Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Ethics of Writing Historical Figures

A great deal of historical fiction focuses on real people and imagining what their lives might have been like. I've always found the ethics of writing about real people fascinating. Is it okay to imagine a whole life based on scant historical detail? Is it okay to interpret events in a less than favorable way, one that casts a negative light on people that really existed--whose descendents still walk the earth. My interest in this topic was first sparked when I watched the movie An American Haunting. I watched the movie and went to the internet to search facts since I hadn't heard that particular interpretation when hearing the story of the Bell witch. My quick research indicated that the claims the movie made were unfounded...there really wasn't evidence to suggest things happened that way. I felt uncomfortable with the idea of writing a story that maligned the memories of these people. I've even asked authors to comment on this issue in the past.

I started thinking about this again yesterday when I saw Read Roger's response to Jezebel's frustration with a new historical fiction
account of Peter van Pels from the Anne Frank diary. Apparently there was some question that there was a sex scene in the book, Annexed by Sharon Dogar, and the columnist was outraged.
Several people brought up the question of why even write a historical fiction account of this person. I have a few thoughts on this, but it should be noted that it's been years since I read the diary of Anne Frank and I remember very little.

My first thought is that writing a historical account of Peter is absolutely fair game. Fictionalized sensational tales exists about all sorts of people--from the American Haunting story I told above to stories of Jesus being married with children. The way Peter died was horrendously tragic, but I'm not sure that exempts him from having a fictionalized account told. Furthermore, those who have read the book feel it is respectful to the original diary. I think in many ways it could be quite helpful, in giving us space to imagine another perspective and a different set of circumstances. Having said that, if the idea makes you uncomfortable, don't read it.

My second question has to do with why a sex scene is bothersome. For me personally, yes I see this. I wouldn't want to read it, but that's fairly consistent with my other reading tastes. But unless the idea is that this book was written with sex to sensationalize and use these real people for the purpose of money, I would have a problem with that. But I don't think that this book is intending to replace The Diary of Anne Frank but rather serve as a companion and to give us insight into our lives the way only fiction can.

I'm fairly conservative in regards to these things, so I guess I'm just surprised by the fact that I can't get worked up one way or the other about this. I think it all lies in the intent...if the story told is respectful of the Peter's situation and feels real, if it humanizes to a greater degree the victims of the Holocaust and of war itself than there may be no harm done. I'm going to reserve judgment, as
I always think is best, until I've read the book.

What do you think about this? Will you read Annexed? Have you read any fictionalized accounts of people that bothered you?

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