Evidently Norman Mailer has provided a 126 title bibliography for his new novel, The Castle in the Forest, causing such a stir in the book world that the venerable New York Times weighed in with an editorial yesterday, concluding:
But readers of, say, William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central have every reason to be grateful for his lengthy bibliography — not as a talisman against plagiarism or a sign of his own learning but as a guide to further reading. In fact, the only real risk we see in a bibliography for a novel is that it will come to be a kind of obligatory disclosure. As far as we’re concerned, novelists are obliged to disclose nothing besides the art of the stories they have to tell.
Hmm…and so how about fiction for young people? Ideally I’d say, no difference. However, in the case of historical fiction, I’m on the fence. I’ve written and spoken frequently about my ambivalence on using these books to teach and learn history. But so many people do promote and encourage educators to use these books in just this way — to inspire, excite, and promote an interest in a particular historical event or period. Because of this and because of my own personal passion for the teaching and learning of history I can’t help but wonder about the research behind such books.
In some cases a bibliography may actually hurt a work of fiction. Some time back, in a bookstore, I looked at the bibliography of a new historical fiction work for children on a topic I know a lot about. The bibliography was so problematic that I was completely put off the book, didn’t buy it, and have yet to read it despite the generally favorable and sometimes glowing reviews.
While I admit that the lack of any sort of information about the author’s research makes me uneasy, I don’t necessarily need an an extensive bibliography for reassurance. Here are how the authors of four recent books of historical fiction I admire do it.
First up is Julius Lester’s Day of Tears. This highly original and moving work is based on a real event, the facts of which seem hard to imagine today and so I appreciate the details and list of references Lester provides in his author’s note. The references are solid, mostly primary sources, and reassure me that he got the details right.
Next in the pile is M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. I’ve already written here about my admiration for this book which gives every impression of being meticulously researched, reinforced by the author’s note. Yet Anderson has made a presumably deliberate decision to forgo a bibliography or any specific references and ends his author note by advising readers, “The origin of the Revolution is fascinating and I recommend that those interested in exploring it further go beyond my brief precis of circumstances to examine the documents themselves and historians’ interpretations of these momentous events.”
My third book is Alan Gratz’s Samurai Shortstop. I was completely drawn into this intense story about life in a late nineteenth century Japanese boarding school. Knowing nothing about the topic I greatly appreciated the author’s extensive notes and bibliography at the end. Without them I suspect I’d have been left uneasy about the historical underpinnings of the book.
My final book is Katherine Sturtevant’s A True and Faithful Narrative which regular blog readers know I adore. While the author does not provide a bibliography in her author’s note, she does provide some primary source references and a sense that, like the others mentioned here, she did copious research.
Interesting, right? One tentative conclusion for me is that novels that take place in unfamiliar cultures and/or involve controversial and sensitive topics work better for me when I’m assured via an author note that the authors have done ample research. Readers, young and old, who want to know more about the history they encounter in a work of fiction should take Anderson’s advice to heart; that is, they should seek out and then “…examine the documents themselves and historians’ interpretations of these momentous events…”