Theoretical and Ideological Issues in Historical Fiction

Posted on June 21, 2019

One-day conference organized by the Laboratoire de recherches sur les cultures anglophones (LARCA UMR 8225), Université Paris Diderot, with support from the University of Liverpool.

Coordinators: Laurence Cros and Marie-Jeanne Rossignol

Venue : Olympe de Gouges, Place Paul Ricoeur 75013 Paris, 2nd floor, room 255

This one-day conference is part of a larger project entitled “Taking a closer look at historical fiction” and conducted by an interdisciplinary team from the LARCA of Université Paris Diderot. It will be carried out from 2019 to 2021 through a series of thematic conferences, a cycle of projections of historical films and TV shows, as well as seminar sessions.

More information and provisional schedule:

Detailed program of the June 21st conference

This opening conference aims at taking stock of the current reflection on historical fiction, a genre that is often discounted because it is considered as commercial and popular, primarily aiming at entertainment and devoid of scientific foundation. However, since its emergence in the 19th century with the first historical novels, its popularity has not waned, and in fact is stronger than ever today with new formats such as films, TV shows and electronical games. In the world of today, historical fiction reaches millions of people to whom they provide their main access, and often their only access, to an awareness of the past. Because historical fiction decisively contributes to the way historical knowledge spreads, we need to probe the theoretical and ideological issues raised by this new phenomenon.

We propose to start by looking into the reactions of professional historians, who are often divided when it comes to historical fiction, and uneasy about its impact on the public. Some, like Pierre Briand, are openly critical; others choose to work with film directors to bring a real expertise in the context of the mass-production of historical fiction, while others still get directly involved and write their own historical fiction, like Simon Schama. The reactions and questions of historians could be examined through case studies taken from the English-speaking world (e.g. the musical Hamilton, films and novels on Abraham Lincoln…) or from France or other cultural areas, in a comparative perspective.

Another theme will be an examination of the popular dimension of historical fiction. The double meaning of the word (widely liked or appreciated / fit for, adapted to, or reflecting the taste of the people at large) raises the questions of the legitimacy and authenticity of the historical knowledge spread through this genre, of the interaction with highbrow culture, of the impact which the imperatives of entertainment and mass-distribution may have on the portrayal of the past in the case of a product that is primarily commercial. Can we say that some forms of historical fiction are more legitimate than others? Is it a question of superior literary and esthetic quality, of scientific credibility due to rigorous preliminary research? To what extent does academic history enrich and legitimize popular historical fiction? In return, can it be argued that popular historical fiction is an acceptable tool to spread an otherwise inaccessible historical knowledge to as many people as possible?

Works cited:

  • Briant, Pierre Alexandre. Exégèse des lieux communs. Paris : Gallimard, « Folio », 2016.
  • Chernow, Ron. Hamilton. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
  • Journal of the Early Republic. Vol. 37, n°2 (Summer 2017). “Symposium on Hamilton, An American Musical”: 251-295.
  • Miranda, Lin-Manuel. Hamilton: The Revolution. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.
  • —. Hamilton, An American Musical. CD. 2015
  • Schama, Simon. Dead certainties. Unwarranted Speculations. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
  • Zemon-Davis. Nathalie. Slaves on Screen. Film and Historical Vision. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Other references (selection) :

  • De Groot Jerome, Remaking History: The Past in Contemporary Historical Fictions, London and New York: Routledge, 2015. DOI: 10.4324/9781315693392
  • Delage, Christian et Vincent Guigeno. L’Historien et le film. Paris : Seuil, 2004.
  • LISA/LISA e-journal: “Based upon a Life: The Biopic Genre in Question”.
  • Ferro, Marc. Cinéma et histoire. Paris : Folio Histoire, 1993.
  • Lukács Georg. The Historical Novel. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.
  • Menegaldo, Gilles et Melvyn Stokes eds. Cinéma et histoire. Paris : Michel Houdiard, 2008.
  • Phillpott Matt, Novel Approaches: from academic history to historical fiction. Virtual conference of the Institute of Historical Research (21 November – 25 November 2011).
  • Sanello, Frank. How Hollywood Turns Fact into Fiction. Lanham, NY: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2003.
  • Rosenstone, Robert A. “History in Images/ History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History Onto Film”. American Historical Review 93 (1998). N°5: 1173-1185.
  • Sand, Schomo. Le XXe Siècle à l’écran. Paris : Seuil, 2004.
  • Toplin, Brent. History by Hollywood. The Use and Abuse of the American Past. University of Illinois Press, 1996.
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