It doesn’t happen often, but today I am really pissed off.
Last week, we spoke at some length about bending the ‘truth’ in historical fiction. I believe we reached a sort of consensus that if an historical author messes with known facts then they should say so in the foreword or afterword. I totally agree with this.
But there was also quite a bit of discussion about the nature of historical truth; for example, sometimes we know what happened – someone murdered the princes in the tower, for example – but we can’t be sure who. Or historical record tells us what people did, it doesn’t tell us why.
Most pertinently, a person’s character is purely subjective; whether they are an historical identity, or one of our own friends.
Our ‘life of the party’ can be an overbearing boor to someone else; we may find someone quiet and dull, while another may discover unimagined depths. It’s not fact; it’s just point of view.
This is basic human nature, something that seems utterly lost on certain Amazon reviewers.
I have a novella I recently published online called The House of Special Purpose. It’s the prequel to my novel ANASTASIA, and it’s so thoroughly researched that I was a bit wary of even posting it as fiction.
Yet a reviewer recently one-starred the book for its poor research. Whoah. Back up the truck!
Why? She said I had painted the four princesses as spoiled and arrogant when the reviewer pointed out they ate bread and butter for breakfast and slept in camp beds.
There are so many things wrong with this statement I just don’t know where to begin.
Numero uno: I only characterised Anastasia as spoiled and arrogant. And think a moment; eating bread and butter and sleeping in camp beds is actually bizarre behaviour for a royal family who holidays regularly on a 55000 ton private yacht, and whose children have wigwams in their private playroom and wear real jewels.
They were curious people. Czar Nicholas was present at one of the deadliest battles in the first world war; his men were dying all around him in their thousands every day and the main topic of his personal diaries was the weather.
Now don’t you think it’s fair to extrapolate from this information that this might not be a completely functional family? That perhaps these girls might not be the lost and romantic princesses we’d probably like them to be?
My reviewer called Anastasia just a ‘fllibberty-gibbet’ (sic); in my reading of the material she was a precocious little bitch.
I might be wrong. That’s why I called this fiction. But I didn’t come to this conclusion out of thin air. I reasoned it out and I think it’s fair to take that point of view historically; certainly many of her contemporaries – some of them close relatives – disliked her intensely.
And she was, after all, a teenager.
Now I never ever respond to reviews. If you review – and there are so many really good reviewers out there, most of them have blogs – please feel free to take me to task for my technique or my biographical and historical knowledge, if you see that it’s lacking. Just don’t impugn my work ethic or my intelligence.
When someone accuses me of being lazy, when I have to do so much reading for every book (the task that I enjoy the least) then you’d better be a damn long way away from me when you make that criticism.
This is some of what I said in my email to the reviewer:
I have no problem at all with your criticism of my portrayal of the Romanov sisters. But I note that you actually took issue with my research … as it is a favorite historical period of yours, you will note the presence of Botkin and Gilliard on my reading list. Books such as these were not easy to track down but I do visit the British Library on a more or less annual basis and I believe I read them there.
The list here is not a complete one, for it formed only part of my research for a full novel, called ANASTASIA, which was widely praised on its release for the depth of its research by reviewers on all the nationals here. (‘Falconer’s grasp of period and places is almost flawless … He’s my kind of writer.’ – Peter Corris, The Australian.)
I accept that you personally dislike my portrayal of the Romanov sisters (although your statement that Anastasia was the best loved of the sisters would bear closer examination). But once you have read each of the attached seventeen books (my backgrounding for a fifty page novella), and if you think I have grossly ignored these sources for the sake of effect, then take me to task on my research. My take on the sisters and their attitudes may have disappointed you, but that is not the same thing as ignoring due diligence in researching an historical novel.”
The point is this: if your novelist gets their facts wrong, by all means point them out. (I make mistakes and I get emails about them, so I know what they are *slaps forehead*) and gladly they don’t happen too often. But I’m human, I slip up occasionally.
But I don’t think it is just to go for an historical author’s jugular because they have come to a different conclusion about an historical figure’s character. Extrapolating is the name of the game.
If anyone would like to draw their own conclusions I’ll get Cool Gus to send you a review copy. If you’d like to see my partial reading list (17 books for a novella) then I’ll be happy to forward it to you as well.
If you’d like to comment on this post don’t make it personal to my little rant here. I’m not looking for sympathy, and I’ll have forgotten all about this tomorrow. What interests me is the broader argument that we started last week.
Incidentally, I’ve never seen a reviewer with a proper blog pull this sort of nonsense; without exception they understand historical perspective and come to a subject without bias.
Now I’ll stand back on this one. But by all means everyone, have your say! I’ve said my piece – and will now keep my peace …