For readers who want to have it all

One aspect of the controversy over the "accidental plagiarists" (see story, right) is the tension between scholarship and storytelling: Is original research being sacrificed to a good read? It seems that a fair number of readers want it all: compelling, well-paced narrative, yes, but also footnotes and tips for further reading.

Well-researched historical fiction can be a good path to the emotional truth of another time. For my first visit to Gettysburg, for instance, I was advised to read Michael Shaara's excellent novel, "The Killer Angels." But conscientious readers know they can't always count on novels for facts - despite the meticulous research many writers do.

Maybe we need a way to signal what parts of even a work of fiction are actually rock-solid history.

Think for a moment of the way the World Wide Web presents information on different levels simultaneously: Click here for the full text; click here for the abstract.

Maybe a similar multilayering would be useful in books. What if different typefaces indicated different kinds of narrative? Roman for the fictional narrative, bold or italic for historical facts on record, and something else for passages grounded in the writer's own research? The goal here is to raise the fact quotient of good fiction, not the sizzle factor of bad history.

We have this already in other media. We "get" the differences between live reporting and file footage on television, for instance. And novelists have experimented with different presentations on the page to set fictional story lines against a historical backdrop: John Dos Passos in his "USA" trilogy, for instance, written during the 1930s, gave a literary equivalent of the collages of the visual arts, or of modern music-video editing techniques.

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