Civil War Fiction: Worth Reading?

by Brett Schulte on July 11, 2008 · 2 comments

I have started to receive quite a few requests to review Civil War fiction here at the ol’ Civil War blog.  The requests intrigue me and I have often thought about expanding the scope of my posts here at TOCWOC to include fiction as well as non-fiction.  However, my standard response from day one has been to politely refuse these review requests, for several reasons.

First, my experience with Civil War fiction reading to date only includes The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, everything I can find from Ambrose Bierce, Rifles for Watie, and Across Five Aprils.  The latter two books are aimed at young adults, and yes I did read them at that age for the smart alecks among you.  🙂  My point is that I hardly feel qualified to offer up my judgment on Civil War fiction when I haven’t even gotten around to reading The Killer Angels.

Second, my experience with fiction in general is mostly limited to the horror genre.  I’ve read many of the masters of horror over the last several centuries, including Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, H.P. Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Algernon Blackwood, Bram Stoker, Henry James, and Shirley Jackson, to name but a few.  However, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read many classics including Tolstoy’s War and Peace, The Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, anything by Charles Dickens, and many others.

Third, in my personal opinion fiction is such a subjective field.  I may LOVE a story and you may HATE it.  I find this to be the case much more so in fiction than non-fiction.  I would hate to rave on about a novel only to have readers purchase it and hate it.  This goes back to point one about feeling ill-qualified to weigh in on this subject.  I probably shouldn’t be so worried about the subjectivity of Civil War fiction.  I’ve read many movie reviews that raved on and on about a movie, only for me to find I hated it after viewing.  Likewise, even non-fiction is subjective.  For instance, I find Richard Sommers’ book on Grant’s Fifth Offensive at Petersburg to be fascinating, while some others who share my same tastes have almost fallen asleep trying to get through it.

Fourth, what little free time I do have is soon to be halved or even cut to a greater extent with the birth of my first child in late November.  What time I do spend on Civil War reading and this blog will almost certainly be spent on review copies of books, all of which I request based on my interest.  I have accepted several unsolicited books for review, but typically this does not happen.  Trying to make time to review works of fiction would only cause my overflowing schedule to spiral even more out of control.

Now that my reasons for declining requests to review Civil War fiction are out of the way, I’d like to get to the meat of the post and discuss several items of importance.  In other words, I am actually going somewhere with this discussion!  I would like to ask those of you who are avid readers of Civil War fiction some questions about your purchases and reading habits.

First, how do you go about choosing which works of fiction you read?  If you are like me and horror fiction, I can assume you are reading message boards, checking out review sites, and doing Google searches trying to see what the majority opinion on a book is.  I can also assume that sometimes the title or subject of a fiction offering on the Civil War just “catches” you.  I’ve had several horror books do this for me, especially October Dreams, a horror anthology in which each story revolves around Halloween, probably my favorite holiday of the entire year (yes even Christmas).  When I heard the premise, no further research was necessary and I bought the book immediately.  What books have done this for you?

Second, what do you look for in Civil War fiction?  Does a historically accurate plot peak your interest?  Romance (c’mon ladies, I know you’re out there and reading)?  A protagonist representing one side or the other?  What?  I would probably tend to be interested in novels which follow soldiers into battle.  Rifles for Watie, mentioned earlier in this entry, is one such example for me.  The Red Badge of Courage obviously fits that mold as well as almost any Civil War novel.

Third, if I’ve held your interest this long, would any of you be interested in reviewing Civil War fiction for TOCWOC?  I know I will probably never get into this niche due to time and interest concerns, but I would love to provide TOCWOC readers with as much Civil War information as possible.  Perks would include a free review copy from the book publisher in return for a promise to fairly review the book within a reasonable amount of time.  The way I envision this working is that I can simply forward requests to review works of fiction to any TOCWOC author (past, present, or future) who is interested.  It occurs to me that I have been extremely shortsighted in turning these requests down without contacting current authors and without trying to see if anyone else is interested.

Lastly, for my fellow Civil War bloggers who do read and review Civil War fiction, what is the typical quality of books you are asked to review?  For all I know, I have been turning down some highly entertaining reading without even knowing it.

If anyone is interested in reviewing works of fiction for TOCWOC, whether you are reading this on the posting date or well into the future, feel free to comment here or use the Contact Us link at the top of the page.  I look forward to hearing about your experiences reading Civil War fiction even if you aren’t interested in reviewing for TOCWOC.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dave July 11, 2008 at 10:52 am

FYI, about The Killer Angels. . .

Yes, it’s a classic book. Arguably one of the best historical fiction novels ever written.

That said, if you’ve seen the movie Gettysburg, you’ve read the book, because the screenplay for that movie is practically the entire book. I’m not kidding– at well over 3 hours, and with Killer Angels itself being such a short book, the screenplay captures pretty much every line verbatim, every subplot, ever nuance that’s in the novel.

Of course, reading the novel allows the reader to visualize the events on their own, using their own imagination. Trouble is, if you’ve already seen the film, you already have your visualization for you, because again, the screenplay is verbatim Michael Shaara.

Now, *Jeff* Shaara’s books. . . a better choice there, because while they’re not as good as his father’s, they’re a LOT better than “Gods and Generals” the movie (which as most will agree was awful in all the ways that Gettysburg was good).

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