrated with historical fiction and the bland depictions of the past, where fashionable and simplistic portrayals are given. Two examples are The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal and The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. The research and attention to detail was marvelous yet the characters, particularly the female protagonists, did not capture the essence of the time. Rather, they felt like 21st century women. Part of being a historian is understanding our present reality is not an eternal burden on previous generations. That said, I empathize with Macneal and Burton’s trials in blending fiction and the past. Historical accuracy doesn’t always translate into reader engagement or superior storytelling. So often, a novelist must prioritize narrative and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I’d like to conclude this post with a non-fiction book and a novel that offers the best of both history and fiction. The S.S Officer’s Armchair by Daniel Lee is a work of historical non-fiction; yet the pages read like a detective story fused with memoir. The details are immaculate. More importantly, the reader understands the agony behind each individual. It’s well researched and evoked a strong response from myself. As for history-inspired fiction, I’ve been enjoying A Place of Greater Safety by the recently deceased Hilary Mantel. She captures the scope and horror of the French Revolution with convincing dialogue and characterisation. One strength of both The S.S Officer’s Armchair and A Place of Greater Safety is the detail. It’s obvious both historians and storytellers structured their respective works with sheer dedication and commitment.
Great history writing is possible. Whilst I cannot mend the differences between historians and novelists, I hope for more peaceful exchanges and mutual understanding of the challenges faced.