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Pleasurable and troublesome: historical fiction

This discussion took place at the White Lion Café, hidden away just off Red Lion Street and worth a visit for its cake selection as well as the intellectual debate. The somewhat eclectic group, with an interesting mix of opinions, was well guided by UEA’s Dr Hilary Emmett.

After failing to conclusively define “historical fiction” because of its inevitable conflict between fact and fantasy, the central debate emerged: why is this particular genre is so compelling? The answer seemed to lie in this conflict. Personally, I can see parallels between the appeal of historical fiction and the modern fascination with reality TV – an audience wants the scandal of juicy gossip at the same time as wanting it to be real (which, as we all know, it often isn’t).

The White Lion CafeThe White Lion Café, home to Café Conversations. Photo: Facebook.

We concluded that if an author never treads outside the boundaries of reality, then they may as well be writing a history book. It is the fantasy which draws the audience in, and arguably it is the unfaithfulness to history which gives us the history (for instance, Jack and Rose’s fictional love story attracts many people to learn about the Titanic).

However, rewriting history with too much artistic licence seems to take away from the authenticity which holds such great appeal. One possible example is perhaps Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, an undoubtedly enjoyable but controversial re-imagining of the American civil rights era.

Maybe good historical fiction rests in the perfect balance between facts and fantasy. An example that came up time and time again was Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved. Morrison has filled in historical gaps without being untrue to the delicate issues that she deals with.

It is the balance between fact and fiction that makes historical fiction truly pleasurable, and in turn we must balance our pleasure with the politics of certain historical fiction, and consider the important issues some novels raise and also their entertainment value.

The Café Conversations series is running until 13 May 2013, with upcoming discussions including Proving Beauty and Here Be Monsters. All events are held at the White Lion Café and are run by staff and students from the University.


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January 2021
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