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Imagining Real Life

This may be difficult for a nonfiction purist to hear, but I may have learned more about past events and figures through fiction than from any history writing. Like so many students, I never thought I enjoyed history. It felt like a compilation of dates, names, and an overly simplified cause-and-effect narrative that always seemed to fall flat. 

That began to change when I discovered art history in college and was able to explore the full cultural context of a time period. History got even more interesting when it was paired with literature,  and I got to think about questions like, “What does Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein reveal about the values and concerns of people in 19th Century Europe?” Exploring history through art and literature was a revelation: history wasn’t static but an ongoing dialogue. 

Like many others, I learn best and retain more through story. It’s no wonder then that I consume biographical novels like Halloween candy. Biographical novels or fictionalized biographies are rooted in facts—the verifiable names, events, and places of history—but the add a dimension of psychological truth that cannot be verified. In an article about the genre for Literary Hub, Jay Parini explains: 

Fiction offers the one and only way we have to get into the head of somebody not ourselves. If this person is someone of interest for one reason or another, there is all the more reason to want to know them and their world more deeply. And there is a truthfulness in fiction that is simply unavailable to the academic biographer.

Biographical novels aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and they aren’t all created equal. Personally, I need a good list of sources consulted in the back and/or an author’s note outlining the research process and areas that required pure speculation. But to truly enjoy the genre, you have to dwell in the ambiguity that is one’s interior world. Can anyone really know another person? Biographical novels attempt to let us imagine seeing behind the veil. 

As you might have guessed, I have a list of some of my favorite biographical novels at the top of which is Colm Tóibín’s newest novel The Magician. See the full list and request a few from the Tulsa City-County Library in time for a fabulous fall weekend of reading.  

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