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.