An amiable stroll through selected works of history and historical fiction, showing how the lines between them blur and how each can inform the other.
The author of nine novels and two works of nonfiction, Bram (Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America, 2012, etc.) plainly delights in reading about the past and is only discriminate about quality, not genre, as he feeds his “history addiction.” He immerses himself in the historical past for all the usual reasons and not necessarily the most high-minded: “I believe history’s original appeal is as pure escape,” he writes. “The past offers a fact-based fantasy, a dream with footnotes….As the flight attendants instruct us before takeoff, ‘The nearest exit may be behind you.’ ” Though Bram acknowledges how we can benefit from history, learn from it, and deepen our perspective, it’s refreshing that he underscores the pure pleasure of reading and that he takes such delight in it. He believes that “much can be gained by treating fiction and nonfiction as different sides of the same mountain” and that “while fiction strives for the condition of history, many history books hope to achieve the high drama of novels.” The author shows how some of the most successful and popular works of history employ narrative momentum and character development that could be termed novelistic, while historical novels (War and Peace is “the gold standard of historical fiction”) depend on researched detail and plausibility. The author’s argument isn’t as provocative as some of his counterintuitive judgments on highly praised works and authors, including Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (“a Game of Thrones for highbrows”) and Cormac McCarthy: “After you scrape off the fancy prose style, his novel Blood Meridian could be just the fantasy of a really mean fourteen-year-old boy who’s seen too many Sergio Leone movies.”
Though Bram teaches at NYU, there’s no hint of academic stuffiness in a book that offers the joy of reading as well as praising it.