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The Historical Novelist’s Dilemma, by Ben Marshall

A writer, two historians and a reader walk into a bar.  They sit down, and the talk drifts to the writer’s work-in-progress, a story set in Japan and China during the lead-up to WW2.  A little while later a fight breaks out and the police are called.  Everyone is dragged out, rumpled and bruised, except for the writer, whom the barman finds staunching a bloody nose with beer mats under a nearby table.  The barman helps him out and asks what happened.  The writer replies…

On the battlefield, there is no honour, so why should I worry about writing a little biffo in a first-person narrative of the infamous Fall of Nanking?

The first reason is because it’s not usually called that. Most know it by the catchier title, The Rape of Nanking, in which the Japanese defeated the Nationalist Chinese army and took the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937.

Tens of thousands of troops and civilians died, women were raped, looting occurred and atrocities were committed.  Leaving aside the reasons for the battle happening in the first place, we can all agree that bad stuff happens in war.

The reason I briefly put one of my characters – a Japanese soldier – in Nanking is to give him a life-changing event.  I need him to see a bad thing happen; in this case the brutal treatment of a disabled Chinese boy in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The kid doesn’t even need to die.  In fact I could write it so he doesn’t get hurt. It could just be the threat of being hurt.

At this stage, the reader is intrigued, one of the historians is nodding, and the other looks uneasy.  The writer presses on…

I’ve done my research and, yes, by that I mean I’ve read quite a few books, a bunch of Wikipedia pages and other stuff on the net.

The historians roll their eyes. The writer points out that he is a writer not a historian and that this part of his story is only a few pages.  He just needs his guy to get in, get out and then return to the timeline of the main narrative. He continues…

The second reason I should worry about writing this stuff is it turns out the Chinese defeat/Japanese victory in Nanking is still highly contentious.  One side says that over a hundred thousand were massacred and hundreds raped.

One of the historians nods – he’s a ‘massacre affirmationist’.  The other scowls – he’s a ‘massacre denialist’ – and states that there was never any massacre, deliberate or otherwise.  The reader looks to the writer and asks which it was. The writer tries to avoid the issue by buying another round, but by the time I get back there’s a frosty silence and three pairs of eyes awaiting a response. He explains…

The simple fact is that despite the many ‘eye-witness’ accounts, there are so many discrepancies, conflicts of interest, hearsay and outright lies that a definitive case remains to be made.

This only riles the historians, who attack the writer’s laziness and lack of academic rigour then start arguing amongst themselves.  The writer explains to the bemused reader…

The issue is still a really big deal to a lot of people today.  It’s like attending the German-Jewish Friendship Association and suggesting the Holocaust is a ‘maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t’ proposition.

Complicating things further, neither the assimilationists nor the denialists are homogenous groups.  Yes, there are a bunch of agenda-driven Japanese nationalist wingnuts in the denialist camp, but there are also plenty of accredited and independent historians without an agenda picking some big plot-holes in the ‘deliberate massacre’ story.  Similarly, the assimilationists include agenda-driven contemporary peace movements, rabid Chinese nationalists and respected, independent historians.

Considering my Japanese character is potentially on the side of the mass-murderers, the reader asks which side I’ve chosen.  I try to explain that I don’t want to come down on any side.  My soldier only sees what I let him see, and I’m keeping him well away from any massacre – deliberate or accidental.  It isn’t part of my story, and I’m not looking for trouble.  In any case my soldier’s an ultra-nationalist, and at this point, I’m merely portraying the world through his POV.

The historians let rip: the gist of which is that the writer should grow a pair, get some research up him and agree with one or the other of them or they’ll both punch his lights out.  If they don’t, there will be millions of my potential Chinese and Japanese readers who will troll, stalk and hack my accounts online if he chooses the ‘wrong’ side. At this point, the writer’s like…

Whatever. It’s my book. There’s good research on both sides about this stuff, I’ll let the reader decide.

Unfortunately, the reader is unimpressed and starts jabbing the writer in the chest with each point: “Your role,” jab, “is to not pretend to some fake objectivity but to do the research,” jab, “that the readers can’t or shouldn’t need to do.  Not taking a stand,” jab, “is taking a stand, and it’s totally gutless.” Jab. The writer finally jabs back, one thing leads to another and suddenly he’s taking hits from three sides.  He dives, but the reader takes the opportunity to kick him while he’s down, and the historians take the opportunity to pummel each other with some ‘academic rigour’.

The barman pours the writer another drink, sympathetic.  He asks what the writer’s next book will be about.  The writer’s eyes light up.  He tells him…

It’s only in the planning stages but I had a great idea for a romantic triangle set during the Yom Kippur war.  What could go wrong?


Ben Marshall’s author website:

Ben Marshall’s bio page


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