I think the answer to this mystery can be provided in an anecdote. A few years back, I was asked by my college alumni magazine to review a new book by a well-reputed historian, and professor at the college. Like a good reviewer, I first went and read the books that made him famous, and then read the new one. They were all good, but the new one represented a step back, I thought. As a piece of historical research, it was superb. The guy had some major chops in his field, and I said so in the review. But he made a mistake--he framed most of the book as a "nonfiction novel," in order to make it more dramatically satisfying, and spent a lot of page time "getting into the heads" of his subjects.
In this endeavor, the famous historian failed, at least in my view. He was a very poor novelist, cribbing his moves from half-baked popular fiction; and his generally tight, engaging writing style collapsed into purple effusion. He was out of his element--and I said that in my review too.
Whoops. I emailed the thing to the editor, and never heard from him again. The piece ran, and I got paid, but it was clear I had been scrubbed off the reviewer list. The famous historian, I belatedly realized, was not to be insulted.
Still, I believe my complaints were legitimate. When a book says NONFICTION on the spine, that's what I want to read. Dramatization is one thing, but dramatic reconstruction is hooey. Here's an example: I'm reading a really good book right now, James Swanson's Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln's Killer. (Yeah, that subtitle is gramatically wonky..."chase for"?...maybe "hunt for" or "chase of," but...never mind.) Swanson is similar to my reviewee in that his book is obsessively researched, and dramatized in a lively fashion. He's better at the dramatization than the other guy, but you still get bits like this:
Whoever told Booth about the president's theater party had unknowingly activated in his mind an imaginary clock that, even as he sat on the front step of Ford's, chuckling aloud as he read his letter, began ticking down, minute by minute.
First of all, the weary clock metaphor does not contribute to the drama of the inevitable event. But "chuckling aloud"? I don't think so. You can't do that without a footnote. Swanson says, in the notes,
I do not cite sources for each and every fact in the book...Manhunt is meant to be not an encyclopedia of the assassination, but a dramatic account...that unfolds, as much as possible, in real time.
Hmm. If he's got a citation in his files for that chuckle, I'll eat my tricorn.
I wish more popular historians would allow the drama of their subjects to speak for itself. We don't need the chuckling Booth--it's easy enough to imagine what he must have been thinking. In fact, Swanson could have said exactly that. "We can only imagine what Booth must have been thinking, as he paused on the steps of the theater, mere hours from the president's death." You know--interpolation. The historian's guiding hand, suggesting things for us to consider, rather than making up things to hand to us, fully formed.
Still, this is a really good book, and I highly recommend it. I wish more historical dramatizations were as restrained as this one usually is.