Saturday, March 6, 2004

Every year for Christmas my parents give me a Barnes & Noble gift card that usually I save until June. This time there was an extra so I used it today, picking up the new Penguin Classics collection of Dunsany, Claire Tomalin's Pepys biography, David Hartwell's most recent Year's Best Fantasy (I'm a sucker for SF/fantasy anthologies) and the first in some "bestselling" series about a vampire hunter that I'm hoping is at the very least quasi-Buffy fun but really expect dreary formula. Waffled about getting the paperback of Atkinson's An Army at Dawn but figured if no remainders show up in a few months then I'll get it.

The Dunsany book made me wonder again about Penguin's selection process. As far as I can tell (which may not be very far) there's no resurgence of interest in Dunsany and he's always been a tough sell to the fantasy market. Maybe I've just missed something or maybe this is just the result of an enthusiastic editor somewhere. I can understand some of Penguin's choices such as the assorted collections of women's writings. Women's Indian Captivity Narratives in particular probably seems odd to run-of-the-mill bookstore browsers but taps into a hot topic in American Studies and is probably adopted for many classes. (The library that I use has a huge series of facsimile reprints--around 80-90 volumes--of such narratives; it's a few decades old from back when the archival/antiquarian impulse seemed more important than the theoretical.)

Honestly I don't know entirely what to expect from the Dunsany book. The few stories of his that I've read seemed pretty good though perhaps a bit precious but that was some 20 years ago so I may be more receptive now. Reading a few excerpts at the store was what made me go with this.

There was a display at B&N stating "Explore History" but oddly only a third of the books were actual history. The others were historical novels (which may even be a stretch to fit Donna Cross' Pope Joan). I happen to have a weakness for historical fiction and film even if it's a guilty one. History can be ambiguous enough without introducing clearly fictional elements and while this sounds like a purely intellectual objection in fact after such a book or movie I frequently end up trying to find out what "really" happened as almost a knee-jerk reaction. The facts are more or less easy at least by comparison but what kind of overall impression does the work leave? I feel like Patrick O'Brian's novels are fairly honest about their period based on other material I've read related to it, though Quo Vadis seems like it caught only bits and pieces of Nero's Rome. Some of this may be the distance--in 80 years O'Brian may seem too late 20th century to be taken seriously--but it's also the approach. O'Brian clearly wants you to think he's writing something very close to actual history, to the point that I think his books biggest flaw is the haze of unexplained detail that he uses to convince you of his veracity. By contrast I don't feel that Sienkiewicz was primarily interested in recreating ancient Rome, a feeling that comes purely from reading the book since I know almost nothing about him that wasn't in the translator's brief introduction.

Maybe what I'm getting at is a kind of "hey you got chocolate in my peanut butter" thing: If history and fiction are mixed then I usually want to know which is which. Yeah, I know that saying there's no clear boundary between the two is an understatement and also that additions along the lines of Alan Moore's detailed notes to From Hell really can't be expected from novelists who are doing pretty amorphous research from the start (or at all from filmmakers: witness the laughable insistence of Hidalgo's screenwriter that it's a true story when nobody else believes that). This is probably just expectations. When I read the first Ellis Peters novel I didn't much like it because I expected to learn something about medieval monasteries; if I'd approached it as just a fluffy murder mystery then maybe I would have felt more positive about it.