The Fine Line Between Historical And Fiction

Jun 7, 2011

Jessica Francis Kane studied the Bethnal Green tube station disaster, then spent years writing a novel centered around the day's horrific events. Briefly,

On March 3, 1943, on a night when England expected a horrific retaliatory bombing from Germany, 173 people died in London's East End. Not a single bomb fell that night, however. Instead, the victims, the vast majority of whom were women and children, died on the stairwell leading to an air-raid shelter inside a tube station in Bethnal Green.

Since the release of her novel, The Report, Kane has thought a lot about the line between historical and fiction, and who values each aspect in the re-telling of a tragedy.

To start with, she doesn't like the term "historical fiction," as she feels it cheapens a novel. She prefers "historically imagined." That distinction seems to point at the word "fiction" as the offensive bit, a deduction further bolstered by what is perhaps her essay's strongest conclusion:

It seems fiction is fine unless a subject is raw — then we think nonfiction is required. We want facts.

That rawness, however, isn't simply a matter of how much time has passed since the tragedy.

But that's not to say fiction is cheaper than non, to her mind. Rather, Kane sees a difference between those of us who turn to novels to understand tragedy and those of us who prefer a (perhaps) more straightforward account. Which are you? Dig in deeper here.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit