The New Yorker recently had an outstanding profile of Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and other works of historical fiction. While the genre doesn't generally get a lot of respect, Mantel and Robert Graves gave it gems of great accuracy as well as drama. One point was that good historical fiction never replaces facts from the past, and rarely makes up new ones out of whole cloth.
"She says, 'I cannot describe to you what revulsion it inspires in me when people play around with the facts. If I were to distort something just to make it more convenient or dramatic, I would feel I’d failed as a writer. If you understand what you’re talking about, you should be drawing the drama out of real life, not putting it there, like icing on a cake.'"
"Only rarely did she make something up out of nothing—almost always there was some hint in the sources to suggest it. Even many of her tiny, novelistic details came from the archives—often from the gossipy letters sent by ambassadors to their home courts. There was a scene in the sequel to “Wolf Hall,” “Bring Up the Bodies,” for instance, in which a messenger gave Jane Seymour a love letter and a bag of money that Henry had sent her, although he was still married to Anne Boleyn; Jane gave back the money, then took the letter and kissed it, but gave it back unopened. That came straight from an ambassador’s correspondence."
We typically do not gain more historical knowledge over long periods of time. As time passes, records are lost and we recede further from the events at issue. More needs to be filled in (judiciously!) by way of the novelist's imagination.
For theology and religion, on the other hand, we have gained enormous amounts of knowledge, not so much about the historical facts surrounding their writing and subjects, but about the general scientific claims they traffic in- angels descending from heaven, seas parting, people rising from the dead. Trinities, ghosts, and afterlives.
Thus what passed muster generations ago as plausible tales of the supernatural (signs and wonders) now are known to be fundamentally impossible. The ground has shifted under the genre, so what once was awesome now seems tawdry and cheap.
It is an unfortunate position, perilously saved for the most devout by way of even harder-to-swallow claims of exceptionalism- that those historical actors and times were really different from our present fallen age. Rather than, say, that our age has better standards of editing, fact-checking, and scientific understanding.
It is just a small point, in the vast case for atheism, but still worth making- that one should read historical fictions and romances long before giving credence to the far more egregious genre of scripture.
Incidentally, the profile of Mantel also notes that she lived briefly in Saudi Arabia:
"She couldn’t even go for a walk around the block, since if she appeared on the street alone men shouted lewd propositions at her or tried to run her over." Some respect for women, that. Sounds more like the way it looks- patriarchy and misogyny.
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