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Speculation In Non-Fiction: Do You Mind The Make-Believe?

A screen shot of Kristen Dunst playing Marie Antoinette in the film adaptation of Antonia Fraser's biography.  The screen shot shows Marie Antoinette's frivolity

Screen shot from Marie Antoinette, copyright © 2006 Columbia Pictures.

When you read non-fiction do you prefer to see only facts or are you open to ideas that come straight from the author’s mind?

For me it often depends on context, the nature of the speculation, and how much we actually know about the situation, person, or history.

I’ve found a lot of speculation comes from writers who feel as though they are experts (or are indeed considered experts). Often speculation will rise the more books on the subject the author has written. For example David Starkey’s Henry: Virtuous Prince contained a great deal of speculation about the King’s early life and thoughts, where history is scant due to his position as second son, and one would hope Starkey had a good sense of what might have happened.

But Starkey brings in another factor – often those who speculate come across as being “pally” with the person they are studying, overly familiar with them; a good way of ascertaining whether there is a chance of speculation is to view the way the writer treats the subject. If the writer is rather nice or indeed horrid, speculation and poor use of evidence can be considered a great possibility. With strong feelings comes the wish to promote them, the feelings, to the target audience.

Evidence is where speculation can become irritating. When an author makes up details for which there is absolutely no basis factually, it is hardly trustworthy. Indeed one might wonder how it made publication, after all universities always tell their students to back up their claims with sources.

Sometimes a speculative thread will continue throughout the book, for example Antonia Fraser decided that Marie Antoinette had had an affair with Count Fersen and this idea was continued throughout the story, thus affecting the rest of what Fraser had to say. (I do realise “decided” in this context is a strong word.) If you are someone who believes in what the author says you will likely be okay with the speculation, but without the full evidence or basis it is otherwise annoying.

Authors use speculation to help back up their views, which is of course somewhat ironic. Many books that are viewed unfavourably have a speculative basis or extreme bias that goes against the facts.

Yet there are of course times when speculation cannot be helped and is warranted. Take, for example, the case of a writer who dearly wants to introduce the world to a little-known person of which we have scant information. Surely here speculation is understandable and where we do not have facts these ideas mean that historical figures who would have remained confined to the past are now publicised. Facts may be later found due to the publicity that creates wide interest in research from all over the spectrum. Take, for example, Alexandre Dumas senior, whom Tom Reiss brought to us last year. Reiss made a point of telling the reader that little was known and he filled the book with other information to make it more interesting and add context that is also not studied enough (the lives of mulattoes in the Caribbean). Then there is Glynis Ridley who presented all that is known about Jeanne Baret. These sorts of cases make a strong case for speculation when there is nothing else. You could of course say that no facts equal no reason for writing, but that is surely unfair on the people who history simply forgot. (And history would have forgotten Jeanne Baret, the first European woman to explore America, because she was a woman).

Personally I am against speculation for the sake of drama, shock, or to aid the author in substantiating their own views when no evidence can be found. But when there isn’t any evidence, and the author is open about what is factual and what is not, I am more than happy to read the work.

What are your views on speculation in non-fiction?



March 6, 2013, 2:09 am

I don’t love speculation in non-fiction. Obviously, sometimes it’s fine and not a big deal. But I don’t like when authors get really granular about it – when they detail each moment and thought and the weather, etc.


March 6, 2013, 4:25 am

Funny you wrote about this because I was just discussing the same topic with a friend last night! She hates speculation and won’t read any NF that even dabbles in it, but I am okay with it as long as it is backed up very strongly with a good argument.


March 6, 2013, 12:50 pm

I can’t say I have thought about this before probably because I am not a huge non-fiction (although this is something I am working to rectify). I think I agree with you if an author is honest and upfront about it then I am open to read it. Thank you for sharing another thought-provoking subject Charlie.

jenn aka the picky girl

March 6, 2013, 9:19 pm

I’m actually editing a nonfiction manuscript right now, and this has been the tough part: the life story of this guy is so fascinating, but there aren’t a ton of details about him.

The author included a couple of scenes (based on location, interviews, descriptions, etc.), and it made this man come alive. Otherwise, the ms feels very stilted. I actually recommended she do more of that. To me, nonfiction is a tough sell for a lot of people, so if it reads more like a narrative, odds are, more people will read it.

I do think depending on the situation it can be annoying, but I’m a huge Erik Larsen fan, and he’s pretty liberal in that area. But he also documents the heck out of his research.


March 7, 2013, 1:16 am

I think my feelings about speculation in nonfiction nearly always depend on how well the author is making his/her case. Tom Reiss did a great job — I thought — separating out the definitely true from the speculated, and as well it was such an amazing story that I was willing to go along with him on some stuff that wasn’t as well-sourced.

Whereas Erik Larson, who wrote Devil in the White City, just drives me crazy speculating about ridiculous boring things like the weather and what kind of knives the killer was using. Boring and not worthwhile.


March 7, 2013, 4:58 am

As long as an author is very clear when they are speculating and when they have evidence, I think it’s fine, but always risky.

This comes up a lot in the Shakespeare authorship debates: Shakespeare didn’t leave anyone any books in his will. One side speculates that this means he didn’t have any books, was illiterate, and so could not have written the plays. The other side says that Shakespeare’s son-in-law took an inventory of his belonging to the Archbishop’s registry two months after Shakespeare’s death, and they speculate that all of his books and manuscripts must have been in this now-lost document, so Shakespeare must have been literate and must have numbered his plays in here.

Speculation can be used to any number of ends. As long as it is unbiased and adds flavor instead of content, it’s alright. But it must be used carefully.


March 7, 2013, 8:29 am

Well, in general I think that if it is non-fiction, it shouldn’t hava any speculation. But well, if the subject hasn’t been reseach and it is likely to be a fact, I suppose it’s not problem if you use it in a book. And in that case I would like to be told it is still not confirmed.
But in general for me, non-fiction is non-fiction, and a speculation could be fiction.


March 7, 2013, 1:06 pm

I’m not too keen on speculation in non-fiction. I read Jeanne Baret and it bothered me some of the time – although I did very much enjoy the book as a whole.

I think a writer should write a novel rather than non-fiction, if there is a lot of speculation. Even so, I don’t even like novels about real people because you then consider that real person with in the back of your mind the novel about him/her and that seems wrong to me.


March 7, 2013, 2:00 pm

I agree with your views. Like, whatistaste, I think of Shakespeare when this subject comes up and sometimes it seems we wouldn’t have a biography of any kind about Shakespeare if we didn’t have some speculation. There are just too many gaps. I tend to prefer, at least in biographies, when the author lays out the existing evidence and makes their case the way a lawyer might, drawing conclusions and making inferences from the available evidence. I like to see an author identify where he’s delved into the realm of speculation and inference, that way, as a reader, I’m in a better position to make my own judgment about the author’s conclusion.

Literary Feline

March 7, 2013, 7:05 pm

I think you have said quite well how I feel on the subject, Charlie. For me, it really depends. I definitely want the author to be clear about what is factual and what is speculation–and understand how the author came around to said speculation. I do think speculation has its place.


March 7, 2013, 7:44 pm

Good discussion!

I think, as long as it is made clear that there is speculation and the author is taking liberties with story telling, then it is okay.

Otherwise, there is nothing I hate more than finding out something I thought, and have been telling people, is a truth is actually fiction. It makes me feel silly – but that is a pretty personal/subjective reaction.

I have come to notice that, in example in books like The Suspicions of Mr Witcher, which are factual books written as fiction, it takes a book from being a standard historical textbook into a more readable arena. So, I suppose, again as long as this is made clear, I am okay with conjecture.


March 8, 2013, 11:39 am

Aarti: Yes, that can get annoying quickly. It makes it sound like literary fiction, which can work in some cases, but generally just takes the authority away from it.

Anbolyn: My thoughts exactly, if it can be backed with well, then it’s okay, because we have to consider other options sometimes. But backed up it ought to be.

Jessica: If you’re planning to read more then you will notice it soon. Though if you’ve managed to avoid it thus far that would be pretty brilliant. Honesty is the key – just that one thing makes a lot of difference. Not all the difference, but a great deal of it.

Jenn: Oh it totally depends on context – the manuscript your editing sounds an understandable case for speculation. And, as you’ve said, they’re based on interviews etc, so there is that basis in fact. The two together make it okay. Documenting the research sounds fair enough.

Jenny: Reiss’s approach was really good, agreed. I think his background played a role somewhat, too, it was interesting to read the book in that context. Interesting to have both yours and Jenn’s views on Larson here, shows just how much a one size fits all approach to books doesn’t work.

Whatistaste: I would have to agree with your first statement there, completely. Fascinating story about Shakespeare. I don’t know all that much about him so your information was good to read. And definitely a great example of the issues that can happen when we don’t know what really happened. You’ve said it – and it depends on the goals of the author, what the speculation is for.

Isi: Yes, in a perfect world, that should be the case. It is a problem when you read something and the author doesn’t tell you it’s not true. Speculation without evidence is fiction.

Judith: I have to say it did bother me to at times – it was the fact there was not much to find out that made it okay. Indeed, sometimes you’re reading and you think “why didn’t you just write fiction?” as in the case of Antonia Fraser, to this day I wonder why she didn’t just write a historical romance novel. Novels of real people is something I’m struggling with right now – you wonder how they might have taken it (and in this case the person is being portrayed as weak – I’m actually hoping there are other books that have shown her as strong because there is too little factual information on her to make a decision). And if you know the facts are otherwise then it can be uncomfortable. Even if it’s just a case of evidence suggesting otherwise (thinking of The Other Boleyn Girl here).

Brandon: I feel I’m missing out on a key argument, not knowing much about Shakespeare, so I’d better rectify that. Interesting that it’s a case of not having a biography at all if not for speculation, you’d think with what he left us and his relative nearness to our times (as opposed to, say, Chaucer), there would be more facts. Your preference is something I love – the debating and wish to convince the reader, when done well, is exhilarating. Good point about the author being open. Being able to make your own judgement, and feel that you’re “allowed” to, is incredibly important.

Literary Feline: Detailing the hows is important, and makes their case for using speculation better. It might seem a weakness to some, not asserting an authority in those times, but it demonstrates an awareness and respect for the reader.

Alice: That’s a big factor, really, that even if it may not happen a lot, it’s awful to give your thoughts in conversation and find that what you’ve learned is wrong. Of course the author would say it was right, but when evidence suggests otherwise, and you’ve had to get through the discomfort of said conversation, it doesn’t look good. And it’s unfortunate that it does make you (the general “you”) feel silly. Factual books written as fiction are fine as long as there’s that honesty, I agree. One of my favourite books is one that employs that method. Sometimes I questioned the evidence, because you will, but if it is indeed factual then it can have a big impact and gets around the “dry” stereotype.



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