There is nothing better than a good biography and there is nothing worse than a book which poses as biography, has a smattering of truth in it and then sells itself as fact – pseudobiography, usually with conversation. We are all wary of the peddling of lies by the media, by politicians, by financial advisers and by realtors. But we are not wary enough of the invention of false history by writers of fiction. Perhaps the reason is that self-interest is not so obviously at play and, in seeking to be entertained, we are off our guard. Moreover writers are not so much economical with the truth but rather over-generous with a beguiling and manufactured truth. We forget that authors are generally trying to write books that sell and their publishers are leaning on them to do this. Pseudobiography (with conversation) is a great vehicle for sales.
Of course all books, except way-out fantasy, are somehow inserted into a true world, past, present or future. The question is, how true does it have to be and how far do authors have to go out of their way into misleading you that their story is a reflection of a real world? They go very far, it seems, in some cases – especially if the story line is weak or the subject barely worthy of even a pseudobiography. The illusion of reality is often created by a barrage of facts which lull the reader into a false sense of security. An image of an all-knowing writer looms large from the pages of such books. Contact with the real world is often made through brand names and a false air of authenticity created by branding products, cars, guns, the exact location of this or that secret agency, expensive clothes (always expensive!) and innumerable other tricks culled, one suspects, in five minutes from the internet. Mind you, it is not always like this. Product branding does not feature in the best modern works such as Philip Pullman’s or Raoul Dahl’s books or in Harry Potter. Harry does not use Boss deodorant or Hermione Chanel no 5. Nor does the Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant caper about in Gucci boots.
But there is something else called ‘extreme branding’ and it is much worse than mere product branding. Extreme branding is the kidnapping of an historical character and branding her (say) in your novel (or pseudobiography) as a misjudged or forgotten heroine, recreating her life with little respect for history. The whole book becomes a vehicle for perpetrating the brand name of the heroine. Recent examples of extreme branding are attempts to show the importance of Galileo’s daughter or of the ‘other Boleyn’ or the historically false portrayal of the last empress of China or attempts to represent Mileva Einstein, Einstein’s first wife, as a significant contributor to Einstein’s work. This is not history expressed in fiction but fiction posing as history. Extreme branding is an irresponsible, manipulative practice and a pity too, because proper history could be read by everyone with pleasure. The three volumes of the History of the Crusades, by Runciman, read like an epic novel while still being a work of history. The Arabian Nights are another form of history, history by example. These stories recreate the historical atmosphere of early Islamic society by telling stories which illustrate life. These and other works, like the classics of Chinese literature, for example the Heroes of the Marsh, bask in being stories but inform you in depth of the society in which they are embedded. Nothing could be further removed from the extreme branding of many bestsellers.
So what can we say for ourselves as writers when we invent people, things, places, events? Are we just grand liars? How can we excuse ourselves for creating towns that do not exist, gangsters who have never lived, heroes and heroines who strut about only in the pages of our books, when they are so many real heroes and heroines – and gangsters? Are we trying to rip apart the fabric of society to show its inner workings? (sounds like a quote but I can’t find it on Google). Or are we just having a good time playing with the world as if it was made of Lego, taking it apart and putting it together again in a slightly different shape?
If you write books for young adults, as I do, you are writing for an age group who will remember a great deal. Think of what you personally know by the way of facts; I am sure that you will find that a very great many of these facts were brought to you and got stuck in your head between the ages of 13 and 20. So it is especially important not to mislead, to distort and to lie in books for people in that age group. So what rules do I lay down for myself? Please realize that I do not want to be prescriptive – you may well have a very different way of looking at things and I should be pleased to hear about it.
I am governed by an overriding rule that one should try to recreate the consciousness of the times of which you write, without propagating the falsehood that the story told really took place or that the people in it are real individuals in history. Even locations and geography may be distorted – though preferably not with the abandon of that remarkable film of Robin Hood which showed him one moment on the Roman Wall and in the next pan on the cliffs of Dover (causing much laughter among a British audience). At all events, writing of the period at the end of the 16th century in France, as I have done, means that you must enter under the skin of the people of that time, try to find out how they think and to discover what preoccupies them, what are their motives, what their priorities. You must judge where power lies and the action must echo the social relations which existed then. Of course it is no different from writing of modern times in these respects but there is much less material to go on, with more pitfalls. So you must try to create the framework. Either you can, like Victor Hugo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, laboriously erect a framework through a wonderful, expansive description of medieval Paris, or you can let it self-organize from the fragments of life which you describe. But gel it must into something pretty sturdy, because a flimsy structure cannot bear a great story. Within this framework, if truly representative of the period of which you write, you can weave any story that you wish and it will have credibility however zany it may be.
Naturally you have to pay attention to detail sometimes, as well as paint the picture with a broad brush. You want to avoid obvious anachronisms. It would stretch the patience of your public if you put the Roman Legions on bicycles or the Vikings on motorbikes (though this last is less of anachronism than giving them horned helmets, purely in terms of how many centuries your are wrong by!). Very many things which would have taken trips to the library a few years ago can be rapidly checked on the internet. I remember checking if it is okay to write about etchings in 1599 and I needed to discover what sort of guns they had then. I also remember finding the coat of arms for the de Montfort family in five seconds flat, without having to write a letter to the College of Arms. But detail of this sort, so easy to acquire, should not be there for its own sake, as in novels which brand half the objects mentioned. And certainly you want to avoid the accumulation of a mass of irrelevant detail – even if it is correct. Keep to the minimum which is necessary. Read an Agatha Christie: there is nothing superfluous there. What is more, I try to follow the advice that I give to my own PhD students: keep your thesis short. The more you write, the more chance of making some unnecessary mistake and irritating a reader – your examiner in the case of a PhD student! Extreme branding apart, many books (including mine) get too long – as this article is in danger of becoming.