Babble about Bibliographies

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…”

5 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction, Reading, Writing

5 responses to “Babble about Bibliographies

  1. Susan Cooper included short bibliographies with both Victory and King of Shadows – which I was very pleased to see. Similarly, Nancy Farmer includes one with The Sea of Trolls. As an adult, I appreciate them – and having been the sort of child who looked things up endlessly, I know I’d have appreciated them as a child reader too…

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  2. I get the sense that the Norman Mailer novel-with-bibliography that started this discussion in the NY Times carries the message, “Marvel at all the research I’ve done, you 97-pound book reviewers!” rather than “Here are some further books you readers might find interesting.”

    One resource few authors and publishers are using to its full extent is the internet. A bibliography or notes or other apparatus can be made available to the reading public for very little additional money as long as it’s not printed on paper.

    And what about print-on-demand publishing? Imagine a history written with rigorous scholarship but at a popular level. The publisher could keep down its costs while not scaring off non-scholarly readers by issuing two volumes: the main text with some supporting material, and a supplemental print-on-demand volume for scholars and libraries with all the notes, annotated bibliography, and appendices anyone could want. That system might even have the additional benefit of allowing a reader to keep the text and notes open at the same time.

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  3. Why I like notes and bibs, especially in historic fiction: I usually want to know more of the story; and as a kid, had a devil of a time finding out “whether its true”. I get so happy when I see that I can just go to the end to know what is real, what was made up, further reading.

    Why I like to know: yes, I know its all fiction. But (right or wrong) I believe the book. If I find out later that something Real was changed by the author I feel a bit let down & betrayed, almost. LIke I’ve been lied to. And that “its all fiction” just means I cannot rely on anything in a work of historic fiction so why not call it fantasy?

    Speaking of, I don’t need that type of note in fantasy that is historical, because from the start I know that things have been changed (like the recent Blue Bloods — of course things are different, its a world of vampires!)

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  4. Liz B, I actually like the info even when it is fantasy. I’m a huge Joan Aiken fan and, not being too up on British history, was curious (but too lazy to check) how she was fiddling around with the real stuff in her Dido Twite books. And Michele reminded me of Nancey Farmer’s Sea of Trolls, a fantasy with a very extensive bibliography at the end.

    JL, I think what you are suggesting might be completely overwhelming for a children’s work of fiction — unless the format is different. I’d love, for example, to see more done with movable/pop-up books, say the Ology books which kids love. I always feel it is unfortunate that they don’t have bibliographies which makes their information ultimately not dependable.

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  5. Tobin Anderson

    Very interesting discussion!

    My editor and I talked about having a bibliography for the first volume of Octavian, but we both agreed that it would be better just to post an on-line one after the second volume came out. I want the information to be available to kids — especially about some of the little-discussed episodes of the Revolutionary War that are mentioned in the second volume of the book — but I didn’t want to give an impression of some kind of reading list full of weight and duty.

    I did also think it was very important to point out to the readers, however, that within the scope of a single set of characters, one can’t possibly represent the full scope of what was going on at the time … and that, to me, is the danger with using historical novels to teach history (at least, if they’re not accompanied by other texts). You mention this in your post, Monica. The problem, to me, is this: Not only are you dealing with the WRITER’S take on events — but you’re dealing with the CHARACTER’S take on events. And a large part of many earth-changing historical events for those present is confusion, misinformation, hope, ignorance, rumor … We are still sorting out which side truly fired “the Shot Heard Round the World.” (And there’s a case, incidentally, where a novelist writing about that event might well have to choose — and so falsify by giving too CLEAR a picture of events!)

    — mta

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