● The Liars’ Gospel
By Naomi Alderman
Little, Brown and Company, 320 pages, $25.99
It is odd that in a media-saturated time when people seem unable to remember important events that happened last week, much less the decades-long story of how we got into the economic and political mess we’re in, historical storytelling flourishes.
Whether fiction or nonfiction, history books sell. At the Oscars this year, history films dominated the best picture category: “Lincoln,” “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty.” Even “Django” — with its bloody, comic book view of plantation life — has to be considered a history film.
Most of this stuff, however, is populist pap. Formulaic. Designed not to challenge readers and audiences. Aimed at entertaining and providing comfort by making it seem that people in the past were really just like you and me.
Well, actually, they weren’t.
Great historical writing comes not from imagining how the people of the past are like us, but from understanding how differently life was lived across the centuries and millennia.
It is a much more time-consuming and difficult process for writers to bring that difference to life. Empathic understanding of the past — another country where things are done differently, as the man said — is hard work. You must suspend your contemporary prejudices about behavior. You cannot judge your characters’ attitudes about gender or race from a contemporary sensibility. Nor can writers understand their characters’ motivations to heroism or cowardice by thinking these characters are “just like us.”