Historical Fiction and Ethics (Discussion)

Related imageRecently, I tried reading Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. It is historical fiction told from the perspective of an SS officer who is living in hiding post-Holocaust. It is, as you can imagine, an incredibly disturbing book. Reviewers claim that it is the most disturbing book they’ve ever read. That’s as it should be. The SS officer narrating the story lives without remorse. Littell does not make him a sympathetic character. Kindly Ones does not in any way romanticize the Holocaust. Still, despite all the awards it has won in France (it was written originally in French as Les Bienveillantes), I could not get past page 50. I put it aside for ethical reasons.

In general, I avoid historical fiction set during the Holocaust (or any genocide for that matter). It’s only while reading Kindly Ones did I realize that I have ethical issues with reading certain kinds of historical fiction. I have no problem reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel or Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (because those events happened so many hundreds of years ago), but The Titanic rubbed me in the wrong way and I have no interest in reading The Boy in the Striped Pajama.

I am aware that not everyone feels the same about historical fiction. I went to a high school that had a fairly large Jewish student body. Many of my Jewish friends loved reading historical fiction set during the Holocaust. In fact, Holocaust survivors such as Elie Wiesel have written Holocaust novels. I saw two in the library today. For many Jews, Holocaust fiction is one of the ways in which they keep alive the memory of this atrocity. It helps them tell their story.

But I’m not Jewish. I feel uncomfortable reading Holocaust fiction (or consuming any fiction based on a tragedy) because it’s not my story. I feel like I’m profiting from someone else’s suffering. It feels even more problematic when the fiction is about an evil person. I was enraged when Zero Dark Thirty came out about a mission to kill Osama bin Laden. But even the most respectfully-produced historical fiction written by a person associated with the tragic event under consideration feels wrong to me because I am not of that group. If I want to understand the Holocaust, I read non-fiction/autobiographies, watch documentaries and/or visit Holocaust museums. As a person who is not Jewish I worry that in reading fiction (which is made up) I’m finding entertainment in an event that caused so many people suffering. The Holocaust does unfortunately tell us something about humanity, but should the Holocaust be fodder for exploring human nature? Historical fiction makes a tragedy or an atrocity in a way necessary. There would have been no Titanic movie (the highest grossing film of all time) if 1,517 people had not died on the Titanic. It’s the fictional elements that bother me. I’m sure there were romances during the Holocaust, but reading a Holocaust novel with a romance feels wrong.

I’ve put off reading so many excellent books because of my ethical concerns about certain types of historical fiction. Even “own voices” historical fiction makes me uncomfortable. I don’t ever want to “enjoy” Holocaust fiction.

But I know that not everyone feels the same way. Some feel that Holocaust fiction has an important educational value. But I wonder what you all think. Especially those of you who do not belong to groups that have historically been marginalized and/or who are not survivors of a tragedy.

What are your thoughts? Are there types of historical fiction that you won’t read? Do you avoid historical fiction altogether?

To be clear, this is not about censorship. I am not concerned with what is being produced but whether or not I personally want to consume it.

12 thoughts on “Historical Fiction and Ethics (Discussion)”

  1. Good point.

    This year I read Night, but Wiesel, bit it’s not fiction. I also read the non fiction book The Hidden Place.

    I benefited from both, oh, and specially the other non fiction about North Korea, Nothing to Envy. And the amazing non fiction, The Boys in the Boat. All those reads were very hard, but not without hope or beauty, not entertaining, but very informing and human.

    I find myself not liking historical fiction that much anymore. I have never watched Titanic, simply because, strange as it may sound, it didn’t interest me. I got to visit a remarkable exhibition of the Titanic though.

    I read The Boy…, and nothing to enjoy, it was a devastating read.

    I understand your choice, actually, I think similarly about it.

  2. I don’t like historical fiction and I tend to give it little or no thought – which may not be fair. I’ve been offered books that others have loved, and I have had zero interest. I have read historical fiction – especially juvenile – and I have never enjoyed it. It may be b/c I tend to lean toward realism, and I embrace first accounts and personal experiences from those who “were there” or saw first hand. That means so much more to me than an author who “fills in the blanks” or makes up characters and sets then into an historical setting. However, I think I prefer a film version of historical fiction than a book. I think I tolerate it better on screen.

    1. I would like to watch a historical fiction miniseries and see how I feel about that. But in general, I avoid fiction set in recent history. Fiction set in the Middle Ages? I’m game. It’s strange but I probably just go with my gut.

  3. difficult to know where to draw the line – is it by the passage of time thats elapsed as you suggest? or is it some form of personal connection as you mention (the number of class mates of Jewish faith)? But that doesn’t explain your aversion to book dealing with the Titanic. Maybe there is no clear rationale we have to follow, just our instincts. I dont have any no go areas myself but then i dont read purely to be entertained but also to learn.

    1. I think you’re right. I go by my instincts. My brother told me yesterday that a plus of historical fiction is that the world comes already made, and the reader already knows something about the event, so not a lot of “world building” is necessary. I didn’t think of that before. Of course, I’m quite the hypocrite because I have no problem with historical fiction set in the Middle Ages, and there was a whole lot of violence then.

    2. I like that, follow our informed reading instincts. (I don’t read for entertainment, yet that entertaining -or not- quality plays a role. For example, everyone raves about The Nightingale, but I think it’s a cheap exploit of WWII. I may also be more demanding with historic fiction of some periods.

      As I type this, there’s also cheap exploits of the Middle Ages, etc. I just simply prefer well written non fiction for history. Some non fiction books are very literary, they read like novels, but they are keep closer to research and facts than fiction.

  4. This is a very good blog post. Even though I read alot of historical fiction, I haven’t analyzed my reading habits. I read it both for education and entertainment. But this post has made me consider my choices and be more informed about my choices. You’re right about needing to read nonfiction books as well because fiction does write with a flair for drama. Thank you!

    1. I honestly wish I could read certain works of historical fiction, but I can never get into them because it feels wrong for me to read them.

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