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Historical Novels: The Readers’ Turn

June 2024
1min read

Daniel Aaron is right when he suggests in his essay “What Can You Learn from a Historical Novel?” that the interest that readers may have in certain novels might awake, and feed, their interest in history. But his use of the term historical novel is too narrow.

The Vidal and DeLillo books that Aaron cites are not appropriate. These writers are interested in history, sometimes deeply so; but their creations are flawed, as they are confections of a transitory, and sometimes fraudulent, genre that people might accept for “history” (as also happens with many films). Tolstoy once wrote that the historian is a frustrated novelist. In our times, and surely in the case of the above-mentioned writers, novelists may be frustrated historians.

Aaron is right when he says that historians ought to write better than most of them do, and that they ought to do more than write only for other historians. But when he says “good writers write the kind of history good historians can’t or don’t write,” he is wrong. History that is not well written cannot be good history.

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