- Historic Sites
Our most popular practitioner of the art speaks of the challenges and rewards of writing
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
The urgings have come from the heads of nations, the governors of states, and the mayors of cities as well as from private citizens. Indeed, I have sometimes kept two secretaries busy explaining that a writer cannot tackle any subject that may arise but only those with which he feels a deep affinity and on which he has some expertise. A good 95 per cent of the suggestions that reach my desk are irrelevant, because I would not begin to have the knowledge required to treat them.
The problem can be visualized in this way: Suppose that tomorrow an event of shattering importance were to occur in Tibet. It would not be preposterous for someone to propose that I write about it, nor would it be ridiculous for me to accept, because during the past forty years I have done an immense amount of work in Asia. I would already have in mind the history of Tibet, its geography, religion, economic structure, and general patterns of living. I would have seen the terrain from Kashmir, from Gilgit, from Skardu, from the Indian border, from the Russian border with Sinkiang, and from Nepal. More important, I would know the long history of Iran, Afghanistan, India, China, and Russia-in-Asia, so that whatever was happening in Tibet would have rich historical precedents in these neighboring nations. Specifically, I would know who had been ruling in these countries at any specific moment over a period of several thousand years and would, in short, have a rich and varied cognitive base against which to judge events in Tibet.
I would think that three months of intensive work would equip me to start thinking creatively about Tibet, because I would previously have done nine-tenths of the work and hammered out nine-tenths of the necessary understandings. My background knowledge of Tibet and its international setting would prove to be enormous, because that’s what education on the spot gives a writer.
Now let’s suppose that an event of even greater world-wide importance were to occur in Paraguay. Because I speak Spanish and have written on Spanish history, I am sure that some publisher would propose that I write an account of these crushing affairs. But I would be totally incapable of doing so, not because of any lack of interest but because I had not, during the past thirty years, done my homework.
The publisher would be misguided to offer me such a commission; I would be idiotic if I accepted. My knowledge of Paraguay would be so deficient that no amount of catch-up study would qualify me. I could not repair in a few months the oversight of a lifetime.
Consider how defenseless I would be. I would not know the history of Paraguay, and what might be even more disqualifying, I would not know the history of its surrounding neighbors: Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia. Take any given date during the past two hundred years, and I would not know who was ruling in Brazil, or Bolivia, or Paraguay itself. I would not know the nuances of the border disputes or the peculiarities of the regional religions or the economic interrelationships existing among the surrounding countries. In short, in writing about the real causes of the Paraguayan crisis, I would be quite incompetent.
Most writers of historical novels are as well prepared on their chosen subjects as I would be on Tibet. Most avoid subjects on which they are as poorly prepared as I would be on Paraguay. Therefore, the reader acquires from a well-written novel a sense of historical reality and occasionally insights that are either compellingly beautiful or staggeringly relevant.
I cannot accept blanket condemnations of this field, because it is obvious to me that much of the world’s great literature falls into this genre. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are historical novels in epic verse, and every stricture that can be laid against Tolstoi’s War and Peace can be thrown against them. They re-create important segments of Greek history. They presume to cite the behavior of real human prototypes. They inquire into the motives of gods and goddesses. And they report historical events.
The great Greek dramas that depict the fall of the house of Atreus are of the same character, as are the Norse Eddas. In fact, the heroic legends of most nations fall within this category, and they do so for a good reason. People want to know how the values of their society evolved, and this can be known only when perceptive writers look back upon a sequence of events and organize them to provide insight and meaning.
The perfect historical novel is the Bible. Even the New Testament looks back upon events that happened generations before, selecting, rejecting, emphasizing, and giving added moral weight to occurrences that might otherwise have been forgotten or have lost their significance.