Essays Fiction Issue

Notes on the History of Fiction

Who would give up the Iliad for the “real” historical record?

In the Iliad there are many gods; in the Bible, the one God to whom the biblical writers cede authorship. But under many gods or one God, the stories told during this time were presumed to be true by the fact of being told. The very act of telling a story carried a presumption of truth.

We make allowances for Shakespeare, too, but for the reason that he is Shakespeare. By the time of the Elizabethan Age religious inspiration was becoming distinct from scientific fact, truth was something to be proven by observation and experiment, and the aesthetic event was a self-conscious production. Reality was one thing, fantasy another. God was institutionalized, and in a world deprived of enchantment by rationalism and empirical knowledge, stories were no longer the primary means of knowing. Storytellers were recognized as mortal, however immortal some of them would come to be, and a story might be believed, but not simply because it was being told.

Today it is only children who believe that stories, by the fact of their being told, are true. Children and fundamentalists. And that is the measure of the 2,000-year decline in the story’s authority.


The nineteenth century indicates more clearly than the Elizabethan Age the mortal writer’s longing to have the story retain its status as godlike revelation. Tolstoy’s Napoleon marches inside a volume of some 1,300 pages. He is not the only historically verifiable character. There is also General Kutuzov, the commander-in-chief of the Russian forces, Tsar Alexander, Count Rostopchin, the military governor of Moscow, and so on. They are presented as if of no different protoplasm than Tolstoy’s families of fictional characters. This fusion of fact and fiction exists in a panoramic world, as in Stendahl’s Charterhouse of Parma or Alexandre Dumas’s swashbuckling tale, The Three Musketeers, in which the historical Cardinal Richelieu figures, and none too favorably.

In nineteenth-century America, the historical audacity of novelists tends to be a step behind. Hawthorne in The Blithedale Romance, his novel of the actual Transcendentalist experiment of Brook Farm, draws an exacting portrait of the proto-feminist Margaret Fuller but gives her a different name. So you have the circumspection, or sly smile, of the roman à clef. But audacity in a different form, audacity as a working principle, is to be found in Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, a remarkable you-are-there tale by a writer who was never there. And the most outlandish project of all is, of course, Melville’s Moby Dick, wherein the ruling god-beast of an indifferent universe is composed from the grubby materials of the commercial whaling trade.

Common to all the great nineteenth-century practitioners of narrative art is a belief in the staying power of fiction as a legitimate system of knowledge. While the writer of fiction, of whatever form, may be seen as an arrogant transgressor, a genre-blurring immoralist given to border raids and territorial occupations, he is no more than a conservator of the ancient system of organizing and storing knowledge we call the story. A Bronze-Ager at heart, he lives by the total discourse that antedates the special vocabularies of modern intelligence.

A proper question here is whether his faith in his craft is justified. Whereas the biblical storytellers attributed their inspiration to God, the writers since seem to find in the fictive way of thinking a personal power—a fluency of mind that does not always warn the writer of the news it brings. Mark Twain said that he never wrote a book that didn’t write itself. And no less an enobler of the discipline than Henry James, in his essay “The Art of Fiction,” describes this empowerment as “an immense sensibility … that takes to itself the faintest hints of life … and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.” What the novelist is finally able to do, James says, is “to guess the unseen from the seen.”

This gift of the practice seems to come of its inherently solitary nature. A writer has no credential except as it is self-awarded. Despite our university graduate programs in writing there is nothing that licenses a writer to write, no equivalent of a medical degree, or a law degree or a Ph.D. in molecular biology or divinity. Writers are on their own. They are specialists in nothing. They are liberated. They can use the discoveries of science, the poetics of theology. They can ventriloquize as anthropologists, report as journalists; they can confess, philosophize, they can leer as pornographers, or become as wide-eyed as children. They are free to use legends, myths, dreams, hallucinations, and the mutterings of poor mad people in the street. All of it counts, every vocabulary, every kind of data is grist for the mill. Nothing is excluded, certainly not history.


For the last thirty years or so novelists and playwrights have been crossing into the historical realm in great numbers. (Just why we must leave to the literary scholars. But the decades previous had seen a kind of roping off of fiction while the media, the social sciences, and journalism had moved in on its territory.) Lincoln look-alikes have appeared in several recent novels; such diverse figures as Sigmund Freud, J. Edgar Hoover, and Roy M. Cohn have turned up with speaking roles; and novels have even been written about writers—Virginia Woolf, and James himself, for example—which, I suppose, is poetic justice.

Presented by

E. L. Doctorow’s most recent book is The March, winner of the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. His forthcoming collection, Creationists, will be published in September.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In