Why Historical Fiction Must Keep Tackling Controversial Topics

Alina Adams, author of My Mother’s Secret, returns to the blog to remind us that historical fiction has a purpose beyond entertaining readers with a good story.

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After her Goodreads page got bombarded with negative comments about her upcoming book being set in the Soviet Union, author Elizabeth Gilbert announced that she would be pulling the novel from publication prior to its 2024 release date.

Criticism centered on her historical fiction taking place in Josef Stalin’s Russia of the 1930s, and how it could be interpreted as support for the present day country’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

As someone who was born in Odessa, Ukraine, I honestly don’t see how a book about a completely different country, the USSR, can be considered to be supporting a war Russia started almost 100 years later.

As someone whose last two novels were set in the USSR, I took it as an opportunity to criticize the repressive Soviet regime – and draw parallels to Vladimir Putin’s Russia of today.

And as someone who loves to read historical fiction taking place all over the world in all sorts of different time periods, I am wary of a mindset which might lead to authors and publishers censoring themselves, shying away from setting stories in regions where there is ongoing political strife.

For instance, Leon Uris’ Trinity takes place from the mid-19th century Irish potato famine which drove so many to immigrate, up through the Easter Rising of 1916. Ireland in 2023 regularly feels the repercussions of these events. Does that make Trinity insensitive to present day Irish peoples’ suffering?

What about the books of Lisa See? She writes about the Asia of the past and present, including her Shanghai Girls series, which describes in excruciating detail the havoc wrought on millions of people by the Cultural Revolution. China is still under Communist rule, and there are still dissidents battling against it. Do Lisa See’s books constitute support for the state?

How about the Bible? Almost every story mentioned therein is set in an area ripped apart by war this very minute. Almost any tale set during biblical times can be analyzed as taking a side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iraq War, Syria versus Lebanon, ISIS, Iran, etc….

And that’s not a bad thing.

As Voltaire did not say, but as his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, paraphrased: I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

I may, in theory, not agree with the political stances taken by Leon Uris, by Lisa See, by Elizabeth Gilbert, but I am:

  1. Thrilled that, in America [MKT: and many other countries], they still have the right to say it
  2. Even more thrilled that the genre of historical fiction allows an alternative way to say anything outside of the strictly non-fiction historical record (which, itself, is often contested regarding who is telling whose story, who is taking whose side)

Sometimes, historical fiction can tell a truth non-fiction isn’t equipped to deliver. It can get away from sweeping battles and casualty counts and square feet conquered and focus on how those battles and those casualties and those square feet affected a single individual.

Sometimes, a single individual’s narrow perspective can become a global perspective, when the global perspective is too overwhelming to contemplate.

“A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic,” the same Josef Stalin whom the characters in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book are reportedly rebelling against supposedly said.

Historical fiction solves that problem. It doesn’t just make you think, it makes you feel. And it makes you empathize.

Maybe you began the book on the completely different end of the political spectrum presented within it. Maybe you completed the book still on the completely different end of the political spectrum presented within it.

But you were exposed to a person – fictional though they may have been – who might have, if not altered your views, at least forced you to confront the idea that even those you disagree with are, nonetheless, human. 

And that’s the first step to any reconciliation, political or personal.

It would be a tragedy if historical fiction were no longer able to serve such a noble purpose.

Many thanks for this timely reminder, Alina. The power of social media to disrupt is shocking. The publishing world – publishers, authors, agents and others – is challenged to uphold the noble purpose of bringing novels with all their ideas about the human condition and reflections about life and history to light.

Alina Adams is the NYT best-selling author of soap opera tie-ins, figure skating mysteries, and romance novels. Her latest historical fiction, “My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region” chronicles a little known aspect of Soviet and Jewish history. Alina was born in Odessa, USSR and immigrated to the United States with her family in 1977. Visit her website at: www.AlinaAdams.com.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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9 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this, M.K. I agree this is a troubling issue — the idea that authors and publishers are censoring themselves. I appreciate your insights and will be sharing your post far and wide.

    1. Many thanks, Jessica. It’s important to reflect on these challenges that authors face. We live in a time when a comment on social media can go viral and destroy an author’s work. Shocking really.

    2. Jessica, authors and publishers are just the latest group. Self-censoring has become common in academia where adjunct professors (non-tenure) are fired for having what they say misinterpreted or misreported. It is part of why I decided to retire from teaching.

      1. That’s a distressing situation, Mike. And it points to an issue that the ‘left’ is criticized for – taking reasonable viewpoints to an extreme. I’m sure we can all think of other similar circumstances. I’m sorry you felt you had to leave teaching.

  2. I loved this article. Reading about the American Revolutionary War in John Jakes’ book The Bastard, telling me about how this war was tearing American families apart, (not ever shared in any history class) led me to write HF.

  3. Much needed common sense to reassure us that the world has not got completely mad. I wrote a book partly set in Haiti and although I know I am the right person to write it, opinions are often led by an outraged brigade who have not read what they criticise. I also write historical fiction. The result is terrible bouts of depression and doubt when faced with the extent to which we repeat the same mistakes. Is there such a things a progress?

  4. oh wow YOU NAILED THIS ONE And thank you. Maybe this time the ‘squeeky wheel won’t get the grease. Social media does need to realize it’s limits. “Historical fiction solves that problem. It doesn’t just make you think, it makes you feel. And it makes you empathize.” May I keep this quote. it is so right

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