Facts and Fiction


Soon after The Secret River was published to enthusiastic reviews and a sustained appearance on the best-seller lists, a fuss erupted about it. Two Australian historians made the claim that I thought the book was history – in fact, that I thought it was better history than historians’ history.

This claim was made by radically distorting some of my public comments about the book.

It was an absurd claim to make, as I’ve never thought any of my novels were history and I’ve never said that they were. I’ve always been careful to make a clear distinction between the history that inspired me, and the fiction I wrote. This distinction was spelled out in the Afterwords of the books themselves, on my website, and in every interview I gave.

But our media-driven age never lets the facts get in the way of a good story. Since that time, virtually all commentary about The Secret River (and to a lesser extent the following book, The Lieutenant) has been concerned not with the book or its themes, but with the “controversy” about it that had been inflamed by two historians with an axe to grind and a breathtakingly casual regard for the accuracy of their sources.

I wrote a brief public reply, and a more detailed response on my website. A few years later, this beat-up seemed finally to have found the place where it always belonged: in oblivion. Reviews and comments about the third novel in The Colonial Trilogy, Sarah Thornhill, agreed that the fiction/history fuss about the earlier two books was always a non-issue. The bogus “controversy” seemed finally to be dead.

With relief that I no longer had to defend myself against something I’d never said, I removed from this site the detailed responses I’d felt it necessary to make. I invited anyone who wanted to read them to contact me so I could make  them available.

The result was a constant stream of requests for the pieces. I hate to give oxygen to this phoney “debate”, but if articles and essays are going to continue to discuss it, my voice needs to be heard.

These are the three pieces that I wrote (in 2007 and 2008) and published on my website in response to those academics. 

The History–Fiction Demarcation Dispute

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Kate Grenville thinks she writes history. Eminent Australian historians have said it, and every Australian commentator since has solemnly repeated it, so it must be true.

The only problem is that it’s not. Those historians, eminent though they are, fudged their sources to make this spurious claim. Why? Several reasons, I think, and I’ll go into those in a moment. First, let’s review the claims they made.

Mark McKenna set the ball rolling. Soon after The Secret River was published, he wrote an essay making the assertion that “ if ever there was a case of a novelist wanting her work to be taken seriously as history, it is Grenville.” This essay has been re-published several times and seems to form the basis for all the succeeding chinese whispers about what I said.

Originally this essay gave no sources, but when I pressed  McKenna he produced them. Seeing them written down, you can understand why he was so coy. They consist of six newspaper articles and a live radio interview.

The newspaper articles weren’t written by me, weren’t shown to me before publication, and were written by journalists who didn’t do shorthand or recording but took quick paraphrased notes as I spoke. In other words, what appeared in the newspaper was beyond my control. Their headlines are inventions by the journalists or their editors, chosen for snappiness and brevity rather than accuracy.

All this is standard, legitimate journalistic practice for “colour” pieces, info-tainment in an ephemeral medium. But it means that the words that appeared in the newspaper may not bear much, if any, resemblance to what I actually said. Historians, more than most, know how important it is not to take sources at face value but to query who wrote them, and for whom: in other words to critically assess their reliability.

Trawling through these sources, rubbery though they are, McKenna still couldn’t find a statement that he could put between quote marks saying that I think I write history. If there were, he would most certainly quote it. What he does instead is cherry-pick from the articles, creating a sort of cloud of “history words”.

A novelist talking about a novel set in 1815, and how she researched it, is necessarily going to talk about the past, and about the historical record. In every interview I made it clear that many of the scenes in The Secret River are based on recorded events – but that I changed them in various ways. I spelled out the details of dates and times and places, carefully making the point that this is not history, but a novelist taking from the record what suited her fictional purposes.

The journalists, scribbling away into their notebooks, can’t be blamed for missing this kind of careful distinction. But historians can be blamed for unquestioningly taking the resulting piece as an accurate record of what I said.

McKenna’s big gun is a single metaphor plucked from a live radio interview. When asked “where would you put your books in the context of the History Wars?” I replied that I’d be up on a stepladder – outside the fray – looking down at the battle.

McKenna uses the stepladder image as proof that “Grenville elevates fiction to a position of interpretive power over and above that of history.”

This is drawing a long bow from that metaphor! Yet the image of the stepladder is the only backing McKenna can produce for this claim. If I’d chosen the image of a milk-crate instead of a stepladder (as I could just as well have), he’d have no case.

In fact, in the context of the full answer, the image is in the service of the opposite case – not that I think fiction superior to history, but that it’s in a separate category altogether. My full answer makes it unambiguously clear that I’m nothing more than an interested onlooker: “A novelist can stand up on the stepladder and look down [at the History Wars], outside the fray … that’s where I hope this book will be.  It stands outside that polarised conflict … ” A historian faced with a paucity of source material has to use what he can find. But in writing his essay McKenna had a wealth of other material at his disposal and carefully ignored it.

In the front and back of every edition of the novel, and in a long piece on my website, he would have found my own words about what I thought I was doing vis-à-vis history and fiction. Any of those easily-accessed sources make it impossible to claim that I think I’m writing history. (A significant hint might also be the fact that none of the characters in my books have the names of real people. This is one of the reasons I resist the label “historical novels” for my work – unlike other writers such as Hilary Mantel, I do not invent dialogue for real historical figures. My work is simply “fiction set in the past”.)

I spell out the nuances the journalists glossed over, and give chapter and verse to the places where I’ve knowingly altered the real historical events. I mention the historical sources and I make it clear that I’ve changed them. In conclusion, I say “It was important to me that the incidents and characters were solidly based on history, but as a novelist I drew on the historical sources loosely, as a starting-point for the work of the imagination.” This bears no relationship at all to claiming that my novel is “a work of history”.

This gold-standard, verbatim information was available at the click of a mouse, yet McKenna quotes not one single word of it. Either he didn’t read it or he read it and knowingly ignored it. 

Why would a distinguished historian do that? The answer is in his essay. He begins by arguing that history sells poorly compared to fiction – people would rather read a “historical novel” than history itself and “scholarly history is becoming harder to publish … history has been the great loser.”

This may well be true, but is that the fault of novelists? Is this a war between novelists and historians? McKenna certainly seems to think so. His essay takes as its starting-point the argument that novelists are setting out to supplant historians. In other words, he came to the sources with his mind already made up about the argument he wanted to make and the evidence he needs to find. Unless he can find a novelist claiming to  supplant history, he has no case.

In the final analysis, McKenna’s essay isn’t about what I said concerning the process of writing a novel. It’s about McKenna and the argument he wants to make about the rivalry he perceives between his discipline and mine.   

In spite of being based on obviously unreliable sources, McKenna’s essay has become the head of a conga-line of succeeding commentators, including reviewers, other academics across the humanities, study-guide writers and anthologisers – and two other senior historians of the highest academic standing.

Inga Clendinnen’s Quarterly Essay (issue 23,  “The History Question”) took McKenna’s argument and repeated it in language astonishing for its virulence. Clendinnen didn’t feel the need to mention any sources at all, even newspapers, for her claims that “the novel is a serious attempt to do history … Grenville sees her novel as a work of history”. She simply re-asserts McKenna’s claims as if they were fact. She has apparently neither checked his sources nor looked for any others. (Alternatively, she did check and did find, but chose to ignore – but surely not …)

 Her version of what I think is based on nothing but her own assertions. Its energy derives not from argument or evidence but from the colourful language of outrage and sneer. I wrote a polite reply in Quarterly Essay (issue 25), and she replied in issue 26 with an even more vitriolic and less-scrupulously-sourced piece.

(For my published replies to both of Clendinnen’s salvos, see “Response to Inga Clendinnen” below.)

Tom Griffiths, in his Greg Dening Lecture [“History and the Creative Imagination”, History Australia, 6 (3), December 2009), takes for granted that I claim to be writing history. He writes “This debate [about fiction and history] was provoked by Grenville’s media claims for her novel as history.”

Griffiths gives no source for this statement and, like everyone since McKenna, seems to feel it’s a fact established beyond the need for checking or referencing. In personal correspondence I asked him, on two separate occasions, if he would point me to his sources. I told him that, if I really did make such a claim in my own unmediated words, I needed to know so that I could eat humble pie. Twice he replied to the emails, but not to the question.

He goes on to make another kind of colourful case against me. McKenna and Clendinnen’s basic complaint is that I’m pretending to be a historian. Griffiths’s is that I’m pretending not to be one. 

His piece is full of decontexualised quotes, convenient conflations of the different meanings of the word “history” (as a story based on reality, or as the academic discipline of History), half-truths (about my doctorate), assumptions, and the colourful representation of me as “playing games with my public” by disingenuously pretending to be a “brilliant loner.” Put bluntly, he presents me as a self-serving hypocrite.

These three mightily respected historians have made insulting and damaging claims. Yet when you look closely, they’re based on sources that have been massaged in a way a shock-jock would be proud of. Why is this happening?

One answer lies in the way universities are now supported in Australia, where publication is the path to funding, both for the individual scholar and for the institution. Even to get a mention in a daily newspaper is to be praised and added to the University’s website, to show how well the ivory tower is reaching out into the community. To maximise the chances of publication or a mention in the media, the pressure is on to find a dramatic, headline-making argument. A startling claim about a well-known novelist and a best-selling novel is sure to get a reading.   

This is a tragic distortion of what the academy ought to be about, and I hasten to add that the vast majority of academics aren’t driven to these lengths. 

The other answer lies in an understandable frustration that historians experience in a culture that they feel devalues their work. It’s a frustration not unlike that of a serious literary novelist who can’t compete with Dan Brown. McKenna is right that readers often prefer to read historical fiction over history, just as they’d rather watch the TV series of Pride and Prejudice than read the book. It’s understandable for historians to look for someone to blame for this perceived dumbing down. But the fault doesn’t lie with writers of fiction. The fact is that there is no one to blame, no one to accuse. Cultures change, and not everyone is happy with the change.

Writers of fiction are doing what they’re done since stories were first told – taking  elements of real events and shaping them into a story. Sometimes these events are from the author’s own life, at other times they might be the Trojan Wars or the life of an obscure Scottish nobleman who wanted to be king. 

Historians, on the other hand, are in the middle of a passionate debate about their own discipline. Good luck to them. But their soul-searching about what they do has nothing to do with novelists, even if some of us do write about the past.

I care about what these commentators have said because, as a result of those Chinese whispers, the themes of the books that form “The Colonial Trilogy” have to a large extent been supplanted. Instead, commentary is dominated by the history–fiction demarcation dispute, based on a claim I never made. Hate my work by all means, but don’t put words into my mouth.

McKenna began his piece by regretting the difficulty of historians’ work reaching the public, and the fact that “historians have lost much of their cultural authority.”

His essay has certainly succeeded in reaching the public, but it’s done so by flouting some of the very qualities about History as an academic discipline – its open-mindedness and its care to represent sources in an honest way – that are the sources of its authority. He’s happy to blame novelists, but is it possible that the cause might lie closer to home?

Responding to Inga Clendinnen        

Not long after The Secret River was published, the Australian historian Inga Clendinnen published an essay in Quarterly Essay (issue 23, and also in correspondence in issues 25 and 26) in which she attacked me in a remarkably vitriolic manner. Her argument was that, in discussing The Secret River, I’d claimed that it was history. She gave no evidence for this view, for the very good reason that there is none.

However, the mud that she threw has, to a great extent, stuck. Her essay was widely read and has spawned a new generation of academic writings treating her unsourced accusations as a truth beyond the need for checking. Much commentary about The Secret River and the later books that make up the “Colonial Trilogy” has been sidetracked into discussion of claims that I have never made. My response seems not to have been so widely read, so I reproduce it in full here, with the kind permission of the editor of Quarterly Essay

I’m a great admirer of Inga Clendinnen’s writing and found “The History Question” full of the insights and thoughtfulness that characterise all her work. She spends some time discussing The Secret River, and I’m glad of the opportunity to make a few comments about that aspect of her essay.

Clendinnen isn’t the only historian to think that I regard The Secret River as history, and that I claim for it the authority of history: Mark McKenna (mentioned by Clendinnen in her essay) led the charge a few months ago. Clendinnen paraphrases McKenna’s argument when she says, “Grenville discovered she could write history after all. The novel is a serious attempt to do history … Grenville sees her novel as a work of history … ” Although Clendinnen gives no source for this claim, it could well have come from McKenna’s piece, so in this reply I’ll refer to his essay as well as hers.

Both McKenna’s essay and Clendinnen’s quote me as claiming to have written history – and in fact to have written better history than historians. However, the quotes that they use have been narrowly selected, taken out of context, and truncated. They don’t represent what I actually think. But, like Chinese Whispers, those “quotes” are now being quoted by others – and for this reason I’d like to put the record straight.

Here it is in plain words: I don’t think The Secret River is history – it’s a work of fiction. Like much fiction, it had its beginnings in the world, but those beginnings have been adapted and altered to various degrees for the sake of the fiction.

Nor did I ever say that I thought my novel was history. In fact, on countless occasions I was at pains to make it clear that I knew it wasn’t.

Perhaps the most accessible of these sources is the Acknowledgements in the back of the book itself, containing this statement:

“One of my ancestors gave me the basis for certain details in the early life of William Thornhill, and other characters share some qualities with historical figures. All the people within these pages, however, are works of fiction.

In the course of research I consulted countless documents… and adapted them for my imaginative purposes. Readers of, for example, the Old Bailey transcripts for 1806, and the Governor’s dispatches from early Sydney, may recognise a few lines. I acknowledge with gratitude the work of others in making such resources available to a writer of fiction.”

(By these “others”, of course I mainly meant historians.)

On my website (updated with this material in August 2005 and hard to miss on Google) I went into more detail about what I thought I’d done:

“This book isn’t history, but it’s solidly based on history. Most of the events in the book “really happened” and much of the dialogue is what people really said or wrote.

Whenever possible I based events in the book on recorded historical events, adapting and changing them as necessary. Thornhill’s first meeting with the Aboriginal people on the Hawkesbury is based on a similar incident involving the first Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip. The incident in which Captain McCallum fails to ambush a group of Aboriginal people is based on many accounts of similar failures by the military. The Proclamation which gives settlers permission to shoot Aboriginal people is taken verbatim from Governor Macquarie’s Proclamation of 1816. The massacre scene is based on eyewitness accounts of the Waterloo Creek killings in 1838.

Some characters are also loosely based on historical figures, and some of their dialogue is taken from their own mouths [there follow some examples of this].

It was important to me that the incidents and characters were solidly based on history, but as a novelist I drew on these historical sources loosely, as a starting-point for the work of the imagination. The final events and characters meld many historical references together – they’re fiction, but they’re based on fact.”

I’m sorry that my adaptation of historical sources has caused Inga Clendinnen to “flinch” – but it’s what fiction writers do: take the world and modify it. I’ve always made it clear, though, that I have modified it. I’ve spelled out my awareness that I’m writing fiction, not history.

Of course, it would have been simpler to answer all questions about The Secret River in the way Clendinnen describes Peter Carey doing when interviewed about The True History of the Kelly Gang: by saying flatly, unanswerably: “I made it up.”

But I was interested in trying to do something a little more nuanced than that: to acknowledge the complex relationship, backwards and forwards across an invisible line, between the world of fiction and the world inhabited by living people. In talking about the book in public, I was trying to describe my own journey around that line.

There are plenty of easily-accessible sources, then, for historians to consult in order to find out what I thought I was doing in The Secret River. But these aren’t the sources Clendinnen or McKenna have chosen to quote. Instead, they use a newspaper story and a radio interview.

Better than most, historians would know that conclusions are only as reliable as the sources on which they’re based. They would be aware, too, of the limitations of the kinds of sources they’ve used.

First, the context of these interviews: readers (and thus interviewers for book pages and programmes) are interested in the fiction-making process and often want to know “where do you get your ideas?” For a historical novel, they also want to know “how much of it is based on fact?” In other words, the context of my remarks was always that of a writer of fiction answering the question “how did you write this novel?” My answer was that I wasn’t writing history, but I wasn’t inventing incidents and details out of thin air, either.

In interviews I explained, much as I did on my website quoted above, that I’d taken events from the historical record and shifted their time and place, and that I’d ascribed to one man things that were actually done by another man. I told audiences the different dates, I spelled out the different locations. I made it clear that I’d used the historical record, but that I’d freely adapted it for my purposes, and that although many of the events I describe did happen, they didn’t happen to a man called William Thornhill in 1816, because he’s a fictional construction. In dozens of interviews I was scrupulous in making a distinction between what’s described in the historical record and how I’d departed from it.

One of these interviews was with Ramona Koval, in a programme quoted by Clendinnen. I talked about the “experiential research” I did in order to write The Secret River, and how I used empathy – “What would I have done in that situation?” – to try to construct characters. Clendinnen suggests that this is very poor history, because “Grenville would not have been Grenville in that situation.”

I agree – this would be poor history indeed. But these weren’t the comments of someone claiming to be doing history and describing how she went about historical research. The context for my remarks about empathy was that Koval had asked me to read a passage from the novel, which included mention of “thole-pins” (an old form of rowlocks). Our conversation began with her inviting me to talk about that aspect of the novel: “I think anybody listening to that must be particularly impressed with the language and the technicalities of the work of the lighterman turned sailor, I suppose, in the colonies. How did you find these ways to express this kind of work?” In other words, this wasn’t a question about how to write history: it was a question to a novelist about how she’d written her work of fiction. The context of my remarks about empathy – to which Clendinnen takes such exception – wasn’t that of someone explaining how they did history, but someone explaining how they did fiction.

A significant limitation of interviews as a reliable source for debate is that interviews are made on the run. Even politicians, those masters of the one-liner, have been known to get it wrong under those conditions. How much more will writers, who often became writers in the first place because they’re not particularly quick on their feet?

Clendinnen (and McKenna before her) quotes from the same radio interview, in which I used the now-infamous “stepladder” image. Their reading of this extract is that I’m claiming a superiority for fiction over history: that fiction is “further up the ladder.”

As her final question that day, with the ABC clock sweeping towards the end of our time in our separate studios, Ramona asked me: “So where would you put your book, finally, if you were laying out books on the history wars? Whereabouts would you slot yours?”

With the history warriors Windschuttle and Reynolds – the massacre denialists and the massacre acknowledgers – in the front of my mind, I answered: “Mine would be up on a ladder, looking down at the history wars. [The website transcript of this, until recently corrected, was “looking down on the history wars” but the audio is clearly “at” – a small but significant distinction.] I think the historians, and rightly so, have battled away about the details of exactly when and where and how many and how much, and they’ve got themselves into these polarised positions, and that’s fine, I think that’s what historians ought to be doing; constantly questioning the evidence and perhaps even each other. But a novelist can stand up on a stepladder and look down at this, outside the fray, [emphasis in original audio] and say there is another way to understand it …That’s what I hope this book will be. It stands outside that polarised conflict and says look, this is a problem we really need, as a nation, to come to grips with. The historians are doing their thing, but let me as a novelist come to it in a different way, which is the way of empathising and imaginative understanding of those difficult events. Basically to think, well, what would I have done in that situation, and what sort of a person would that make me?”

Written down and read in cold blood, and without the extra dimension given by tone of voice, this certainly ain’t Einstein. But I think it’s clear that the stepladder image wasn’t being used to imply superiority. The concept I was reaching for was to do with being different from the historians, perched up high on a removed vantage-point where I could watch, but not be involved. My book – because it’s a novel – is outside the “history wars”, irrelevant to them. As a novelist, I’m just an interested onlooker who made the mistake of climbing a stepladder rather than a couple of fruit-boxes to get a good view.

I think that comes through pretty unmistakably, but I recognise that the stepladder image might be seen to contain an ambiguity I didn’t intend. If I’d been quietly sitting at my desk writing (and then revising at leisure) for Quarterly Essay, I’d have used a different one. However, there’s no chance to revise on air.

The fact that this quickly-grabbed image is the one that’s being used again and again by historians indicates that this is the only support they can muster for their claim that I think fiction is superior to history. It strikes me as a pretty flimsy support for such a large claim.

Let me go on record now as saying that I don’t think – and never have thought – that fiction is superior to history, much less that my own novel is superior to the work of historians.

In his essay “Writing the Past”, Mark McKenna seems to have been the one to initiate the idea that I claim to be writing history rather than fictionan idea that Clendinnen then extends. In support of this argument McKenna quotes the “stepladder” image from the Ramona Kovall interview, plus a few stories written for daily newspapers. These are feature pieces and news stories by journalists incorporating brief quotes or paraphrased remarks from me. They’re not verbatim transcripts, they don’t contain extended quotes, and I didn’t see them before publication.

However, these sketchy and partial quotes and paraphrases are the only evidence that McKenna has produced for his claim that I think my novel is history. This is the claim that Clendinnen repeats when she says “Grenville sees her novel as a work of history”. Those newspaper stories are being asked to bear a burden for which they were never intended – to accurately represent my views on a complex subject.

This is by no means to criticise those journalists or their stories. It’s to recognise the limitation of the form itself and its context as an ephemeral piece for a daily paper. The problem is not in the pieces themselves, but in the fact that they’ve been used inappropriately – they’ve been taken uncritically, at face value, as authoritative evidence.

Much more accurate, considered material was easily available – for example the long piece on my website. I’m surprised that historians are basing such an important argument on these newspaper stories while other sources – ones that give a very different view – are being ignored.

I’ve also been surprised by the scornful, mocking tone of the historians’ discussions of The Secret River. Historians have every right to doubt the value of historical fiction, and to dislike any particular example of it. But personalising the discussion seems to go beyond a fruitful debate about the roles of history and fiction.

I recently heard an interview with Amanda Lohrey in which she mentioned her dislike for historical fiction because it’s “bogus”, and next day I read Henry James’ comments in a similar vein, as quoted by Clendinnen. I share much of their distrust of historical fiction and am as uncomfortable as they are with the sleight-of-hand used by the historical novelist.

In fact, The Secret River started life not as a historical novel but as a book of non-fiction – I’d planned a kind of loose biography of my convict ancestor. When I realised – for various reasons and with some dismay – that I was writing a historical novel, I came up with a way of reconciling myself to my uneasiness about that genre. I decided to write a second book to accompany the novel: one in which I’d show where the history ended and the fiction began in The Secret River – a record of the writing process, and of the thinking that lay behind it. Rather than hiding behind the sleight-of-hand of the novelist, I’d try to make the process transparent (in the same way I later attempted to do in interviews). So, concurrently with the novel, I worked on that second book, which has now been published: Searching for the Secret River.

It’s a book in which I’ve tried to explore something of what happens when the novelist’s imagination works on the world around them – a world which includes history and historical sources. Readers often ask novelists “is your work autobiographical?” and most novelists hate the question because the answer can be both yes and no. Teasing out the nuances of the yes-ness and the no-ness is a complicated business. In Searching for the Secret River, I’ve tried to do a similar kind of teasing-out about sources, and to acknowledge both my debt to history (and historians) and the ways I’ve departed from it, and why.

Clendinnen opens her chapter on The Secret River with the image of history and fiction jogging along together on adjacent tracks in an amicable way. Now, she says, novelists “have been doing their best to bump historians off the track.” I’ve never wished to challenge historians’ right to their track, and I’ve always assumed that their footing on it was, in any case, unshakably secure.

In my view, novelists are just doing what we’ve always done – taking aspects of the world and turning them into stories – and are taking up much the same space on the tracks that we always have. There are many and varied tracks back into the past, and my feeling is that there’s plenty of room on them for all of us.”

Kate Grenville, January 2007


In the next issue of Quarterly Essay, Clendinnen published a response to my response. Her second article is even more florid in its comments, and in it she manipulates sources and quotes with even less concern for truth. 

This is my response to that second article (unpublished, since QE allows only one round of correspondence).

“In her reply, Inga Clendinnen takes me to task for a lack of awareness of context and complexity in black-white frontier relations. As a non-historian I’m the first to agree that my understanding is incomplete. However, her argument depends on a use of sources that amounts to falsification. In the interests of accuracy I’d like to restore them somewhat.

She uses as her example the “old man and the stolen spade” event quoted in Searching for the Secret River, quoting my puzzlement when reading Captain Phillip’s account of it as proof that I don’t understand historical context. A historian, she says, (unlike a novelist) would question Phillip’s use of the word “stole” to describe what happened.

What she doesn’t mention is that over the 20 pages of Searching following the puzzlement she quotes, I do exactly that. I put Phillip’s account in context and I consider indigenous culture in relation to owning, exchange and other forms of transaction. I question the idea of “theft”. As she would know, at the end of that learning process I return to the scene:

“Thinking back to that scene with Governor Phillip and the man he’d slapped, I still didn’t understand it. But I could see now that there were whole grammars of behaviour, dictionaries of culture, that would make sense of the old man’s actions. Things to do with the protocols of being a guest and a host, with giving and taking, with respect and authority. I was appalled at the misunderstanding that must have happened in that moment, even though all parties had only goodwill towards each other. How easy it was for things to go wrong. Once they’d gone wrong, how hard to put right.”

More serious than Clendinnen’s partial representation of my own words, though, is her partial representation of the historical sources. 

As further evidence of my ignorance of historical context, Clendinnen mentions the puzzling fact that the old man didn’t spear Phillip, after Phillip slapped him in punishment for “stealing” the spade. “Why?” she asks. “Does “Phillip” – or whoever it is [the Aboriginal man] takes Phillip to be – stand within a protected relationship? Is it not possible for him to spear him?” She’s making the case that historians such as herself know to ask these subtle questions, while novelists simply blunder around trampling on the exquisite eggs of the past. 

Clendinnen has written a book about the first years of colonial Australia, so she must  know  that there are two accounts of this incident. One is by Governor Phillip. In his account, it’s his courage in facing the “old man” that prevents him being speared. However, another eyewitness account exists, and it gives a very different view of the moment – and a straightforward answer to Clendinnen’s question. It makes nonsense of her suggestion that something so subtle is going on in that moment that only an expert like herself can recognize it.

William Bradley records the scene thus: “… after dark the Old Man took an iron spade & was going off with it … the Governor chastised him for it, which so enraged him that he run off & very soon returned with his party all with their spears ready to throw when a Musquet was fired which made them stop & a second Musquet drove them away for the night.” 

In other words, there’s a very good reason for the old man not spearing Phillip: he and his companions were being fired on.

Either Clendinnen isn’t aware of this second version of the incident – which would make her a poor sort of historian – or, knowing about it, she’s pretending it doesn’t exist. She’s so incensed that a novelist should step onto her territory that she’s prepared to manipulate the sources in a way a tabloid journalist might be proud of. 

There’s an important discussion to be had about the roles of fiction and history, and the claims each makes for itself. However, that discussion isn’t well served by such manipulation of sources.” 

Kate Grenville, March 2007


As a result of these and other commentaries about my work that grossly distorted the facts, I gave some thought to what might be happening within the academy to make honesty take second place to sensation.

Academic Fictions

Something odd seems to be happening in academia: what I think of as “academics with attitude”.

I’d always had the idea that the role of academics was to come to a subject without preconceptions, look at all the available sources and draw conclusions and insights from them backed by accurate quotes.

From my reading recently among articles about my own work, it’s clear that this idea is no longer current (if it ever was). It looks as though some academics within the humanities see themselves less like open-minded scholars and more like shock-jocks: they take up a position and distort the evidence in any way they can, in order to support their case.

For five years, since the publication of The Secret River, pieces have appeared of the “academics with attitude” sort, in which my words have been distorted or – in many cases – simply fabricated, in order to claim than I think I’m writing history, and in fact better history than historians write.

I replied at the time to the most celebrated of these attacks (my response is elsewhere on this website – “History and Fiction”) and hoped that would set the record straight. But recently I’ve become aware that the fabrications produced in those attacks have taken on the stature of truth and now have a life of their own, spawning a whole second generation of articles perpetuating them. For that reason, it seems important to defend myself more vigorously than I have up till now.

Some of the academics whose work I’m thinking of in the examples below are senior academics, professors at our most august institutions of higher learning. Some are in literature and cultural studies but some are historians who, of all people, ought to be careful about their sources.  Some are young men and women still on the lower rungs of the academic ladder, trying to make careers. I have no wish to damage their prospects by identifying them. I hope, too, that it mightn’t be too late for them to re-visit the idea of academic integrity. Hence I haven’t always given chapter and verse, but I can assure you they exist.

It goes without saying that the great majority of academics are scrupulous in their use of sources. 

There are quite a few conjurer’s tricks that can turn a handkerchief into a rabbit. 

The unsupported assertion

Inga Clendinnen (one of Australia’s most well-known historians) in her notorious essay “The History Question” (Quarterly Essay 23) wrote: “Then during her research for The Secret River Grenville … discovered she could write history after all … The novel is a serious attempt to do history … Grenville sees her novel as a work of history sailing triumphantly beyond the constrictions of the formal discipline of history-writing.”

Tom Griffiths, in the Inaugural Greg Denind Lecture, says that a debate about fiction and history “was provoked by Grenville’s media claims for her novel as history.”

These are serious claims, and lead Clendinnen and Griffiths into serious accusations. Yet no reference is given for them. No reader can go and check the truth of their accusations.

There’s a good reason for that: there are no sources.  If there were, they’d cite them. Clendinnen and Griffiths  are – to put it bluntly – just making it up.

Apparent paraphrases

Assertions like these are sometimes presented to look like paraphrases of things that were actually said. A sentence that begins “Grenville describes” or “Grenville explains” strongly suggests that what follows is a faithful paraphrase. 

Yet what follows is frequently an almost unrecognisable departure from the original. In several examples from pieces about The Secret River, the word “history” has been used in the paraphrase where it never appeared in the original. This powerfully implies that I’ve been talking about history when in fact I’ve never used the word. Nor have I intended the idea, except in so far as I’ve been talking about the past.

Once the paraphrase using the word “history” is in place, the writer can then go ahead and build a case on the grounds that I’ve claimed to write history.

What appears to be paraphrase is in fact a mask for fabrication, which then takes on the authority of fact. 

The “Interpretation” hidey-hole

Academics have responded to my protests about this by saying that their words were not a paraphrase but an “interpretation”.

Interpretations, imaginative engagement with texts, and creative insights are the basis for academic thinking and re-thinking about important issues. That’s as it should be. But a reader has the right to know just when faithful paraphrase becomes interpretation; when it’s the academic speculating, rather than the original source speaking. Some academics are considerably less than scrupulous about making that distinction, taking advantage of the grey area between a text and its translation so that a reader takes away a false impression.

Others, more honourable, are prepared to clarify the writing in response to protests, and I appreciate this evidence of good faith.

Evasive Syntax

Some academics are marvellously modest about their insights. Rather than stating their case and supporting it with evidence or logical argument, they draw veils around themselves with such openers as : “It could be argued …” “It could be said that …” “This could be read as …”

Oddly enough, it’s usually the most contrived or contentious arguments that are introduced this way. It’s a neat way of saying but not-quite-saying, from which the academic can draw back if challenged.

The useful rhetorical question

If a claim is too grotesque, far-fetched or libellous, it can always be presented as a question. The wonderful thing about a question is that, because it’s not a statement, it doesn’t have to come with all that awkward baggage of evidence or argument.

The slippery footnote

Footnotes were invented to keep academics honest, but they don’t always do the job. A paraphrase might have an authoritative-looking footnote, but when you go to the source you sometimes look in vain for any resemblance between the original and the “paraphrase” or “interpretation” or even for the direct quote. 

 A particularly effective technique is to footnote a sentence or paragraph that makes several different points. The rare reader curious enough to check the source will find that the footnote only applies to one part of the sentence – and never the contentious part. 

 Even footnotes can be paraphrases, it seems. One of the damning condemnations of me as a claimer of history gives a footnote to the assertion that I think I write history, with this source : “Kate Grenville: The Historian Within, The Age [date given]”.

This piece was not written by me; it’s an article about my work in a daily newspaper. I didn’t give it that title and had no control over the title or the contents of the piece. However this footnote – and its implication that I thionk of myself as a historian – gives an unsupported (and false) assertion all the scholarly authority that a footnote confers.

Another gives as a footnote “Grenville’s lecture “Making history Real Through Fiction.” The actual title of this Blaiklock lecture can be found online as “Writing The Secret River“. Again, the idea that I think of myself as a historian – or as someone who can make history more real than poor old historians can – has been invented by others.

In a paper that had been accepted for publication in a collection of scholarly essays, the author gave a quote from one of my books, giving a footnote with page number. A check confirmed that there was no shadow of the quote to be found on the footnoted page. The quote, and its careful buttressing of footnote, were both entirely invented.

The problem is that most people don’t check footnoted quotes – it doesn’t occur to them (and it shouldn’t have to) that such things could be fabrications. I checked because I knew I’d never written what was ascribed to me – but most readers would have accepted the falsehood at face value.  

The “Peer Review” process sounds better than it is. Peer Reviews don’t check facts or sources or footnotes. They trust their fellow-academics to be honest – a trust that’s sometimes sadly misplaced.

The slippery quote marks

Placing something between quote marks is vouching for the fact that it’s a verbatim quote from another source. Several times recently I’ve read words between quotes that purport to be from one of my books (with source given, sometimes, amazingly, even with a page number provided, see above), but find when I go to the cited source that the words placed between quotes are simply not there. Sometimes they’ve been altered only by a significant word or two (the omission of a “not”, for example thereby reversing my original), but at other times they’re complete inventions.

Needless to say, the invention always works to support whatever point of view the academic is putting forward.

 Another bit of sleight-of-hand is to put a word or phrase between quote marks but without citing a source. The implication is that this word or phrase is a quote – but, since there’s no source, no-one can check. Again, by an odd coincidence, words dressed up like this are always the ones that back up the academic’s argument.

Absence is not evidence

Several academics have based withering attacks on me, on an absence in something I’ve written. In one case, an academic used the fact that I didn’t name individual Aboriginal people I’d written about in Searching for the Secret River, as further support for her argument: that my attitudes are racist. 

In fact I didn’t name those people for reasons to do with Aboriginal protocols around names. In Aboriginal culture, names have a significance and power that they don’t have in non-indigenous culture. To name someone (in particular a deceased person) can be offensive or distressing.

Should a reader know what a silence means? No, of course not. Readers can take away whatever they please. However, a senior academic making an argument published in a scholarly journal is not just any reader. His or her words will be taken as reliable. To build an attack on the assumption of what that silence means is to forget that, as the scientists say “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.

Getting the facts wrong

You’d think historians, more than most, should know how to be careful about  facts. But articles about my work are peppered with factual errors. These errors are never neutral; they’re always used to support the academic’s argument.

One historian, making the case that I’m at pains to conceal my debt to historians, claims that The Secret River was my PhD thesis, and that my supervisor was a historian. This is one of the largest planks in his  wider argument that, in not mentioning any of this in Searching for the Secret River, I’m painting myself as that “brilliant loner” mentioned above. 

The Secret River was  the larger part of my doctoral thesis; the smaller part was an exegesis about the process of turning research into fiction. I wrote The Secret River first, and for those several years my supervisor was a novelist, the late Glenda Adams. Only when the novel was essentially completed, and after Glenda retired, did the second supervisor take over. The historian Paula Hamilton steered me through the process of writing the exegesis, and I owe her an enormous debt of gratitude and appreciation for the way she pushed me to think in new ways. But to say of me that “her supervisor was a historian” is to use only part of the truth. 

Oh, THAT source?

Psychologist identify something they call Confirmation Bias, where we only look for evidence that supports the case we want to make: “I’ve made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts.” As lawyers and shock-jocks know, you can build a powerful case by the simple device of failing to mention any evidence to the contrary. Inga Clendinnen, in her Quarterly Essay response-to-my-response, pours scorn on my failure, in her eyes, to correctly interpret an event from 1788, the “old man and the spade” episode (details in “History and Fiction” elsewhere on this site). As she must know, there are two accounts of this event (Governor Phillip in his despatches, and Lt William Bradley in his published journal). However, only one source – Philiip’s despatch – gives teeth to her scorn. Conveniently, she fails to mention the other account, which throws a completely different light on the event, and on my own writing about it.  

Whose voice are we hearing?

One of the first things students of English Literature learn is that the voice of the narrator of a piece of fiction shouldn’t be taken as the voice of the author. This is particularly important when the narrative is told from the point of view of one of the characters, or when it’s in “third-person subjective” mode – third person voice, but from the point of view of one of the characters.

This elementary distinction seems not to be understood by some of the academics who write about my work. In many of my books, the voice or point of view of the narration is that of the main character. They have opinions, ideas, and thoughts that are their own: their thoughts reveal what they think, not what the author thinks.

The gap between what a character thinks, and what is true,  is where irony happens. Rather than the blunt instrument of preaching, irony can be a more effective way of making a critique.  

And yet, in an academic article about my work that was accepted for publication (although re-written before publication after protests from me), Dark Places is seen as “justifying and excusing” incest because the narrative is told through the voice of the self-justifying perpetrator. Yes, we hear his rationalisations. We understand what’s in his mind. To equate that with the author justifying incest is breathtakingly (and offensively) obtuse. 

The distinction between “empathy” and “sympathy” is another that you’d assume academics would have grasped. Empathising with a character means that you can see his or her point of view. Sympathising with a character means you agree with his or her point of view.

In a form of narrative that’s a bit less simplistic than “goodies versus baddies”, an author might make use of the power of empathy to force a reader to think about issues in a nuanced way. The tidy cartoons of “good” and “bad” are wonderfully reassuring, but they don’t make any difference to anything. Understanding why people do morally reprehensible things leads to greater awareness, and possibilities for positive movement are opened up. 

Chinese Whispers

When articles by respected academics fudge the truth, it can’t be wondered at that others follow.

A “Study Guide” about The Secret River states as a matter of fact that: “Grenville described The Secret River as looking down on the debate” (about the “history wars”), thereby opening myself to the claim that the novel “was superior to traditional historical documentation”. In fact I described myself looking down at the history wars from a safely removed distance: a very different implication. But this is the way Clendinnen and McKenna mis-quote that interview, and their mis-quotation has now become the received truth, along with the entirely false meaning they attach to it (more detail on this in “History and Fiction” on this website).  

The study guide goes on to say that “Grenville has been inclined to make claims for the novel’s historical accuracy and for the veracity (truthfulness) of the events that take place in The Secret River.” Again, in just the same way Mark McKenna did, this badly misrepresents my actual position (explained when the novel was first published,  on this website and in a hundred interviews), which is that the novel is based on historical characters and events, but has departed from them for the sake of the needs of a novel. 

But the writer of the guide, which will reach school students across Australia, hasn’t checked the source of any of these Chinese Whispers. This Guide will ensure that these very wrong perceptions are perpetuated among a whole new generation of readers.

Quoting from unreliable sources

When I read an article and find myself surprised by something I appear to have said, and check the footnote, I invariably find that the source is a newspaper feature article.

Most people are familiar with the sense of dislocation on reading a piece in a newspaper that describes an event or idea they know about, and find it unrecognisable. Nevertheless, at the risk of stating the obvious, let me spell out the limitations of newspaper articles as a source for serious pieces of academic inquiry.

First, the context: newspaper articles, even the best of them, are by their nature superficial. Newspaper pieces – especially feature articles and interviews – are essentially written as a kind of info-tainment.  The journalist looks for a “hook” on which to hang the story, to make it attractive to readers who aren’t looking for anything too deep and serious. The “hook” may or may not have much to do with what the subject said or thought, but the piece will be shaped around it.

That shaping is done by the journalist, not the subject. Very few journalists will allow the subject even to read the piece before publication, much less vet it for accuracy.

From an interview that might have lasted thirty minutes or an hour, the journalist selects the very small proportion that will be used. He or she will be writing to a deadline, and to a word-length: the aim is to produce an interesting piece rather than a nuanced account of the subject’s thoughts.

Some journalists take shorthand or use a tape-recorder, and in this case they at least have access to the verbatim words of their subject. But looking back through shorthand notes or re-running a taped interview takes time, and it’s quicker to paraphrase. 

Many journalists don’t do shorthand and don’t record the interview. They’re taking notes as the subject speaks – in other words paraphrasing on the run, with the odd phrase taken down verbatim.

So, whichever way the interview is done, the end result is that it’s essentially a paraphrase of what the subject said. And, unless the subject has been paranoid enough to have their own recording of the interview, even the subject has no way of knowing exactly what they said.

Newspaper pieces are essentially a promotion tool for a writer, and we recognise the nature and limitations of the form. We’re all used to seeing unrecognisable versions of ourselves in the final piece. We understand the journalists’ parameters.

However, when an academic takes that piece as a source, and cites it uncritically as if it had real authority, things go badly awry. The academic may directly quote it, in which case they’re quoting a paraphrase. Or – more often – they paraphrase it. That means that they’re presenting a paraphrase of a paraphrase. The original words the subject spoke have undergone at least two shaping processes, the first imposed by the journalist and the second by the academic.

An argument is only as good as its sources. If a source is unreliable, as a newspaper article is, then the argument is worthless. Academics, trained in rigorous thought, should know better, and should be challenged on the uncritical use of newspaper stories to support contentious claims.

Our old friend the partial quote

Quotes often contain those three dots that signal that something’s been left out. What a useful little bit of punctuation they are, those dots. Behind them can hide an entire universe: they can easily reverse the meaning of the original, and no one is any the wiser unless they take the trouble to check the original source. This is tabloid journalism trickery, yet several academic articles about my work make enthusiastic and frequent use of it.   

In “History and Fiction” elsewhere on this website, I’ve gone into detail about a now-often repeated source (a radio interview) for the claim that I think I’ve not only written history, but better history than the historians. Suffice here to say that this accusation rests on one metaphor in the piece. The longer answer from which the famous “stepladder” quote is plucked makes exactly the opposite point – that I regard myself as doing something quite different from what historians do. (The full transcript of this part of the interview can be found in “History and Fiction”, on this website).

Another academic (a professor at one of our most distinguished universities) has written that in an interview, I said that, in writing my novel: “I was trying to do something more nuanced than history”. This would be an outrageous claim, if I’d ever made it. 

Here’s the piece from which this professor has carefully sliced her quote, and inserted those ever-helpful dots:

“… it would have been simpler to answer all questions about The Secret River in the way Clendinnen describes Peter Carey doing when interviewed about The True History of the Kelly Gang: by saying flatly, unanswerably: “I made it up.” But I was interested in trying to do something a little more nuanced than that: to acknowledge the complex relationship, backwards and forwards across an invisible line, between the world of fiction and the world inhabited by living people. In talking about the book in public, I was trying to describe my own journey around that line.” 

So it turns out, when you read what I actually said, that I’m not claiming that my novel is more nuanced than history. I’m saying that my comments about my book are more nuanced than Peter Carey’s remarks about his.

I read academic pieces as little as possible, because I’m usually left astonished and appalled that some academics – supposedly trained in rigorous thinking and ethical guidelines – can fudge their sources so blatantly, often in peer-reviewed journals.

It appears that some academics live in a bubble of abstract thought in which constructing an ingenious argument is a satisfying game – and one that furthers careers. The problem is that, when that game leaks out beyond the academy, it does real damage in the real world. 

“Publish or perish” is a brutal law of academic life, and protests like this one won’t change anything. Those scholarly articles are out there for ever now, being read and believed. Just the same, the truth needs to go on record.