Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Historical Fiction vs. Nonfiction

I have just finished cataloging my collection of 86 Civil War Novels. Over the years I’ve listened to, read and watched more than a few interviews with authors of Civil War nonfiction and often heard many of them say “I never (or rarely) read novels. I just don’t have the time.” Often I get the feeling what they are really wanting to say is “I never read novels… they are beneath me.”

I find tremendous pleasure by settling down into my reading chair (and yes, I looked for 3 weeks to find just the perfect chair) to read a great historical novel. Historical fiction can do things that historical nonfiction cannot. A great novel can transport its reader backward in time, and place the reader into history, while in nonfiction the reader is often detached from the story and is relegated to merely being an observer of the described events.

Novels take you inside their characters heads and hearts. Often you experience the world as a character experiences it. As a reader you know the character’s motivations, and their inner thoughts as well as being able to see their actions from a distance. While reading a novel, the reader becomes intimately familiar with all the characters, and identifies with them, heroes, heroines and villains alike. The reader lives vicariously through the author’s characters and experiences the same, joys and fears, triumphs and tragedies.

Historical novels can take a complicated and multifaceted subject, such as the events that lead up to the outbreak of the American Civil War, and through their many characters, explore the topic from any different vantages and view points.

Nonfiction works often keep a reader at an arm’s length from the topic… there is a certain detachment the reader has while reading nonfiction. An author of nonfiction is like a detective rooting out the details of a case. The author can only relay to his reader what can be documented, and then analyze and interpret the facts for his reader.

Which do I find more rewarding to read? It’s a toss up. I find myself being drawn to nonfiction because I want to learn. On the other hand, I love a good historical novel

No comments: