Saturday, January 4, 2014

Research in Western Fiction Writing

A recent Tamil novel that was inspired, not based, upon a historical event raised some discussion on the veracity of some events described and if there had been sufficient research into the historical backdrop. I shall reserve my comments on that novel for now and write, instead, of how fiction, historical and otherwise, is written in the West.

The first English novel I read was probably Jeffrey Archer's 'Kane and Abel'. Then followed Irving Wallace's 'Seventh Secret'. It was a fantasy tale spun around the popular conspiracy theory that Hitler lived after 1945. Then in quick succession followed 'The Prize', ' The Man' and 'Seven minutes'. Irving Wallace was notorious for steamy writing especially in the salacious 'Celestial bed'. Yet, all his novels were equally famous for spinning a good yarn based on well researched facts. Particularly his 'Seventh Secret' and 'Prize' were a treasure trove of nuggets. Wallace researched, on and off, for 14 years before he wrote a novel based on the secrets he had learned of the Nobel Prize. Yeats lobbied heavily for Tagore. Anti-semtism raged in the Nobel committee before deciding to award Einstein the prize, not for Relativity, but for his papers on photoelectric effect and Brownian motion. 'Seventh Secret' takes us to the heart of the last days of Third Reich. In the West, even in a fiction, the author has to pay attention to the street names he uses, the titles of the army generals, the events depicted and more.

Then followed a season of Ken Follet. Follet's recent books on the medieval era are deeply historical and based on extensive research. New York Times book reviewer writes that Follet recreates the 'everyday minutae of an impoverished village'. Follet even asserted, the review says, that "he never attributes inaccurate or unconfirmed characteristics to his real life characters, or puts them where they could never be". And that the reviewer finds is a reason why the characters were 'more than caricatures but less than real people'. That's a perpetual conundrum in writing a historical novel. Wikipedia lists 'historical inaccuracies' in Follet's 'Pillars of earth'. Most of those if applied to the aforesaid Tamil novel the writer's fans would holler 'nitpicking'.

Even a writer of pot boilers like Tom Clancy would be a diligent researcher.

From Irving Wallace to Ken Follet to Dan Brown it is common practice to weave fact and fiction in a racy yarn. The unwritten rules are that not too much literary license is taken with how the events or persona are portrayed. Fiction seeps into the crevices where facts are fissured. Hitler's suicide remained a conspiracy for long because the invading Red Army took away all forensic proof and was loathe to share them with Western researchers. Kazantzakis used literary license to muse on Christ's relationship with Mary Magdalene and Dan Brown followed. While 'Da Vinci Code' is a pot boiler fantasy novel none can accuse Brown of playing loose and fast with facts or depictions of real life characters.

When one moves from pot boilers to literary quality historical fiction the standards are even more stringent. New York Times obituary of Barry Unsworth, author of rigorously researched 'Sacred Hunger' that depicts slave trading, says he was chided by critics for 'occasionally falling victim to his own exhaustive research'. "Most critics however praised Unsworth's  stylish prose, rigorous fealty to detail and ability to evoke entire complex societies". "Rigorous fealty to detail".

I detest Gore Vidal's politics but I respect his fiction, especially the 'empire series'. Vidal was respected, again, for prodigious research. Vidal's "1876", the centenary year of America's founding, literally transports us to the era. His descriptions of New York City hotels, elevators, streets are vivid and authentic to a fault. In a final note to his 'Empire' Vidal specifies that but for altering one minor event and imagining a dialogue all his real life characters are depicted faithfully. Vidals 'Burr', '1876', 'Empire' and 'Lincoln' skate close to documentary standards of faithfulness to history. The genius of fiction writer is to create a compelling tale while tight rope walking on facts. That needs research and great reservoirs of creativity. After all if one were to spin a fantasy with no heed to history one might as well disavow any historical nature and ask his/her readers to treat the novel as they would treat any work of pure fiction.

Marguerite Yourcenar's 'Memoirs of Hadrian' is the gold standard for any book that seeks to be called 'historical fiction' as its genre. Yourcenar's discovery of her notes for a novel about Roman emperor Hadrian is the stuff of legend. Later she pored over innumerable books in Yale library to reconstruct the finest details of the era. The book is an education of a pivotal moment in the Roman empire complete with pictures of sculptures from Roman ruins with detailed notes. Yourcenar practically reconstructed the library of Hadrian. She takes us, using the inventiveness of fiction, into the mind of Hadrian. The research is so unimpeachable that even after 50 years not a single fictional moment has been challenged as 'could not have happened' or 'Hadrian would not have thought that'.

                                                              Marguerite Yourcenar (from Wikipedia)

In recent years Hilary Mantel is admired for her research into Tudor history for her trilogy. She received an unprecedented back to back Booker Prize for the two novels she has published so far in the trilogy. Hilary Mantel wrote 'Bring up the bodies' in 5 months. A newspaper article cautions us that it was possible only because Mantel had researched and mulled over the subject obsessively. She had 'done a long professorial research into her everything-all the books, all the books about books and all the original sources'. In an interview Mantel asserts "I try to make up as little as possible".

And there is fiction, pure fiction, that though populated with fictional characters depicts an era faithfully. Can one ignore Boris Pasternak's 'Dr Zhivago' and understand the upheaval of the Soviet revolution? Can one ignore 'How the steel was tempered' and understand Stalinist era or the roots of dreamy idealism that was communism? 'Les Miserables', 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', 'Gone With the Wind' are immortal classics because they paint, faithfully, for the reader a bygone era. One can argue with Mitchell's portrayal of a genteel south and her glossing over the brutalities of slavery but can one discredit her book as fantasy? The same can be said for Pasternak too.

Even science fiction has to adhere to some level of plausibility within established laws of physics else it would be childish fantasy and for that reason alone lose its significance.

History is complex and literature, as art form, has to reflect that else it would degenerate into propaganda. That a book is a fiction is no license to either twist truth or to present it sans the multi-layered complexity. The reason Gunter Grass was hailed a genius was because he took an epoch of singular evil to write a novel that went beyond black and white.

The power of the novel is vast but its loses all virility when insincere shoddy research, cardboard characters and propaganda are strewn across. Such books even disrespect the reader. Its a sort of arrogance to write a badly researched novel.

So how does Jeyamohan's 'Vellai Yaanai' measure up? Stay tuned.


1. Interview with Marguerite Yourcenar

2. New Yorker profile of Yourcenar including how she researched and wrote 'Memoirs of Hadrian' - "Becoming the emperor: How Yourcenar reinvented the past"

3. How Hilary Mantel researched - 'The unquiet mind of Hilary Mantel' -

4. Hilary Mantel's interview in 'The Telegraph' - "I try to make up as little as possible" -

5. New York Times obituary of Barry Unsworth

6. Gore Vidal on writing 'Burr' - " In fact, Vidal did meticulous research of hundreds of documents to come up with his alternative reading of history. In an afterword, the author maintains that in all but a few instances, the characters' actions and many of their words are based on actual historical records."

7. NYT Book Review of Ken Follet's 'Fall of giants'

1 comment:

iYogiBear said...


Iwould like ur views on the recent happenings in India,like AAM Aadmi partyetc. what do ufeel the outcome of such movements are etc.

I am an Indian who is very keen on understanding the NRI views on our country, given the fact that u r in a situation where u can weigh multiple nation and standards with India.