The Novel of Contemporary History

A foreign correspondent who saw action in the Pacific and European theaters; the author of three war books, Men on Bataan, Into the Valley, and A Bell for Adano; JOHN HERSEY is as well known for his fiction as he is for his documented and appalling report on Hiroshima. In this essay, which will subsequently appear in The Writer’s Book, an anthology edited by Helen Hull and sponsored by the Authors Guild, he states the aim of a novelist who, like himself, wishes to write a story of contemporary history.

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by JOHN HERSEY

TRUTH is said to be stranger than fiction; fiction can be stronger than truth. Palpable “facts” are mortal. Like certain moths and flying ants, they lay their eggs and die overnight. The important “flashes” and “bulletins” are already forgotten by the time yesterday morning’s paper is used to line the trash can to receive this morning’s coffee grounds. The things we remember for longer periods are emotions and impressions and illusions and images and characters: the elements of fiction.

What do we know of wars from the history books we once read in school, nodding sleepily but impelled from page to page by the specter of a failing mark in our next term paper? Most of us know what little we do of the Napoleonic wars, not from histories, but from Tolstoy’s War and Peace; of the American Civil War, not from the voluminous military commentaries on that so “military” war, but from Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and the stories of Ambrose Bierce and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind; of the Spanish Civil War, not from news dispatches at the time, but from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Malraux’s Man’s Hope. The First World War seemed true to us only when we read Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front; the Second World War has only begun to reveal its repugnant self to us as we have read Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, Shaw’s The Young Lions, Cozzcns’s Guard of Honor, and Wolfert’s An Act of Love.

Writers of fiction in these times should be very glad and humble. It is an ironical fact that the great industries of mass communications, built at the cost of millions of dollars, and profitable, too, in the millions — newspapers, magazines, radio, television — these marvelously intricate industries have somehow failed to communicate clearly one thing: human truth. Novelists have often failed in this task, of course, but usually they have come a great deal closer than the huge businesses which profess that very task. All alone at their desks, thinking back and trying to recapture impressions and feelings, dealing with the baffling, shadowy components of human character, advantaged only in the wonderful, flexible form they use, these individuals have frequently been able to do what the powerful organs of “fact” could not do: make reality seem real.

Fiction is a clarifying agent. It makes truth plausible. Who had even a tenable theory about the Soviet purge trials until he had read Koestler’s Darkness at Noon? Who understood the impact of Italian Fascism upon peasants, on the one hand, and upon thinking men, on the other, until he had read Silone’s Fontamara and Bread and Wine? Who claims to be able to argue about the collectivization of the farms in the Ukraine who has not read Sholokhov’s novels of the Don country? Whose mind imagined the nature and meaning of the fall of France in 1940 before he had seen the novels of Sartre and Camus? Who can know what the American twenties were like without having read the novels of Scott Fitzgerald and Dos Passos and Faulkner and O’Hara?

All right, these novels did not set forth the whole truth; human truth is not compressible within cardboard bindings. Furthermore, novels do not reach nearly as many people nearly as quickly as do the instruments of mass communications. Granted. Granted and deplored. What is argued here is only this much: among all the means of communication now available, imaginative literature comes closer than any other to being able to give an impression of the truth. Nor does the admirable speed of mass communications vitiate this. It would not be fantastic to say that a careful reading of American novels of the thirties and forties would have given better guidance on the outcome of the 1948 Presidential election than an even more careful reading of that very year’s and each moment’s newspapers did give.

This essay, then, is concerned with a specific genre: the novels which deal with contemporary events. Among such events, we may include any of the sort that might be written up in the newspapers — a broad category, we must remember, embracing war and politics (the front page), love (the society page), death (the obituary page), and other such time-honored commerce of the novel form. Some of the novels cited above, in the effort to prove that fiction is more adhesive and persuasive to the human mind than fact, were written long after the events they set forth. Yet there is a unity to that list of examples, of purpose and effect, if not of quality, which shows that this genre of the contemporary historical novel is indistinguishable from that of the historical novel in general. Indeed, the superior novel of contemporary events will in time come to be regarded as a historical novel.

Recently it has become too easy to dismiss the entire genre of novels concerned with recent events as being “journalistic” books and therefore somehow less than novels. There is a reason for this error, but not an excuse: within the genre there have been bad books. With regard to historical novels, there has been a similar tendency to oversimplify: the reputation of the whole genre has suffered because some of its books have worn bosoms on their jackets rather than vice versa. The imputation of guilt by association is unfortunate in any field. The type of the contemporary historical novel needs only time, to be vindicated — time for the poor novels to be forgotten and for the good ones to be dispassionately read.

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WHAT should be the aims of a writer who undertakes a novel of contemporary history? What are valid standards for this genre?

Above all, this kind of novel should make anyone who reads it better able to meet life in his generation— whenever that generation may be. This is the highest aim of any piece of fiction; in only one respect is this aim especially pertinent to the novel of contemporary history: the presently living generations have been more confused and harassed than most others have been by the history in which they have participated. In this very fact lies fiction’s main chance. Fiction is not afraid of complexity, as journalism is. Fiction can deal with confusion. A journalist is not allowed to be confused: he must know. But it is not necessarily a disadvantage for a novelist to be confused as a citizen and a human being — provided he has discipline as a writer. Indeed, the novelist’s confusion may be a virtue, for it may allow him to come into harmony with his readers, who are very likely confused themselves.

The task of this kind of novel, however, is not to illuminate events: it is to illuminate the human beings who are caught up in the events. Character is the proper focus of novels of any genre. Again, here is a special strength that novelists always have at hand and that journalists rarely have: it is possible in fiction to make a reader identify himself with the human beings in the story—to make a render feel that he himself took part in the great or despicable events of the story. The image of a single protagonist, in which the reader may see his own image — this is far more moving, more persuasive, and more memorable than the most raucous headlines and the most horrible statistics and the most authoritative editorials that could possibly be published in a newspaper. Journalism allows its readers to witness history; fiction gives its readers an opportunity to live it.

The novel of contemporary history must carry conviction. It must seem to be true. It must suffer a most difficult test. Those who participated in the events with which it is concerned, reading it, must be able to say, “That is exactly how it was!”; and at the same time those who did not take part in the happenings, and who perhaps have not been able to even imagine such happenings, must be able to say, “That is how it must have been!” Thus a definite scrupulousness and thoroughness are required of the writer, who must have done even more careful research than unorthodox historical novelist, since the latter has no actual witnesses to contend with; but also the writer must be selective and skillful in weaving, so that his mere accuracy or factuality does not flaunt itself and offend the human story he has to tell.

An especially difficult requirement for the contemporary historical novelist is that he must make his story timeless rather than timely. Attaching his narrative, as he is, to events which contemporary readers recognize as being near to their own experience, if not actually part of it, he will find it very hard not to address himself directly to them, with all their special and temporary feelings about the events in question — rather than to human beings of any time, present or future, who have no feelings about the events because they are remote from them. His concern must be to see whether he can discover the constants in human character.

This writer must be unusually conscious of style and form, for it is because of lapses in these areas that the derogatory label “journalistic” is most frequently and most justly attached to his kind of work. Even the writer who did not train as a journalist, the “pure” novelist, must, in undertaking a work of this kind, keep on guard against any manifestation of the journalistic style, which has made such devastating inroads, unnoticed and scarcely commented upon, into other genres of the novel, especially here in America. He must at all costs avoid the mannerisms and clichés of “journalese.” He must avoid the newspaperman’s way of burking crises, of taking verbal shortcuts, or thinking in terms of “lead,” “body,” “recap,” “angle,” “quotes,” “color,” “punch-line,” “by-line,” “headline.” He must shun glibness, and the appearance of it. Oversimplification is his poison. Punditry, editorializing, sounding like a columnist — sins all! He must be careful how he eyes even the virtues of the best journalistic writing — directness, clarity, fleetness of the metrical foot; he must approach a vernacular style with the utmost caution. On top of all this he must, like any novelist, seek a style which is at once unobtrusive and yet personal.

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THE writer in this genre, on the hunt for a personal style and form, is obliged to ask himself why he writes. It is an axiom of criticism that characters in a novel must be credibly and clearly motivated; yet it is not often required of a writer that he understand his own motivation. Why does he write the kind of novel he writes? In the field of the contemporary historical novel, there are several valid motivations on the conscious level, it seems to me, which may in combination lead to the desired result — namely, a good novel. There are others which certainly doom the result in advance.

The valid motivations are: —

A search for understanding. The writer who uses his writing in an honest effort to comprehend the forces of contemporary history, and their effects on individual human beings, will usually find responsive readers, for this effort can be said to have a certain universality in these times. The effort may lead the writer into some special, private theory of history, which in itself may be distorted or even untenable; but that does not matter, so long as the desire to understand, which led to the theory, was in the first instance real. Thus it was in part a rather petulant and narrow theory of history that led Tolstoy into and through the greatest novel of all times, War and Peace; readers may argue with his theory, or even be bored by its reiteration throughout the novel, but they cannot help admiring the force of Tolstoy’s conviction, they cannot help sharing Tolstoy’s manifest desire to understand the shaping of events by people and of people by events.

A desire for communication. This is, of course, a motivation for any writer, but in the area of contemporary events there is one special reason why this is an important drive: it is in this area that communication between human minds tends to break down. Oceans, boundaries, iron curtains: local prejudices, nationalisms, class lines; special interests, hardened traditions, intransigent beliefs — all these tend to block the flow of ideas and images between man and man. A writer who is able, by pointing up the unchanging, universal qualities in his characters, to penetrate the mental and emotional tariff walls between people and to re-establish that free trade without which man cannot live in peace with his fellows—this writer is certain to find readers everywhere.

Anger. The genre of this essay is related, not only to the orthodox historical novel, but also to the novel of social protest. A writer who comes to his work in anger may, if his passion is not simply hysterical, command an audience. The anger must be to some extent justified; it must be directed against a recognizable and formidable object. Humorless anger is dead anger, and of course a protest touched with irony and shadow will be more persuasive than one all black and white.

A will for world citizenship. The best novels can never be employees of politics; yet there is one politics from which every novel can and must take orders: the politics of universality, of humanity.

The invalid motivations, which are liable to destroy a novel before it is even written, are: —

Catharsis. If a writer uses a novel as a vessel into which to pour his unconscious inner turmoil and confusion and drives, he is certain to repel readers. Of course a writer who is soundly motivated will put into his work much that is unconscious and much that he neither sees himself nor understands. This is a matter of degrees, and the difference lies in the writer’s discipline as a writer, or lack of it.

Money. Any novel of contemporary events which is written for the sole purpose of making money will almost certainly be a bad novel and not make money. Herein lies the chief difference (up to the present time) between the novel of contemporary history and the orthodox historical novel. It has proved possible, in the latter field, to write books as merchandise and to make the merchandise move off the shelves. But so far, in the field of the contemporary historical novel, form and formula have not found a meeting point.

All this has been set down to urge the following conclusion: Much nonsense has been written about “journalistic” novels. The novel of contemporary history is an established form. It has dignity, purpose, and separateness. Like any novel form, it can be, and often is, abused. But it is sometimes excellently used.

The author of this essay acknowledges in it a certain pontifical tone. It is easier to write about writing than it is to write the sort of writing that ought to be written about.