Historical Fiction: Entertaining, Engaging, or Enlightening?

Guest Post by Maryka Biaggio –

Since the July 2023 release of the Barbie and Oppenheimer films (AKA Barbenheimer), I’ve been wondering: Can film and literature be both entertaining and address important social issues? Though these two films couldn’t be more different in terms of gravitas, both deal with historical events and their aftermath—the introduction of Mattel’s Barbie doll in 1959 and the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. This left me wondering: What lessons does Barbenheimer hold for the historical fiction reader and writer?

Historical fiction can certainly entertain: Sarah Water’s Fingersmith and Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers come to mind. But I can think of many historical novels that I wouldn’t describe as entertaining per se, for instance, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Geraldine Brook’s March. I believe readers of these novels would agree that entertainment is not the primary goal of these books. They both address big issues—misguided faith and the life-changing power of ardent belief. It’s likely the authors of these works never set out to entertain, but they certainly do engage the reader and, along the way, examine weighty issues.  

Historical fiction can provide a unique lens to examine social issues and, I argue, lends itself especially well to the examination of thorny matters. For instance, a novel set during the Civil War may explore themes of national disunity and the ravages of war. A novel examining the role of the Catholic Church during Medieval times can provide a window into the Church’s all-encompassing influence on the people of the times. In this way, historical fiction can serve as a mirror to society, reflecting both our triumphs and our mistakes and allowing us to ponder possible lessons for the present.

Historical fiction also allows authors to tackle complex social issues without being constrained by current realities or political pressures. This creative freedom gives writers license to delve deeply into the emotions and psyches of characters, thereby providing readers with an understanding of the human experience in different historical contexts. This can foster a deeper connection between readers and the characters portrayed and a sense of shared humanity and challenges across time and culture.

I believe historical fiction possesses the remarkable ability to examine serious social issues while also engaging readers. By breathing life into historical moments and characters, the genre allows authors to present multifaceted perspectives on human experiences and also encourages readers to reflect on social issues. As readers journey through narratives set against historical backdrops, they may find themselves both engaged and enlightened. Just as the films Barbie and Oppenheimer allow us to reflect, with the benefit of the passage of time, on the impact of the idealized Barbie doll and the introduction of the atomic bomb, so too does historical fiction provide a window into how the past affects the present. Historical fiction continues to be a valuable tool in addressing challenges to humanity while also providing an escape into the annals of time.

Maryka Biaggio is a psychology professor turned novelist who specializes in historical fiction based on real people. She loves unearthing the stories of people overlooked by history and bringing them back to life—portraying their challenges and foibles and rekindling their emotional world. Doubleday published her debut novel, PARLOR GAMES, in 2013. Her second novel, EDEN WAITS, was published by Milford House Press in 2019. In 2021, Milford House Press released THE POINT OF VANISHING and in 2022 THE MODEL SPY. Her fiction has won several accolades, including Willamette Writers Award, Oregon Writers Colony Award, Historical Novel Society Review Editors’ Choice, La Belle Lettre Award, a U.P. Notable Books Award (U.P. is the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), and a Regional Arts & Council grant. She has served on the Board of the Historical Novel Society North America Conference since 2015. She’s an avid opera fan and enjoys gardening, art films, and, of course, great fiction. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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