When I wrote Sacred Fire, I was pretty naïve. I thought historical accuracy was of upmost importance, and if I made even the tiniest mistake, I’d be crucified by readers. Since I didn’t know much about Rome before I started my research, I was pretty nervous.
This turned out to be my greatest strength. I was so neurotic that every time I wrote about a real event, I had to find an ancient account and perfectly retell it. (If Plutarch and Livy still had copyrights for their work, they could sue me easily.) Characters didn’t smell or eat unless I made sure the smell and food existed back then. I looked up ancient artifacts to describe furniture and jewelry.
I was almost done with my book when I found out people don’t really care.
Take Arthur Golden, the author of Memoirs of a Geisha, for example. I won’t bash authors on my blog, but I'll make an exception for this.
When I first read Memoirs of a Geisha, I adored the descriptions and the ceremonies and the history. I believed everything in the book was true because he said so in his acknowledgments: “Although the character of Sayuri and her story are completely invented, the historical facts of a geisha’s day-to-day life in the 1930s and 1940s are not.” I trusted him because there was so much detail in his book, and surely someone wouldn’t just make things up. Then I made a disturbing discovery:
Geisha are not prostitutes.
Golden got all his information from the famous geisha Mineko Iwasaki. She told him everything there was to know about her world. When Golden’s book was published with intricate detail about a geisha's sexuality, Mineko was mortified and insisted that the book was full of lies. Since Golden publicly thanked her for her help, people believed she helped spread the lie and she was ostracized.
Mineko Iwasaki published her own book about the truth of being a geisha, and it’s fascinating. I highly recommend it.
One might argue that Mineko Iwasaki is lying and Golden is telling the truth. Here’s my counter argument:
-Why would she tell him geisha were prostitutes if she didn’t want anyone to know?
- Geisha make a fortune performing and hosting parties. Why would they sell sex when they already make so much?
-If geisha keep it a secret that they’re prostitutes, how do they get customers?
-Mineko Iwasaki’s book not only denies that geisha are prostitutes, but it debunks dozens of facts in Golden's book. It doesn’t make sense that she would go to all that work to help Golden with his book and then go to a lot more work to make up lies in her own book.
- He says she was very open about selling herself. Considering how upset she is over his book, that obviously isn't true.
Why does this bother me so much? It’s not that I did the work and he didn’t. I'm bothered that I thought I knew everything there was to know about geisha, and now I know he filled my head up with lies. He tricked me.
If a writer lies, it defeats the purpose of writing historical fiction. Why not write a fantasy novel about a culture on another planet? These are real people we’re talking about. I write the truth because I respect the dead and I want to honestly depict their lives. Golden not only damaged the memory of thousands of deceased geisha, but also the reputation of hundreds of living geisha. He ruined lives. He got away with it.
I stand by my belief that history is good enough the way it is. Fascinating things have happened to amazing people, and their stories deserve to be told. The truth is always more interesting than the lie. If history isn’t good enough for a writer, the writer should leave history alone.