Essays Fiction Issue

Notes on the History of Fiction

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

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?

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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