Monday, March 12, 2007

The Da Vinci Code: Historical Revisionism as Fiction

The Da Vinci Code: Historical Revisionism as Fiction.
May 12th, 2006 Administrator-->
By Peter Gimpel.
(Page numbers refer to the “First Anchor Books Mass Market Edition.”)
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a historical first. Traditionally, lies, disinformation and other deceptive devices were foisted on a naive public under the unambiguous guise of factual and historical truth. Conversely, writers of historical fiction expended much time and effort in order to ensure that their fictional plot lines dovetailed seamlessly with established historical fact or plausible hypothesis. In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown wantonly “revises” history in order to meet the demands of his fictional plot. Since the plot is premised on the inflammatory claim that the Church has deliberately suppressed and vitiated the genuine message of Jesus, the result is a kind of new-age Protocols of the Elders of Zion that is virtually impervious to exposure as a work of base propaganda. “Come on, now: it’s just fiction!” says Dan Brown. “Yes,” suggests the novel’s ante-prologue. “but it’s based on ‘fact,’ just like the works of the great writers of historical fiction, like Irving Stone and Lion Feuchtwanger.”
The ambiguity permits Dan Brown to use his fiction in much the same way as Harriet Beecher Stowe used her Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Except that Stowe’s novel was historically plausible and designed to further the noble cause of Black emancipation; while Brown’s is based on lies and designed to smear the Catholic Church while promoting a kind of New Age pornospiritual feelgoodism at the expense of traditional morals. Indeed, The Da Vinci Code attacks the Judeo-Christian religious teachings as violently, obsessively hostile to the “sacred feminine,” while promoting the idea of heterosexual indulgence as a mystical pathway to G-d and to the true, “suppressed” teachings of Jesus.
The juxtaposition of these last two progandistic objectives is intriguing, for, as should be obvious, they are completely contradictory. Indeed, while the author pretends to call for the return of woman to her original status of revered and holy minister of love, caring and nurturing, it seems that this is only to reduce her once again to an object to be used for the procurement of “holy” male orgasms. (337)
True, Brown does not seem to object to the woman’s sharing in this sacrosexual revelation, but he does seem to rue the disappearance of the ancient institution of ritual prostitution (a pre-Israelitic practice expressly outlawed by the Torah!), while describing with approbation the public sex ritual of “hieros gamos” purportedly practiced by various heretical sects throughout the ages.
At this point, one begins to suspect that the author has discovered the secret of Teflon:
1. The Da Vinci Code is based on fact and history (page 1, under the heading, “Fact”). The Da Vinci Code is a work of pure fiction. (Copyright page)2. The author is a male chauvinist, envisioning women as priestesses of sex or holy prostitutes. The author is an ardent feminist, a pro-feminine advocate for restoring the sacred feminine to its rightful throne.3. The author maliciously libels the Jewish Faith by falsely and baselessly claiming that “men seeking spiritual wholeness came to [Solomon’s Temple] to visit priestesses—or hierodules—with whom they made love and experienced the divine through physical union.” (336) The author admires sacred prostitution (336) and credits the Jews with protecting the alleged wife and daughter of Jesus (276); hence he can’t be an anti-semite. (Note that the purported sexual licentiousness of the Jews has long been a favorite theme of Nazi and other anti-Jewish propaganda.)4. The Church is desperate to to suppress “a secret so powerful that, if revealed, it threatened to devastate the very foundation of Christianity!” (259, 288) Everybody knows this “secret” anyway, including “scores of historians” (273), the authors of an international best-seller that “caused quite a stir back in the nineteen eighties,” (274), and Walt Disney himself, who made it his life’s work to pass on the secret “metaphorically” via his cartoons! (282)5. The author says and does these things, but no, he doesn’t: it is only his fictional creation who says them and does them.
These artful, self-contradictory, spineless shiftings are not just legalistic posturing. They are epitomized by the very plot line of Brown’s novel. For the heroine, who at the novel’s end is revealed as the most direct descendent of the royal bloodline of the purported Jesus-Magdalene union, hence as the heiress-apparent to the exalted priesthood of the Magdalene herself, (477) wraps things up by propositioning the hero (after their first kiss), for a secluded week of sex in a Florence hotel! (484) So their story ends—at least until the sequel, when no doubt we will all be invited to attend the “hieros gamos” of the happy couple.
This should be a dead give-away. The Da Vinci Code is not an inspiring journey of rediscovery of the Holy Grail, the Sacred Feminine, the True Teachings of the Christian Messiah. It is a pretentious, shallow, deceitful, intellectually sordid, cynical, back-alley, legally armor-plated puerile voyage of pseudo-cultural obfuscation, historical revisionism and spiritual degradation. Thanks to Dan Brown and Random House / Doubleday, in the future all best-selling novels will be written this way.

What Are the Rules for Historical Fiction?

by Sarah Johnson
Assistant Professor, Eastern Illinois University

This speech formed part of a panel discussion on historical fiction at the Associated Writing
Programs annual conference, March 2002.

Now is a particularly exciting time to be involved in the field of historical fiction. Over the past few years, author and reader interest in the past has grown. More and more authors, even authors who have found success in other genres, are choosing to write historical novels. The success of recent films such as Gladiator, Elizabeth, Shakespeare in Love – all set at various times in the past -- demonstrate this interest as well.
When you first read about this talk in your program, you must have had an idea in mind as to what “historical fiction” was. After all, it should be fairly easy. The obvious definition that comes to mind is that historical fiction is simply “fiction set in the past.”
But the reality is, however, that almost everyone – and this includes readers, authors, publishers, agents, and the press -- seems to have his or her own idea of what historical fiction is, and also what historical fiction should be. When you become involved with the field, you begin to learn that above all, historical fiction is a genre of controversy and contradiction.
Let me speak first about a good definition for historical fiction. While the usual generic definition – “fiction set in the past” -- is true for the most part, this seemingly simple definition brings up a number of questions.
For instance, how far back does a novel have to be set to make it “historical”? A hundred years? Fifty years? Five years? To a reader born in the 1960s, novels set during the Second World War may be considered “suitably historical,” but readers who vividly remember the 1940s may not agree. Should the definition be relative, so that a novel can be considered historical by one reader, but not by someone else? Or, given that ALL novels are set in SOME time period, should we use the broadest definition possible, saying something like, “All novels are historical, but some are more historical than others”?
Even if we can agree on a definition that historical fiction includes any works that are set, for example, more than 50 years in the past, whose past are we talking about - the reader’s past or the author’s past? Take, for example, The Great Gatsby, written in 1925, and set during the same time period. To us, today, the novel is obviously set in our historical past. But does it fit what we think of as “historical fiction”?
I will mention that my journal, the Historical Novels Review, has a working definition, which we use for consistency purposes in deciding which books to review. To us, a “historical novel” is a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience. Most autobiographical novels would not fit these criteria. Not all people agree on this definition, however, and even we occasionally break the rules. Some readers go so far as to say that a novel should only be called “historical” if the plot reflects its historical period so well that the story could not have occurred at any other time in history.
There are other seeming contradictions within the field, as well.
For instance, as I’ve mentioned previously, the popularity of historical fiction seems to be on the rise. A number of authors best known for their work in other fiction genres are turning to the historical past for inspiration. Included in this group are Michael Crichton (best known for his contemporary thrillers), John Grisham (famous for his courtroom thrillers), and Amy Tan (widely published in contemporary women’s fiction). Historical novels have also won some of the major literary awards of the past several years. Among the prizewinners are the following.
In the United States, we have Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, set in 1930s New York.
In Britain, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (1930s Canada) and Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang (19th century Australia), were the winners of the 2000 and 2001 Booker Prize, respectively.
In Canada, Richard B. Wright’s Clara Callan (set in Ontario during the Great Depression) won the 2001 Governor General’s Literary Award.
Also, a growing number of historical novels have become publishing phenomena over the past few years, and these works have given the field an ever-increasing audience. These works include Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (set in 17th century Delft), Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (set in early 20th century Japan), Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent (set in Biblical times), and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (the well-known, award winning novel of the Civil War).
It is also interesting to note that some bestselling authors’ first novels were historicals, and that other authors make a return to the genre after they have found initial success elsewhere. Mary Higgins’ Clark’s first novel, Mount Vernon Love Story, written in 1969 under the title Aspire to the Heavens, was a historical novel about the romance between George and Martha Washington. It will be reissued by Simon & Schuster this June.
In some sense, then, historical fiction is getting the respect and attention it deserves. This is the good news.
On the other hand, there is, unfortunately, a snobbery of sorts that surrounds the genre, one that has persisted over many years. Some authors who write almost exclusively in the historical fiction genre don’t want to be called “historical novelists.” And members of the media, even when they praise individual historical novels in their reviews, somehow manage to turn this praise into criticism of the genre as a whole.
Listen to these examples from the recent press, both from members of the print media and from authors themselves.
In 1950, author Howard Fast, a historical novelist himself, wrote: “This is an era of many historical novels, few of them good, and very few indeed which have more than a nodding acquaintance with fact.” This statement speaks for itself.
A reviewer of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring adventure novels wrote in the 1980s, “O'Brian is, first and foremost, a novelist. His are not cardboard chatterers, like those in most historical novels.”
And finally…
“Most historical novels feel thin once you are away from the historical figures that have drawn you to the novel in the first place,” wrote one critic, in a review which praised Stephen Harrigan’s The Gates of the Alamo (published in 1999). Obviously, to this reviewer, Harrigan’s novel was far above the norm.
There are many other examples, but you get the idea. You can see that over the years, while historical fiction has become more popular, other things – like the genre’s overall respectability – haven’t changed very much. At least if you believe what you read in the papers.
There seems to be a perception on the part of some members of the media (myself excluded, of course) that historical fiction is a genre that is very rarely done well. Historical novels have the reputation of being either costume dramas, in which modern-day characters are dressed up and paraded around in period garb with a few “thees” and “thous” thrown in for good measure, or barely fictionalized textbooks, in which the author’s need to cram all of his prodigious research into a single novel overwhelms the plot.
These sorts of statements are so prevalent that one can’t help but wonder – if all of historical fiction is so terrible, and so few authors know how to write it well, why are so many people jumping on the bandwagon?
The novels that seem to escape the scorn of these reviewers are works of literary fiction that are set in the past. However, many works of literary fiction, no matter the time period in which they are set, are typically not considered “historical fiction” by the press, by their publishers, and even by the authors that write them - even though they seem to follow all of the rules.
In the examples I listed earlier, only Girl with a Pearl Earring and Memoirs of a Geisha are frequently called historical novels, but they are called “contemporary literature” just as frequently. The Red Tent, in which a commonly known Biblical story is seen through the eyes of the character Dinah, is more frequently called “contemporary women’s fiction,” despite its Biblical setting. Cold Mountain, with its lyrical descriptions of nature and emotionally resonant language that beautifully evokes the pointless loss caused by the Civil War, is more frequently termed “literary fiction.”
Whichever is the case, it’s not just the press that’s guilty of this kind of snobbery, unfortunately. Publishers and authors are equally guilty. In fact, I’d say that books are called historical fiction by the publishing world only when no other words could possibly be used to describe them. It’s almost as if calling them historical novels denigrates them somehow. Or, on the other hand, is it the case that so many novels these days are set in the past, and calling them all “historical” simply isn’t necessary?
And in such a contradictory environment, how does one go about getting a historical novel published?
“Genre historical fiction,” by which I mean historical fiction that simply goes out to tell a good story, has always been popular with readers, if library circulation figures are anything to go by. Also, historical novels that cross genres, such as historical mysteries and romances, continue to be popular.
However, in my opinion, aside from these subgenres within historical fiction, it is literary historical fiction that interests mainstream publishers the most. The goal of literary historical fiction is not to show readers exactly what life was like in a historical time period, although it may have that effect. Rather, authors who write literary historicals center their tales not on the historical setting but on the plot, which may help us better understand the differences (or parallels) between then and now, and on characters who manage to transcend time and speak to us from their own perspective in a way that we, today, can understand. One definition of literary historical fiction is “fiction set in the past but which emphasizes themes that pertain back to the present.”
In December, I did a comprehensive survey of editors at American publishing houses that regularly publish historical fiction. I also across surprises when asking these editors about what time periods for historical fiction they are most interested in publishing. While there seems to be a preponderance of novels set during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II, most of the editors I spoke with don’t consider the setting nearly as important to publishers as the plot, character development, and overall theme. I’m not sure whether I completely believe that all settings are created equal, because ancient and medieval settings are still few and far between, but I admit that I have seen a number of novels with fairly unusual settings published recently.
In addition, while historical novel readers (including myself) believe that authors should make their best attempt to ensure their work is historically accurate, this is not the only thing that publishers are looking for. The setting should be convincing, yes, and anachronisms are still things to be avoided. Frequent historical novel readers tend to be quite unforgiving of obvious mistakes, because they can cast doubt on the author’s overall research. Some authors of literary fiction, however, simply use the past as a vehicle of making their plot more believable. They’re not particularly concerned about the setting, and if you were to ask them if they were writing a historical novel, they would no doubt respond that they were not.
Whether or not these books set in the past are formally called “historical novels,” the fact remains that more and more authors are choosing to set their works in the past. Perhaps they’re using events from their own family history for inspiration – as Charles Frazier did with Cold Mountain, and Amy Tan did with The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Perhaps they see historical settings for what they are – a wider canvas upon which they can work.
You may notice that I haven’t completely answered the question of what makes a novel “historical.” I hope this is something that we as authors and readers can continue to speak about. There may never be an exact definition, but I don’t think it prevents us from appreciating the genre any less. And as for more on the elements of a successful historical novel, I’ll leave it to the author members of this panel to continue this discussion. Thank you.
(c) 2002 by Sarah Nesbeitt. Contact the author at

Novelist James Michener dies
October 17, 1997

AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Internationally acclaimed novelist James A. Michener died Thursday in Texas, just days after removing himself from life-sustaining kidney dialysis, his assistant said. He was 90.

Longtime friend and assistant John Kings said the author died of renal failure. Michener last week ordered doctors to disconnect him from dialysis.

"His loss will be great not only the literary scene but to the many colleges he has nurtured through the years and the many thousands of people who feel he is their friend," Kings said.

William Livingston, a friend who was with Michener in his last days, said Michener's body would be cremated after a funeral in an Austin church Tuesday.

Consumate traveler
Born in New York City in 1907, Michener had more than 40 titles to his name. His latest book, "A Century of Sonnets," was released earlier this year. But the writer will be best remembered for his novels, which read like diaries chronicling his wanderlust.

CNN's Steve Nettleton reports on Michener's life
7 min., 37 sec. VXtreme streaming video
Most have simple, one-word titles like "Mexico," "Chesapeake," and "Alaska." But between the covers, the pages take the reader on an obsessively detailed journey across time and continents, often retracing the author's own steps to the far corners of the planet.

Michener was the consummate traveler.

In his memoirs, "The World is My Home," he wrote that he was determined to explore the world once he saw the road outside his childhood home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

To the east, it led to a dead-end. But to the west, Michener said the road seemed to continue forever, to strange lands and adventures he could not yet imagine.

Before he was old enough to drive, he had already hitchhiked his way up and down the entire eastern seaboard, a trip that fueled his desire to travel even farther.

"I lived in a kind of dream world that's vanished," Michener once said. "But it was the making of me."

Abandoned at birth
Abandoned by his parents shortly after birth, he never knew his roots. It was a mystery that played a key role in Michener's life.

"I feel myself the inheritor of a great background of people," he said. "Just who, precisely, they were, I have never known. I might be part Negro, might be part Jew, part Muslim, part Irish. So I can't afford to be supercilious about any group of people because I may be that people."

He was taken in by a kind widow named Mabel Michener, who made a living caring for orphaned children.

Her second occupation, doing laundry, didn't bring in much money. Food for the family often was in scant supply.

But where there was a shortage of wealth, there was a surplus of affection.

"I grew up in a bundle of love, always seven or eight kids around," Michener recalled. "Great yakkity-yakking and laughter all the time. I grew up maybe the best way a kid could if he wanted to be a writer, just surrounded by excitement."

First novel becomes musical
It wasn't until he was in his 30s that James Michener found his calling as a writer.

By then, he was half-way around the world from Pennsylvania, watching the fierce battle for the Pacific in World War II.

His service in the U.S. Navy sent him on numerous information-gathering missions, introducing him to 49 islands throughout the South Pacific.

His visits to Melanesia, Micronesia and French Polynesia, to name just a few, would later provide the backdrop for some of Michener's most memorable stories.

"These islands were primitive," he remembered. "They are at the beginning of history, and that's what made them exciting. This was the real frontier of human living."

It was perhaps the people Michener met who influenced him most. On the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, he lived next to a Tonkinese woman nicknamed Bloody Mary. She would become an unforgettable character in his first book, a collection of short stories called "Tales of the South Pacific."

His debut won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for literature and was later adapted to "South Pacific," a long-running Broadway musical and later a motion picture.

Although he went on to write dozens of novels about Europe, Africa and the Americas, Michener's heart never strayed far from his literary birthplace in the Pacific Ocean. "The last time I was there, I wanted to visit a spot where I had camped (but) we could not find it," he said.

"The roads had been overgrown. A place I knew well absolutely vanished. It's sort of symbolic of the way the rest of the history of that part of the world has been overgrown by time. It vanished."

Donations to schools in Texas, Colorado
Michener spent his later years in Austin, Texas, where he began living while working on his 1985 novel "Texas."

The Austin-based University of Texas is among his biggest beneficiaries, having received more than $37 million in gifts.

On October 3, the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley announced that Michener was donating manuscripts and other writings to the school to establish the only official repository of his works.

Michener earned a master's degree and taught at the school from 1936 to 1941. A library on the school's campus already bears his name.

Motivated by health problems

Encountering serious health problems in the mid 1980s, Michener underwent quintuple by-pass surgery, and suffered an attack of permanent vertigo.

He wrote that his failing health served as a sort of wake-up call and it sparked one of the most industrious periods of his life.

Between 1986 and 1991, he wrote 11 books, a dramatic contrast to the three years he usually spent writing a single novel.

At the end of his autobiography Michener expressed his hope that young travelers aspiring to become writers would be encouraged by his life. But most of all, he said he wanted to be remembered by the row of his books resting on library shelves throughout the world.

'Unexpected' rewards
For Michener, his own adventures were compensation enough. Proof of that lies in his return visit years ago to the Pacific island of Bora Bora, where his cruise ship was welcomed by flotilla of native islanders in canoes.

"In the lead canoe they had a big throne," the writer recalled. "And a guy down among the warriors had a walkie-talkie. He shouted, 'James Michener, welcome to your island.'"

"They took me down the steps, put me on the throne (and) covered me with flowers. That's one of the rewards of writing a book about something. Your rewards reach you in the most unexpected ways."

Correspondent Steve Nettleton, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.