Monday, August 29, 2011

What's alternative?

Recently I finished You Remind Me of Me (2004), Dan Chaon's terrific first novel. (In 2009 he published his second novel, Await Your Reply). When I read novels and story collections I like to browse the acknowledgements pages for curious pieces of information, e.g., where a certain quotation comes from or where a piece first appeared in print or to whom in the author feels particularly indebted. And of course also included in every book of fiction is a reminder to the reader that the book is made up, that the reader should not assume the characters are based on real people or the plot drawn from real world situations. Sometimes this claim is more accurate than others, but it's an unavoidable legal necessity. No author or publisher wants to get sued by a private individual who believes he or she was unjustly represented in the author's novel. And most of the time the statement follows a standard, canned, legalistc pattern. In fact, in many books the statement is exactly the same. But some fiction writers actually compose the statement themselves and take care with it. I was delighted and intrigued when I read the following statement on Chaon's acknowledgements page: "No characters in this novel are based on real people, and I have taken some poetic license with the facts of law, history, medicine, geography, and weather. While there is, in reality, a city named Chicago, the Chicago of this novel, as well as the towns of St. Bonaventure, Nebraksa, Little Bow, South Dakota, and others, exist wholly in an alternate universe of the author's imagination."

Fascinating! That's the first time I've ever seen an author apologize for his treatment of the weather. And of course I ask myself what Chaon means. The novel jumps in time rather energetically, with a total span of four decades. Is it possible that Chaon knows the weather conditions in a given month and year in Nebraska thirty years ago, say, or Chicago, and felt he had to admit that he broke from literal fact? If he actually does know, I admire how carefully he researched his novel. But I also wonder who in the world would criticize him if he took small liberties with recorded weather data. Similarly I wonder what exactly the liberties were that he took with medicine and law and geography. I must say that nothing seems unusual about the geography of the book; nor do the various legal entanglements his characters get themselves into strike me as implausible. Whatever liberties Chaon took, the book is a resoundingly believable work of realistic fiction. Whatever liberties he took, and despite his note on the acknowledgements page, no one would--or should--label You Remind Me of Me as an alternate history.

That label is usually applied to science fiction or historical fiction books in which history has been dramatically and obviously altered. But Chaon's note makes me wonder: Isn't all fiction, given its nature as fiction, an alternate history? Even if one is writing a novel set in the present day, even if the novel is set in one's own home town, when one is writing what one sees inside one's head is the hometown as it exists in one's imagination. That is what's transferred to the page. Of course this remains true--not truer, but equally true--if one's novel is set 30 years ago or 50 or 400. And if all novel writing is a form of alternate history, why then is historical fiction held under such a factually driven microscope? Don't get me wrong. I'm all in favor of historical fictionists carrying out as much research as possible and using the facts of history to dramatic advantage in their works. Or simply as useful, necessary imagery. I am bothered as much as anyone when a writer makes glaring errors, or employs anachronisms, especially if those errors or anachronisms aren't dramatically necessary but the result of writerly sloppiness. But finally we all need to be reminded that the historical novel is a subset not of history writing but of novel writing.

This seems obvious when you set it down--by the way, if you want to get a historian upset, tell him that historical fiction is the same thing as history--but in point of fact many readers and writers expect historical novels to function as history not as storytelling. These readers and writers do not reserve the lable alternate history only for those books that alter history dramatically. I've heard it opined in various conference sessions and blogs that if a historical novel knowingly departs, even a little, from the historical record, the writer can't call it a historical novel but must call it an alternate history. (And clearly this is understood to be the the lesser distinction.) As if the writer doesn't really understand history, or hasn't done her homework or is guilty of being selfish or less than rigorous. This attitude strikes me not only as a little dumb but also unfair. The writer may know her history perfectly well. She may be deeply indebted to that history for not only originating but sustaining and girding her book. She may stick to the "known facts" substantially if incompletely. Just because she departs from known history a bit does not automatically move her novel into some other category. It just means she's writing a novel. It just means she's doing what all fiction writers do: writing from the world of her imagination. Get real, folks. If it's understood that writers of realistic novels set in the present day often need to adjust details of the real world in order for their novels to work structurally and dramatically, there's no reason why we can't allow the same leeway for historical fiction writers.

1 comment:

  1. I had to laugh a little when I read this because it makes me think of science fiction fans, especially the fierce debates that go one within fandom itself (and in saying this, I should admit that I am two Vulcan ears shy of a Star Trek convention...). Whether or not it's considered "valid" writing by anyone outside the fannish community, the verbiage used by those discussing historical fiction (and demanding the use of "alternate history") is not entirely unlike the expectations set by those who would write fanfiction (in certain circles).

    However, I'm curious about those that would criticize a story to the point of requiring every little detail to be accurate - are they concerned the someone might mistake fiction for fact? I can't imagine anyone who would pick up a novel and then reminisce about a made up "great blizzard of 1934". That leaves me wondering though, where is the line? At what point should an author not punch a search into Google at the very least and at what point is it all right to take bit of literary license?