Sunday, December 2, 2018

Do historical fiction writers have any obligation to the truth? Even Heather Morris in "The Tattooist of Auschwitz"?

NEWS ALERT! "The Australian" Dec. 6 - by Fiona Harari - HEADLINE: " #TheTattooistofAuschwitz is distorting, Holocaust historians say'' 
An Australian academic named Fleur Morrison is one fo the first literary critics in her country to begin to ask serious questions about the controversy surrounding the publication of a Holocaust sex-and-romance novel titled "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" which has become an international bestseller.

Written by Australian screenplay contest entrant in 2004 and later turned into a kind of breathless, panting chick-lit Holocaust story which one wag has already dubbed the "50 Shades of Grey" of Holocaust dreck, the novel was naively published in Australia by Echo Press there in hopes of making a bundle of easy cash and naively edited by a newcomer to the publishing world named Angela Meyer.

Sales of the "historical fiction" romance have gone through the roof, with over 1 million copies in print and in the hands of readers worldwide.
But according to Morrision, the rules of writing historical fiction are murky and she asks in a recent blog post: "Just how factual does the story need to be if it is considered to be a work of fiction?"

Morrison goes on: "Recently, the issue has been raised in relation to the bestselling ''The Tattooist of Auschwitz,'' in which author Heather Morris recounts the story of a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz. Morris states on the second page of her now-controversial book that the novel is a fictional retelling of  series of recollections and memories that an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor named Lali Sokolov told over during some kitchen table chats in his room in Melbourne over a three-year period before he died in 2006 at age of 90. How reliable his memories are of what he experienced in the 1940s when he was an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp is something many Holocaust historians have been taking issue with and Morrison herself is divided over the book. Is it  "true story" as the author and publisher have maintained in evert interview they've granted since publication in 2017, or is a romantic retelling based on the stories Sokolov told her with a lot of poetic license mixed in to appeal to gullible female readers who love Oprah-style novels of New Age gobbledegook?''

The Auschwitz Memorial and Museum in Poland has already publicly criticised the many factual errors in the book, which it claims could easily have been checked and changed by either Morris or her editor Meyer. These errors include the allaged hot and heated sexual contact between Lali and his camp "girlfriend" Gita in the barracks of one of the most brutal and evil set-ups in the history of humankind: ''the Final Solution" devised by Adolph Hitler and his henchmen that led to the slaughter of 6 million Jews in Germany and Poland durinG World War II.

A Facebook post in English on the Auschwitz Memorial site explains:

“Even fiction – if the action takes place in a real historical place – should describe this world accurately. In this case the 'reality' of Auschwitz that we know from thousands of testimonies of survivors and  hundreds of documents becomes an imaginary world. This story deserves better that the one Heather Morrris has published in Australia.”

The post claims that by writing a book more closely aligned with the facts would have been more respectful to the Jewish victims of Auschwitz and of more value for modern readers in 2018, Morrison writes.

However, not all believe that historical fiction must have this role, particularly when the author has so clearly stated that the book is a work of fiction inspired by the life of a prisoner, she adds.

One commenter claimed that the book served a valuable purpose in highlighting the suffering of Jewish inmates in Auschwitz and in encouraging young readers born long after the war to find out more about what actually happened, Morrison says.

“Personally, I think any book that gets people thinking about the impacts of genocide … and perhaps sparks people to want to dig deeper is a good thing,” one reader wrote online.

One website writer in Ireland called Lali not ''an inmate'' of Auschwitz but a Jewish "a prisoner of war." Prisoner of war? For crying out loud, Molly Reynolds, the Jews were not prisoners of war in the Nazi concentration camps of Germany and Poland, they were inmates of of a brutal an ruthless system of  of evil beyond words. ''Inmates,'' Molly, not ''prisoners of war''!

The big question that Morrison hits us with is this: ''So, what do authors think about their responsibility to the truth when they are writing historical fiction?''

She cites British author Hilary Mantel who when was asked about the importance of accuracy in writing historical fiction such as ''Wolf Hall'' and ''Bring Up the Bodies,'' Mantel replied:

“I can’t see the point of doing it otherwise. Of course nobody can guarantee 100 per cent accuracy – you are never going to be completely free of mistakes. But I think you have to take your research seriously, otherwise there is no point in it at all. You can’t speculate emptily about the personal reality of people’s lives. It has to be grounded in time, place and context. If you don’t like research and don’t consider it important then it’s better, in my view, to leave the historical novel alone.”

Mantel said that this approach could make writing this form of fiction more difficult.

“You have to know that history isn’t tidy and that it doesn’t do what you as a novelist want it to. It doesn’t conform to your dramatic instincts. It often has a really awkward shape and so you have to make your fiction flexible to bend around it,” Mantel said.

Author of many bestsellers, including ''The Handmaid’s Tale,'' Margaret Atwood is less clear on the role of fact in historical fiction, saying:

“Individual memory, history, and the novel, are all selective; no one remembers everything, each historian picks out the facts he or she chooses to find significant, and every novel, whether historical or not, must limit its own scope. No one can tell all the stories there are.” (quoted from ''In Search of Alias Grace: Writing Canadian Historical Fiction'')

Australian novelist Hannah Kent carried out extensive research before writing her works of historical fiction, ''Burial Rites'' and ''The Good People,'' but then gave her imagination space to write the story, according to Morrison.

''The Good People'' was based on two newspaper articles and little or no biographical information, but Miss Kent visited Flesk River (where events central to the story occurred), explored Irish museums, read academic articles about 19th century midwifery and books on fairy lore, herbal medicine and the power of plants to poison or heal. (quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper)

This research and her own imagination come together in the story. Kent described her method in writing historical fiction in ''Burial Rites'' this way:

“I undertook a rigorous approach to the mixing of fact and fiction, deciding to research as widely and and thoroughly as possible. If facts were solid, I would not alter them. If facts were questionable, or contradictory, or openly prejudiced, I would use my wider research to select the most likely scenario. And finally, if there were gaps left unfilled, I was at liberty to invent, although such invention would need to fall within the parameters of the reasonable; parameters set, again, by wider research into the times Agnes lived in.” (from

Each form of writing has its own challenges, and in a genre like historical fiction, writers must tussle with their own ideas about their responsibility to truth.

"While I might be tempted to support any claims that the story is most important, above all, it is hard to ignore those who represent the Auschwitz Museum as they comment on the impact of fiction on the reality of those whose stories are being told," Morrison concluded in her blog post.


The ''Fifty Shades of Grey'' of Holocaust novels?

After hearing that Heather Morris' Holocaust literary hoax "THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ" is a kind of romance novel, chick-lit sexcapade with the hero of the book Mr Lali Sokolov finding ways to have hot and heated consensual sex with his camp girlfriend Gita -- in full view of the Nazi guards and with their full knowledge of what the Jewish couple was doing as the "Final Solution" hung over every inmate's head in that concentration camp from Hell -- my humorist friend, Jewish too, said he thinks of the novel as a "Fifty Shades of Grey" X-rated Holocaust romp. I am sure he was kidding, but then again, I am not so sure.

If the plans go ahead to make a movie from the book, with a Jewish woman from Australia already attached to write the screenplay, will the movie be a graphic-beyond-belief Auschwitz sexcapade or will the producers of the movie tone it down a bit so it is more palatable for the general viewer, Jewish and non-Jewish.

We shall see when the movie comes out. if it ever does get the greenlight after being criticized in the Australia media for being a Holocaust literary hoax and then some. 

Of course, the Nazis made lampshades from the skin of the Jewish inmates that the doctors played experiments on, so maybe the movie should be called "Fifty Lampshades of Auschwitz" when it goes Hollywood, my humorist friend in New York added when he messaged me on Twitter.

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