Rant on Non-Fiction History Books

A couple of days ago, there was a discussion on the blogs of Kathryn Warner and Karen Clark on the depiction of history and historical characters in fact and fiction. Inspired by these posts, and in response to the so-called “non-fiction” book I am reading, I decided to set down a further nine points with respect to non-fiction, from the point of view of a reader, learner, and history enthusiast. I am neither a historian, nor a writer. But I know how to read, and I know what I enjoy. I make no claims to superior knowledge. The following points basically stem from my needs when I read a non-fiction book. And I honestly think that since every second history enthusiast is now writing books for the mainstream media, they could, at the very least, be honest in their writing. So here goes …

1)      You don’t know what someone is thinking. Ever. Unless there is a primary record stating that the person was feeling such and such emotion, do not ascribe it to them. It is shoddy work to assume that the historical person you like was feeling ‘benevolent’ and the one you don’t like was feeling jealous.

2)      If there is not much known about someone, don’t write a book on them. Do not write pages and pages of assumption and hypothesis based on your view of the person. You can always write an article with just the facts unearthed, or a historical novel based on the person presenting your view.

3)      Do not call people names. You may not like them, or what they did, and you have a right to your opinion. But putting that down in a non-fiction book by calling them names like ‘spiteful’ or ‘tyrant’ is unprofessional and only makes the author look bigoted and stupid. Everyone is entitled to a fair hearing in the court of history.

4)      Don’t fill in the gaps. You have marketed your book as a non-fiction or biography, and that means you owe it to your readers to give them facts. If something is not known, you can just say that. An intelligent assumption is only applicable in cases where (a) you have taken every factor into consideration and (b) there really is no other way of looking at it.

5)      There is absolutely no need to be discovering new historical facts with every book. A large number of history enthusiasts will still read books without your resorting to such blatant misrepresentation. History is really not about ‘new’ facts.

6)      If you are not a historian, please don’t claim that you are in the blurb. It is wrong. Authors who do scholarly work without being historians can get fame too. It is annoying when shoddy work by novelists get acclaimed as ‘history’.

7)      Nothing puts readers off than bad grammar or orthography. Get a good editor or edit it yourself, because your readers are not stupid.

8)      PLEASE do not give 21st century moral values to historical characters. They lived in the past, and the past is a different country with an entirely different value system. Try to understand the circumstances, the mentality, the public opinion of the times, and write accordingly. ‘Wrong is wrong’ does not apply to history.

9)      Provide detailed resources if you want to be taken seriously. Even if you are not inclined to provide footnotes because your target market is not the academia, people would still like to know where you get information from. Do not just run away with storytelling.

Readers understand that authors are only human, and are likely to make mistakes, but there is a fine line between genuine mistakes and faulty interpretation, and slipshod and biased work. Crossing the line will push your readers into rejecting you. I hope at least someone takes notice!

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10 thoughts on “Rant on Non-Fiction History Books

  1. Great post! I would add a few.

    Don’t regurgitate what other secondary sources have said without checking to see if there is an actual basis for what’s being asserted.

    Don’t present rumor or speculation as fact.

    Don’t quote selectively or leave out important details to support your argument.

    Don’t tackle a research project that requires resources you have no access to and then blame any shortcomings on your lack of access to those resources.

    • Ooh yes! Yes, yes, yes! Selective quoting makes me sooo angry.

      And I am sure if you make some effort, resources can be made available. But I have often seen people too lazy to make the effort!

      Thanks for the nice points.

  2. 5 is spot on. There aren’t many new facts because…well, there aren’t that many facts at all, really. That’s what bugs me about historians – their facts are only other people’s opinions, however far back you go.
    Nice one.

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