"There Is No Official Transcript": Fictional Biography and Historical Accuracy

I both read and write a lot of fictional biography (or biographical fiction, if you’re on that side of the trekkie/trekker-esque debate). This is a rich, wonderful genre that authors choose to work in for countless reasons—some trending towards something that’s close to historical fandom; some close to revenge or reclamation narratives; most, of course, somewhere in between. When I’m moved to write fictional biography (there’s a bunch of it listed here, if you’re interested—and thanks for reading!), it tends to be because of a minor player in history, or else a major player’s downfall—there’s something very compelling about figures who haven’t had the legacy they seemed to hope for. When you learn about a historical figure—whether famous, infamous, or neither—who grabs you, when you can’t stop thinking about a person or event…well, if you happen to be a fiction writer, there’s a natural progression to trying to work out whatever seems so profound to you about this person in writing. I’ve talked to other authors who work often in this genre about the process, and they’ve largely agreed that each work starts with obsession—that, as one writer I know put it, “in order to write good fiction about a real person, you have to be at least a little bit in love with them.” 

I’d agree with this, and I’m comfortable alleging that some kind of love or at least obsession is evident in any really great work of fictional biography. But of course, this can lead to problems as often, sometimes simultaneously in the same work, as it leads to greatness. Being a fan and student of this genre, among much else, means periodically breaking out the popcorn—or, let’s be real, vehemently taking a side—for a debate about how “accurate” a given work is, whether it’s faithful to the facts or biased or just (gasp) made up. And, of course, the meta-question about whether any of that matters, case by case. This gets increasingly interesting as different readers with different backgrounds and different dogs in the fight start weighing in. Genres bleed into each other, and sometimes draw blood on purpose. So many different kinds of writing impersonating one another; fiction passing for history, creative nonfiction for journalism—and who’s to say whether it’s intentional or even, depending on the context, problematic. Remember A Million Little Pieces? Or The Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata’s battle with his fact-checker over whether he should be allowed to include invented “artistic” details in his supposedly nonfictional reportage because “sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.” Is there a difference between truth and accuracy, and if so who gets to decide where it is? And is the answer to those questions different for an “essay” than it is for “journalism”? Oof.

This is looming especially large in my mind this week for a few reasons. For one, the buzz for Hamilton has finally gotten loud enough that it’s attracting Hot Takes, which is a probably too-mean way to refer to the think pieces that are spiraling in all directions and from all directions. Including one from The New York Times, in which Jannifer Schuessler brings in historians to put Hamilton on blast for leaving things out, making Alexander Hamilton look like a better person than he really was, and generally ducking “serious criticism” so far for its blatant fudging of history.

This is an inevitable conversation, and a good one to have. We should always be feeling for the seams between genres, because that’s the only way to do the important work of negotiating them. But I’m of a mind to agree with Aja Romano’s response to the NYT piece for Vox (as I join the spiral)—“Hamilton is fanfic.” By this model, telling the story of Alexander Hamilton is transformation, not reportage. The play is, in Romano’s words, “a liminal space in which fans and performers talk back to historicity itself.” The “inaccuracies” are part of the point, because this isn’t (just) a historical work—it’s reclamation narrative, by some of the people who were written out of the old version. (In less pretentious circles than literary blogging, this is called “fix-it fandom.”)

I’m a big fan of this idea. I don’t think it’s out of line to call all fictional biography, maybe all fiction, a kind of fanfiction. It’d be a bold claim, but I’d hear it out—I see adaptations and pastiches most places I look. And with shows like Cats coming back to Broadway in the near future, it seems odd to draw a hard line for realism under Hamilton. But on the other hand…there does have to be a line, right? “Fictional Biography” and “Creative Nonfiction” are not blank checks on artistic liberties. John D’Agata leaves a sour taste in our mouths. We excommunicated James Frey. And yet when we read a historical novel that is truly lovely—something that feels true, because it’s profound and masterful—we’re at most a little crestfallen if it turns out to be less than textbook accurate. Well, I suppose I can’t speak for the historians quoted in the Times. But I think it comes down to the contract with the reader—the implied promises an author or playwright is making when the cover opens or the curtain goes up; the terms they’re pledging in return for the audience’s careful attention.

When I taught Sherlock Holmes, I used to make my students “solve” “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” withholding the big-reveal final paragraphs until everyone had guessed. It’s a short Holmes mystery that hinges, I can say without revealing spoilers, on a number of twists that are completely unprepared for in the text—several of which are also physically impossible, if you know anything about how snakes work. (Okay, some spoilers. You guys have had a long time to read this thing.) Students were always livid at Conan Doyle for the lazy ending—but hardly ever because he violated the rules of science. After all, this was a mystery story. Why would they demand an accurate biology lesson from him? The anger came from ACD violating the “rules,” the implied contract with the reader, of detective fiction. Reading a mystery, we expect that a careful reader—maybe a genius reader, if the author is really good—can solve it before the end. Even if we don’t want to succeed, we want to know we could have. It’s complicated, and a little irrational, and maybe it’s no surprise that even the greats mess up sometimes.

(It’s worth noting that 20,000 public school students are headed to Hamilton through an education initiative, which ups the need for clarification of its historical tweaks and liberties in the classroom. But lest the NYT forget: when I was in middle school the historical musical we were seeing for “educational purposes” was 1776, so you know what, everything’s fine.)

Wise closing thoughts come from the second reason this is on my mind this week—the great Hilary Mantel. I just read Bring Up the Bodies—together with Wolf Hall, the novelization of the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn. (And a lot else, but you probably already know the deal.) In her author’s note, Mantel notes that evidence about this period of history is “complex and sometimes contradictory; the sources are often dubious, tainted and after-the-fact.” She says, “I am not claiming authority for my version; I am making the reader a proposal, an offer.” Anne Boleyn, along with the other characters in Bring Up the Bodies, “is still changing centuries after her death, carrying the projections of those who read and write about her.”

I quote Mantel with so little tap-dancing of my own around her words because I think they’re wonderful—basically the ephemeral “contract with the reader,” written out. As she notes, “there is no official transcript” of Anne’s trial. And no work of fictional biography seeks, or should seek, to be an official transcript. This is something different than history; sometimes, it can be something more.