by wjw on September 13, 2007

I’ve been reading Imperium, by Robert Harris, a novel about the life of Cicero. It seems to cover the middle part of the great advocate’s career, from the prosecution of Gaius Verres to the conspiracy of Catalina. It leaves out Cicero’s rocky relationship with the First Triumvirate and his tutelage of Octavius, who later had him killed. And it leaves out the case that made his fame and proved his courage, his defense of Sextus Roscius during the dictatorship of Sulla.

It’s an okay novel. It follows the history very closely, and if you’re interested in that sort of thing, you’ll be interested in this. No great insights are obtained. It makes Cicero out to be a friend of the common man and a champion of democracy, which I rather much doubt, but does nothing that can’t be supported by the available facts and/or the convenience of drama.

What I note, however, is that the book is written in the first person by Cicero’s slave/secretary and real-life biographer, Tiro. (The fellow who invented shorthand, by the way.) The great man, as we see him in this book, is the invention of his sidekick, as Sherlock Holmes is (as we read him) the invention of Watson.

I mention this because some years ago I was trying to sell a novel about Benjamin Franklin, something that I utterly failed to do. Most editors didn’t even bother to return my agent’s phone calls, and thus I have no idea why the work met with such utter indifference. (Most didn’t even bother to reject it— I suppose it’s still officially on submission in half a dozen places.) But the one kind editor who actually did talk to me gave a long list of reasons why the book wouldn’t work for him, mostly having to do with the book’s failure to fit convincingly into one category or another. (The editor who talked to me was promptly fired. I hope these events are not connected.)

The reason that didn’t have to do with category went something like this: “Your book is written from the point of view of a famous historical character. Readers are intimidated by the thought of having to enter the mind of a genius, and so would be much more comfortable viewing Franklin from the point of view of a more ordinary person.” From the point of view of a Watson, in other words. The Alienist was given as an example, a novel which featured Theodore Roosevelt pursuing a serial killer but which was written from the point of view of a fictional college chum. (He could also have mentioned all of Gore Vidal’s historicals, none of which are written from the point of view of the title character.)

Franklin wrote his own puffery and had no need of a Watson, and I felt uncomfortable inventing an ahistorical character in a book wherein every other character actually existed, and so never followed the editor’s advice. Franklin was such a protean character that I very much enjoyed the challenge of writing from his point of view. (I also never mentioned that I didn’t think The Alienist was a particularly good novel, for all that it was scrupulously researched.)

If I’d had my wits about me I would have mentioned Margaret George, who has written fictional autobiographies of Henry VIII, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, and Helen of Troy, all of which seem to have sold briskly. Also I, Claudius, as well as Robert Graves’ other historicals about Belisarius and Jason. (By the way, have I mentioned that the Spanish translation of the Claudius novel is Yo, Claudio?)

So the truism about readers being uncomfortable reading something from the point of view of a famous character is pretty much untrue.

As writers, we’re often told one thing or another about the publishing business that later turns out to be, umm, premature.

Any other examples?

Aragos September 13, 2007 at 8:18 am

When I look at my book shelf, the historical novels I enjoyed most have all been written about famous persons/families, with the main character being some fictional but interesting person. I do not count “Imperium” amongst these – it’s well written, but not astounding. Examples for works that work really well and are written in the aforementioned style are the historical works by Rebecca Gablé (only available in German) and most of Sharon Kay Penman’s novels.

The only books that I can think of instantly as written somewhat from the “important” person’s perspective is the Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough. And although I read all of them – and enjoyed them – I’d hardly count them amongst the best books I’ve ever read.

So it seems to me, from my very unrepresentative experience, that either it is easier for many authors to write exceptional books from the perspective of someone fictional. Or it is indeed the case that readers can better immerse themselves in the life of someone ordinary. The ficitional characters also have the advantage that they don’t have to do all the evil and unreasonable things “real” characters are often known to do. 😉

Pat Mathews September 13, 2007 at 12:37 pm

Do the various wives of Henry VIII count as historical figures in their own right? Philipa Gregory in “The Constant Princes” makes out Katherine of Aragon to be the Hillary to Henry’s Bill Clinton in their early years. I second the comments of McCullough’s Masters of Rome despite her mad passion for Big Julie. And I found “Imperium to be a dead bore – a lot of the interesting parts of Cicero’s life were missing or muted, and Tiro, who must have been a fascinating man in how own right, wrote as if he did not exist

Sam Taylor September 13, 2007 at 1:48 pm

In “Brian Boru” and “Finn MacCool” Morgan Llewellyn typically writes from the POV of the character she is reasearching (not in First Person, but in 3rd Person Limited Omniscient.)

Every once in a while she branches out to 3rd Person (full) Omniscient, but that’s rare — and weak.

Be warned: I didn’t like either of these books very much, but they did get published.

Laurie Mann September 13, 2007 at 6:56 pm

Heck, how about a novel where the character is murdered in the first paragraph and has no real plot whatsoever?

That’s the best-seller The Lovely Bones, soon to be a major motion picture by Peter Jackson.

dubjay September 13, 2007 at 10:32 pm

But is that murdered person world-famous? That would see to be a critical issue. Was it, for instance, Abraham Lincoln who was killed and dismembered? This would seem to be crucial to the discussion.

Dittos on the Colleen McCullough books. Until I read Clive Cussler, I was convinced that she was the worst writer ever— but on the other hand I devoured her books.

Doing an unscientific scan of my shelves, I find very little historical fiction that deals with just one character. They are either like McCullough, and deal with a whole host of historical characters; or they’re historical mysteries, with a fictional detective solving the problems of the great. (These include my personal favorites, the SPQR series by John Maddox Roberts.)

I have a book wherein Benjamin Franklin solves a mystery, which is pretty bad. Not because it’s from Franklin’s point of view, but because it’s not a good book.

I have generally avoided books in which famous people, like Jane Austen, solve mysteries, at least when the people, like Jane Austen, are not known to have expressed any interest in homicide or detection.

Of those books that deal with only one person, about half of them are written from the point of view of the famous person, and half from a fictional Watson.

Perhaps the Robert Graves books are sufficiently old as to be off the current editors’ radar. They do seem to be more and more like Hollywood all the time— only the latest bestseller matters.

JBodi September 14, 2007 at 12:21 am

But ‘Count Belisarius’ was written from the POV of an unnamed eunuch, so I’m not sure it would have helped.

On the other hand – have you read any of Allan Massie’s historicals on ancient Rome? Augustus and Tiberius were memoirs, but Julius, Mark Anthony, Nero etc and Caligula had outside viewpoint narrators. So I’d say the editor didn’t know what he was talking about.

David September 14, 2007 at 5:44 pm

Editors often seem convinced that they know everything about how readers think and what they prefer.

Until a novel that violates everything they know becomes a bestseller. At which point, they shift gears and … still know everything.

However, having snarked, I have to admit that it may be true in general that readers prefer historical novels in which the viewpoint character is not a famous person. I think it has to do with being in the habit of seeing such people from a bit of a distance, via history books. A novel written from the famous person’s viewpoint makes that character into someone different from the one we think we know.

But even that, I think, only applies to relatively recent and/or very familiar characters — such as Ben Franklin, for an American reader, or Julius Caesar for any Western reader. Claudius wasn’t that familiar to most people before the wonderful BBC series.

Foxessa September 16, 2007 at 10:04 pm

There was Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos. Amos helped Ben with his inventions, published I think in 1953 or something like that.

Claudius tends to function as the ‘observer,’ rather than the protagonist, at least in I, Claudius, which may explain partially why the sequel is less interesting?

It’s difficult to establish an authentic voice for the really significant historical figures, perhaps. People can compare all too easily the voice they already have in their mind’s ears for this person, constructed out of the figure’s own letters, memoirs and so on.

Which is why I never read a novel yet that features Lord Byron, whether as the pov or from the pov of the sidekick, that remotely works.

The real thing is so brilliant, and so filled with vitality, anything else appears to be just what it is, a pale simulacrum.

I feel that way about Jane Austen as well. There are so many dreadful works as text or television or movies out there, mining Ms. Austen’s own, original words, that they are supremely dull, none approaching the wit and penetration of Austen’s own work.

Love, C.

Saladin September 17, 2007 at 12:55 am

Hi Walter! Your point about Franklin’s puffery is interesting — he himself wrote and published in all sorts of modes. I think the best sort of Franklin POV book would actually be quirkily first-person, along the lines of his amazing autobiography.

On another note, Tariq Ali wrote a cool historical novel called (ahem) The Book of Saladin, narrated from the POV of Saladin’s Jewish court physician…

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