Essays Fiction Issue

Notes on the History of Fiction

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

Of course the writer has a responsibility, whether as solemn interpreter or satirist, to make a composition that serves a revealed truth. But we demand that of all creative artists, of whatever medium. Besides which a reader of fiction who finds, in a novel, a familiar public figure saying and doing things not reported elsewhere knows he is reading fiction. He knows the novelist hopes to lie his way to a greater truth than is possible with factual reportage. The novel is an aesthetic rendering that would portray a public figure interpretively no less than the portrait on an easel. The novel is not read as a newspaper is read; it is read as it is written, in the spirit of freedom.

That the public figure of historical consequence makes a fiction of himself long before the novelist gets to him is almost beside the point. Once the novel is written, the rendering made, the historical presence is doubled. There is the person and there is the portrait. They are not the same, nor can they be. When and if the Richard III Society makes its case, there will be two Richards III, neither one interfering with the other. If there is not one Lincoln novel but dozens, the multiplicity of renderings will find the image not flat on the canvas but closer to a three-dimensional hologram.

Historic personages may be gossiped about in bars or seriously portrayed in prose compositions, but in any case they are, inevitably, sacrifices to the imaginative life of nations.


Where do the bona fide historians stand in all of this? Though the scholars of the American Historical Association probably think of the novelist who uses historical materials as a kind of undocumented worker slinking over the border at night, writers of narrative have a natural affiliation, whatever their calling.

The late French structuralist critic Roland Barthes, in an essay entitled “Historical Discourse,” concludes that the important stylistic trope of narrative history, namely the objective voice, “turns out to be a particular form of fiction.” Insofar as any piece of writing has a voice, the impersonal, objective voice of the narrative historian is his stock-in-trade. The presumption of factuality underlies the amassed documentation historians live by, and so we accept that voice. It is the voice of authority.

But to be conclusively objective is to have no cultural identity, to exist in such existential solitude as to have, in fact, no place in the world.

Historians research as many sources as they can, but they decide what is relevant to their enterprise and what isn’t. We should recognize the degree of creativity in this profession that goes beyond intelligent, assiduous scholarship. “There are no facts in themselves,” Nietzche says. “For a fact to exist we must first introduce meaning.” Historiography, like fiction, organizes its data in demonstration of meaning. The cultural matrix in which the historian works will condition his thinking; he will speak for his time and place by the facts he brings to light and the facts he leaves in darkness, the facts he brings into being and the facts that remain unformed, unborn. Recorded history undergoes a constant process of revision, and the process is not just a matter of discovering additional evidence to correct the record. “However remote in time events may seem to be, every historical judgment refers to present needs and situations,” the philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce says in his book History as the Story of Liberty. This is why history has to be written and rewritten from one generation to another.

Nevertheless, we recognize the difference between good history and bad history, just as we can tell a good novel from a bad one.

The scholarly historian and the undocumented novelist make common cause as operatives of the Enlightenment. They are confronted with faux history as it is construed by power, as it is perverted for political purposes, as it is hammered into serviceable myth by those who take advantage of its plasticity. For “History,” of course, is not only an academic study. It is, at all times, in all places, hot. “Who controls the past controls the future,” Orwell says in 1984. So there is history as written by elected or nonelected political leaders, super-patriots, dirty tricksters, xenophobes, and all other exemplars of shrewdly reductive thinking; history as written by ideologically driven social theorists, textbook writers conforming their work to communal pressures, retired statesmen putting the best face on their lamentable accomplishments, and fervent acolytes of one religious cult or another.

The novelist is not alone in understanding that reality is amenable to any construction placed upon it.

The historian and the novelist both work to deconstruct the aggregate fictions of their societies. The scholarship of the historian does this incrementally, the novelist more abruptly, from his unforgivable (but exciting) transgressions, as he writes his way in and around and under the historian’s work, animating it with the words that turn into the flesh and blood of living, feeling people.

The consanguinity of historians and novelists may be indicated by recent efforts of distinguished historians who, feeling themselves constrained by their discipline, have taken to writing novels. One presidential biographer has discovered no other way to accomplish his task than by yielding to unattributable flights of fancy. We should not be surprised by these border crossings. Who among writers of any genre would not want to see into the unseen?

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.

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