One-Minute Book Reviews

October 1, 2007

Does Research Kill Novels? Quote of the Day (James Michener)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:52 pm
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James Michener (1907–1997) was famous partly for the Herculean research he did for his novels, including Hawaii, The Source and Centennial. But he admitted that research will only take you so far:

“The greatest novels are written without any recourse to research other than the writer’s solitary inspection of the human experience. Flaubert, Dostoevski, Jane Austen, Turgenev, and Henry James exemplify this truth …
“To praise a writer for having done research is like praising a bus driver for knowing how to shift gears; if he can’t perform that simple function, he has no right to climb into the bus …
“What research is done should be like the tip of the iceberg: one-tenth visible in the finished work, nine-tenths submerged, but available to give the whole stability and a sense of force.”

James Michener Literary Reflections: Michener on Michener, Hemingway, Capote & Others (State House Press, 1993)

Comment by Janice Harayda:
Some of the year’s most popular novels have drawn on extensive research, including Water for Elephants (review and reading group guide posted separately on Sept. 21) and Thirteen Moons. What novels have you read that have made effective use of historical research?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Research gives a novel the framework and authenticity it needs to be believable, especially if it’s set in a different place or time. Recently I read “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” with a brutal section on footbinding. It was obviously well researched, and extremely compelling.

    Comment by lisamm — October 1, 2007 @ 4:28 pm | Reply

  2. “Framework” is good word for it. Could you tell people who wrote “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”? Kathryn Harrison wrote a novel that involved foot-binding a couple of years ago that critics praised, but I don’t believe that was the title. Visitors who liked Harrison’s book might also enjoy the one you mentioned …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 1, 2007 @ 4:55 pm | Reply

  3. “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” was writen by Lisa See and was absolutely fascinating. I will have to look for the Harrison novel you mentioned. Thanks!

    Comment by lisamm — October 1, 2007 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

  4. About 5 years ago I was goaded into reading “Unintended Consequences,” a historical novel about America’s gun culture. In the case of this book, without the extensive research, people might not believe the facts laid out in the book or get the full story about the importance of our “gun culture” as it relates to our Second Amendment rights. Your astute reader lisamm put it so well, “research gives a novel the framework and authenticity it needs to be believable, especially if it’s set in a different place or time.”

    Comment by janetleigh — October 2, 2007 @ 8:59 am | Reply

  5. Thanks, Janetleigh. The comment is a bit long, so I may try to trim it later while preserving the spirit … Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 2, 2007 @ 12:16 pm | Reply

  6. The book by Kathryn Harrison you are referring to is “The Binding Chair, or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society : a novel,” published in 2000. One of my book clubs read it in 2003. Interestingly enough, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” is on our list for the coming year, as is “Water for Elephants.” And my OTHER book club is currently reading “Thirteen Moons.” It’s got me interested enough that I’ll be doing a little research on William Holland Thomas and the Cherokee Trail of Tears before our meeting on the 16th.

    There’s also a wonderful young adult novel related to foot binding called “Ties That Bind, Ties That Break” by Lensey Namioka that I read back in June 2001 and reviewed on Amazon.

    And yes, Janice, you can call me Amanda here!

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — October 3, 2007 @ 11:08 pm | Reply

  7. Amanda: Thanks for refreshing my memory. Maybe you’ll want to search for “William Holland Thomas” on Wikipedia, which has quite a lot on him (and separate information on the Trail of Tears)?

    Glad to know about the YA novel. So many YAs seem never to get to bookstores, where I could dip into them as I can with adult books. Thank you for encouraging me to put up the reading guide to “Water for Elephants, too.” It’s been one of my top posts daily since I put it up, though there’s another in the back of the book …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 4, 2007 @ 1:27 am | Reply

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