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Truth in Advertising

“Hmm…How should we define ‘historian’? And why don’t people seem to care for me as Anne Boleyn?”

If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, is it a duck? What if it doesn’t really, but still calls itself a duck? Over the past several days, via Twitter and Facebook, I’ve been engulfed by the swarm of comments that either condemn popular history writers for their “I’m a historian!” assertation or vehemently defend said authors. I thought I would take this to you and that maybe we could sort this one out together.

For example, let’s talk about Philippa Gregory, author of the novel The Other Boleyn Girl. The word “novel” should tip people off to the fact that this is a work of fiction, but I am always hearing that this is lost on so many. That’s not my problem and it’s not yours. In my opinion, the consumer (of the book, movie, etc) is solely responsible for being able to discern fact from fiction.

I have never read Gregory’s works; as some of you may already know, historical fiction is not my bag. I haven’t even seen the movie. There’s a lot of chatter from TOBG fans that Gregory has claimed truths in her work, a claim that many of you have a problem with. I’m going to leave that to anyone who has actually had contact with the book or film.

Her “About” section on her Facebook page says that “her love for history and commitment to historical accuracy are the hallmarks of her writing.” I’m only seeing fiction on her website; am I missing nonfiction works somewhere? That’s not snarky; that’s an honest question. Because if we’re talking about historical accuracy being an outstanding feature in TOBG I don’t know how that’s going to fly with actual historians. (For the record, there is an extensive list of sources for the Cousins’ War series she is currently working on.)

Let’s get to the issue at hand: When we talk about popular history-based works and their authors, I worry about deceptive advertising. On her website, Gregory states that she was “an established historian” before she ever penned a single Tudorrific thought. Gregory’s biography currently reads like this, although on Friday I got this (UPDATE: That, too, is no longer available. Next time I shall have the foresight to get a screen capture).  “Philippa obtained a BA degree in history at the University of Sussex in Brighton and a PhD at Edinburgh University in 18th-century literature.” I still wonder why I can’t get to this page from her current site design, but there ya go.

Lest you think I am picking on Gregory (because that accusation has already started), let’s check out Alison Weir’s credentials. From her website’s biography page, “I was educated at the City of London School for Girls and the North Western Polytechnic, training to be a teacher with history as my main subject. I did not pursue that career, however, because I quickly became disillusioned with trendy teaching methods. Before becoming a published author in 1989, I was a civil servant, then a housewife and mother. From 1991 to 1997, whilst researching and writing books, I ran my own school for children with learning difficulties, before taking up writing full-time.”

Sounds like a thorough description of Weir’s education and work history, so cheers to her for detailing all that for us. But how does one make the jump from that to being “a historian”?

This depends on how we define such a word. Must that person have a PhD in history? Teach history at a university? Perform curator duties for a historical site? I would expect a true historian would be 100% forthright in providing accurate sources, and yet this is one of Weir’s notorious criticisms. She’s a wonderful storyteller and a prolific writer, but how do we refer to someone with her education, work history, publishing history, reticence with source material, and other experience? (Update: Alison Weir explains the lack of source material in her books here; thank you, Alison!) defines it as “an expert on history, an authority on history” and “a writer of history; a chronicler.” Merriam-Webster gives us “a student or writer of history” and “a writer or compiler of a chronicle.” Just for the record (since Wikipedia shouldn’t be given too much weight), Wiki says “A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it.”

As you can see, none of these (taken from a small sample of possible definitions) mention a degree or any specific work experience to call oneself as such. Yet there is often an underlying “S/he’s not a real historian!” that comes up for various history writers.

Is that a valid concern? Are people too picky? Or should writers be held to a higher standard if they’d like to use that description? Do you see deception? Or truth?

* Full disclosure: However you define “historian,” I’m not one. I don’t claim to be. My creds are clearly listed on my blog and on my website. So I have no horse in this race. I just saw the need for the discussion so we can all hash it out and then clink glasses and relax.



  Gregg wrote @

At University our lecturers constantly referred to us as “Historians” However while doing physics we were never called “scientists”

  Claire wrote @

Philippa Gregory’s work is fiction. She may love history, and maybe she is a historian due to whatever research she has done, but she’s written historical fiction, which should not be taken as fact.

  clarabolina wrote @

Philippa Gregory’s work is fiction. She may love history, and maybe she considers herself a historian due to what ever research she has done of her own accord, but she’s written historical fiction, which should not be taken as fact.

  Luka wrote @

For me historian is somebody who researches primary sources. If you want to call yourself WW2 historian your book better have a lot of archival documents in their biography.

Same for any period. If you are reading a lot of secondary sources you are amateur or armchair historian at best.

  ginneyb wrote @

This entry is awesome! It raises some very good questions. Thank you for such a thought provoking post. I work in a library and Fiction vs. Fact is always an issue!

  ginneyb wrote @

Thank you for such a thought provoking entry. I think people throw around the word historian instead of enthusiast to often. No I do not believe a degree makes you an authority. But authors need to be clear about their work represents and readers need to take the responsibility to take a good look at what they are reading and not just accept it at face value.

  missrmjones wrote @

What an interesting thought. The problem with defining a ‘historian’ as an ‘expert’ in history is that expertise in itself is surely a subjective notion? Does having a show on the telly make one an ‘expert’, or does true expertise only come out of Oxbridge (yes, I HAVE heard this openly suggested!). Is there a number of published works one has to have racked up before one can be classed ‘expert’ (two books = amateur, three books = whoa, ‘expert’!).

I’m not sure on this. Not at all. I write quite a bit of non-fiction, and it may be that I know ‘more history’ than someone who is an established historical fiction author. Still, I’m not published- so does that historical fiction writer have a better right, as a PUBLISHED author, to call themselves a ‘historian’ than I do? I would never think to call myself a historian. Or an expert for that matter. I know more than some people, and less than others. I’ve certainly been talked down to by a number of people who claim to be historians, and yet show no more evidence of wide reading on their subject than I do. I do sometimes wonder whether the crux is publication- that one can get away with calling oneself just about anything if you’re published. Perhaps that’s sour grapes on my part, but it can sometimes seem that way. Let’s be honest, if you have a relationship with an established publishing house, they can market your work on whatever way they choose.

I’ve read a bit of Philippa Gregory, and quite a bit of Alison Weir. I enjoyed them both- though I prefer Alison Weir’s non-fiction to her fiction. I don’t believe that historical ‘fiction’ can’t be the province of historical ‘enthusiasts’ (fact fans), but I guess that the beauty of being on the ‘historical fiction’ shelf is that you can miss things out, get things wrong and just say ‘hey, it’s fiction, get off my back!’.

Great blog- thank you!

  missrmjones wrote @

Apologies for my typos, by the way- typing on the wretched ayePhone- not one of my talents!

  Keith Braidwood wrote @

When I was much younger the word historian conjured up an image of a fusty old chap with a beard and glasses, dressed in a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows, poring away over old documents in a dusty library or records office looking for facts about his chosen subject. The key word for me then, and now, is FACTS. Like you I’ve read numerous books about the Tudors, the vast majority of which claim to be factual but do often quote what certain historical figures are supposed to have said. Much of this, I fear, is artistic licence to ensure the book flows. According to that most reliable of sources, Wikipedia, Gregory has never claimed complete accuracy in her novels but only her research based on her understanding of the facts. Arguably ALL historians do this. Records and documents seldom tell the whole story and while the dates, people and much else may be recorded, it is up to the author to bring it together. To do this often requires a free hand to decide what is, in the author’s mind, the most logical story. If you read, say, 10 diffferent ‘factual’ books on Henry VIII you will most probably get 10 different slants on the same story. Whether fact or fiction, I’m sure Gregory, Weir, Starkey et al use original documents and records for their research. Anyone could realistically call themselves an historian if they did the same. Historical novels will continue to be popular for what they are – novels. Ultimately I don’t think an historian needs a degree but any research should be carried out with the same strictness as if they had studied for one. Whether they write an historical novel (such as Gregory) or a more factually accurate book (such as Starkey) with their research is a matter for them alone and it’s up to us, the readers, to decide which we want to read. In the end, historian is just a word like expert or enthusiast. In many cases these are interchangeable.

  Bess Chilver wrote @

A “historian” to me, is someone who is studying, researching and interpreting the evidence of the past in an attempt to find out how people lived, how particular “events” occurred and why. Their findings and analysis are then written down.

Taking this definition at face value, one could use apply it to an historical fiction writer but there is a bit more to it.

The writings and analysis have to be backed up by verifiable fact. Just like the detective has to create a cast iron case of a crime with verifiable fact to ensure conviction (or at least a court hearing), the Historian has to ensure their case and argument is water tight. No assumptions can slip into the work.

The detective has to ensure that their case is watertight as it will be picked apart in the courtroom. Likewise, the historian needs to ensure their work is watertight as it too should be peer reviewed. This doesn’t necessarily mean their work has to be “published” in the sense of it becoming a book on a shop shelf. It just needs to be read over by other historians who also have their work peer reviewed.

No historical fiction writer will have their fictional work peer reviewed by professional (or even amateur) historians. It will only be read by other fictional writers at the most, or by fiction critics – neither groups will have the knowledge or inclination to peer check the facts.
The work, which may draw heavily on fact, is still fiction, because there is less or even no “analysis” of the facts (if the facts are even adhered to) and far more of the personal ideas and assumptions to drive the story forward. Historical accuracy (as in holding firmly to the facts of history as we know them) is not the priority of historical fiction.

Therefore, if a person has only fiction in their publication list, regardless of whether they have or do not have a history degree, or whether they are reading a lot of history, they are NOT an Historian.

They are just a fictional author and it would be nice if the media would stop wheeling them out as if they are proper historians. It just means that the normal reader will assume that the author is a historian “cos the media and the news sites” say so. It is also a tad bit fraudulent to be boasting that one is a Historian when ones work is not being peer reviewed by other specialists in that field. They should stick to calling themselves fictional authors – and be proud of that on its own terms and merits.

  Sharon Eyre (@treblevodka) wrote @

Right then. I do love historical fiction, but as I also love non-fiction I often find myself angered by blatant errors, which has stopped me reading both Weir & Gregory again. Even fictionalised accounts should be based in truth. Tho with Weir I also find her non-fiction riddled with errors.

  SG wrote @

Spot on, Luka.

The primary sources are available all over the internet, even for the Tudor period.

I expect historical fiction will have to link to the sources. If the reader can click on those links and adapt them (maybe enact them) with the publisher’s help, there are lots of possibilities.

  Susan Abernethy wrote @

Excellent discussion and so many good points here. Personally, I agree an Historian is someone who works with primary sources. By the definitions in the original post, I would qualify as a historian but I consider myself an amateur. Historical “facts” are elusive. One can only read the sources and then interpret them. The fact that there are historical “mysteries”, i.e. The Princes in the Tower, are what makes history so fascinating! One other point about historical fiction. When I was young, I read a lot of historical fiction and credit this with my lifelong interest in history. If, by reading fiction, someone becomes interested in reading non-fiction, I say that’s a good thing. The more we can get people interested in history, the better. Everyone can learn so much from history!

  Melanie Taylor wrote @

Being an historian does not make one an expert in all history. I am based in England and teach European Renaissance and Tudor art history as well as write fiction. I find that, for both disciplines, unless you are well researched in both prime and secondary sources your audience will soon find you out.

My first novel “The Truth of the Line” is about Elizabeth I’s artist Nicholas Hilliard and is based on my Master’s dissertation research into the prime source material of the time. I include a blbiliography of both prime and secondary so others can go to the original documents in our various archives, Victoria & Albert Museum and other galleries if they so wish. I feel it is very necessary to state who the fictional characters in your story are, otherwise your readers will never want to read your work again.

Regarding peer review, surely the duty of the history novelist is to entertain from a well researched knowledge base? Their readers are their peer review. Academics are writing is for a totally different audience and once published, then all the other academics will be crawling all over their work.

Dr Gregory has a PhD in English literature and Alison Weir has years of experience of writing, having started out studying to be a teacher majoring in history. Since history is not an exact science and new information comes to light through researches of prime sources, (or perhaps the reinterpretation of the paintings), it would be a shame to condemn either writer. It is not always the academics who come up with the new information.

If books are well researched and inspire people to explore history more, then the novelist has done their work well. If there are blatant holes in the research, their readers will never pick up another one of their novels. If only all writers of historical fiction would include bibliographies, it would make it so much easier to explore their lines of thinking!

Sharon hits the mark regarding the media, whose agenda is not to critique the novel, but to get viewers or readers for their own publications.

A love of history is often given as the reason why a novelist writes. Sometimes it is more – I was driven!

  Kare Michaela wrote @

I have found, that in order for one to apply for employment as a “historian”, it is required that one has a BA in History. (In the U.S. at least). I, personally, tend to take historical fiction with a grain of salt, but still enjoy it immensely.

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