History and fiction

There’s a very interesting article in The New Yorker by Jill Lepore on the relationship of history and fiction as it has played out over time, touching briefly on the recent scandals over fake memoirs such as the one by Margaret Jones (aka Seltzer). I love this article because it reminds us that ideas we take for granted now were not always seen as true, and, as many articles of this sort do, it uses the eighteenth century as a reference point.

The argument is that while today we take for granted the differences between history and fiction — one tells us facts, the other makes things up — in the past and particularly up until the eighteenth century, history was a place where invention was expected and encouraged:

Invention was a hallmark of ancient history, which was filled with long, often purely fictitious speeches of great men. It was animated by rhetoric, not by evidence. Even well into the eighteenth century, not a few historians continued to understand themselves as artists, with license to invent. Eager not to be confused with antiquarians and mere chroniclers, even budding empiricists confessed a certain lack of fussiness about facts.

Eighteenth-century novels, on the other hand, were often labeled “true history,” even though their contents were fabricated. Writers like Defoe and Richardson claimed that they were presenting genuine, real-life, historical documents they found, not ones they made up. Novels were also considered truthful in the sense of containing human, universal truth, if not the literal, factual “truth” we accept today. Lepore writes that for Fielding:

… there are two kinds of historical writing: history based in fact (whose truth is founded in documentary evidence), and history based in fiction (whose truth is founded in human nature).

Lepore points out that the history we’re familiar with today developed around the same time as the novel, interestingly enough, and so is a relatively new discipline. Lepore then connects these developments to gender; she points out that from the novel’s beginning (more or less) in the eighteenth century it has been associated with women, and that history has been associated with men. This dynamic continues today, with most fiction buyers being women and most history buyers being men. In the early days of the novel, when people (usually although not always men) worried about the time women were “wasting” reading novels, they recommended that women spend their time reading history instead. Over time, history came to be seen as the professional discipline, the domain of seriousness and truth, while fiction was seen as frivolous.

All this is interesting, isn’t it? Lepore doesn’t say that much about the “fake memoir” genre — she compares Margaret Seltzer unfavorably to Henry Fielding, arguing that while they both claimed their fictions were truthful:

“Love and Consequences” is a fraud; “Tom Jones” is not. Fielding was playing; Seltzer was just lying.

Yes, Seltzer’s book is a fraud, but the point remains that the differences between fact and fiction, history and novel, have never been all that easy to sort out and people have not always understood these terms in the way we do today. Our outrage at Seltzer and people like her is partly a product of relatively recent developments in the way we think about genre. I must say I find it rather silly when people denounce Seltzer with great seriousness and claim that she represents the degeneracy of our times. I’d rather just think of her as another example of the way we can never say exactly what it is we’re holding when we’ve got a book in our hands.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction, Reading

10 responses to “History and fiction

  1. Interesting. It’s like history and fiction are two halves of what used to be one.


  2. How interesting! I like Fielding’s historical distinctions. And your whole post made me smile as I think about Herodotus and his stories of giant ants. He has no qualms in making up stuff or accepting the fantastic as true. And every now and then he will give to views of the same story and then declare that he thinks the one story is simply ridiculous and untrue and the second, sometimes the one that seems least likely, is “true.”


  3. Thanks for pointing out the article – I would have missed it! I also appreciated your take on it.

    A point I often try to make on my blog is that history is by definition a judgmental narrative – a sort of fiction in waiting. That didn’t make me particularly popular as a graduate student in a history department a decade ago. I did my doctoral research on how French, American, some Vietnamese and Australian collectors – over a century – used Vietnamese folklore, re-imagined of course, as a sort of map for reality, wherein Vietnam became a quintessential Asia, at once close to and far away from home.

    So it was story as history and history as story. And, of course, people thought I was some sort of degenerate. Everyone seems rather attached to certainty!


  4. Very interesting post. I am reading my first depressions era fiction based on real life. I’m still a little confused why the writer didn’t just write a fiction based on his real life. The story is wonderful, I’m really enjoying it. It’s called Place To Belong. By Paul Miller. It’s a story about a little boy who grows up in some very hard times under very rough circumstances. And how he comes to be as an adult. It goes from hatred to forgiveness. I highly recommend it.

    I’m still working on the fiction based on fact idea. I will keep researching.

    Thank you for the post.

    Mary :>)


  5. I’m reminded of “Midnight’s Children”, which I read as a statement of history as “master narrative”. History is important for nationalism, which is probably why it became so important during the heyday of the British colonialism — the master narrative for the British Empire. A false sense of “factual truth” is forced unto the study of history partly because of the political agenda.

    But Rushdie’s assertion — as I read it — is that history is as much construct as stories. So in “Midnight’s Children”, as his character tells his personal history, he does it Sheherazade-style.


  6. Makes perfect sense to me. All the historians I’ve ever known have all been fabulous story-tellers.


  7. Sylvia — yeah, that makes sense; and people are trying desperately to keep the two apart, but they just won’t cooperate.

    Stefanie — Herodotus is the perfect example! Not something we’d call “history” by our modern definitions at all.

    Mike — well your project sounds fascinating to me! I thought that people were more open-minded about such things today — but perhaps the blurring of history and story is still just too much to deal with.

    Mary — your example sounds interesting — thanks for introducing it to me!

    Dark Orpheus — Midnight’s Children is a wonderful novel, isn’t it? Your reading of what Rushdie’s doing makes sense to me — that’s quite an interesting idea, to think of the ways factual history can be put to political uses.

    Emily — that’s good — I’d want a historian to be a fabulous storyteller, to make the discipline interesting and accessible. And to remind us that we can’t keep history and fiction in two complete separate realms.


  8. This sounds like an interesting article–I’ll have to read the whole thing. It must be difficult for historians whose area is ancient history to find factual writings and be able to pull the fact from fiction. I didn’t realize that they embellished so much. When you were describing this though, it brought to mind Defoe’s book that he wrote–Plague Journal (well, the title is something like that). I’ve not read it, but I have it and think it looks like a good read. He seems to present it as something like journalism or factual writing when in fact he lived later than the actual plague years (well, hopefully I’m somewhat accurate here). If there’s any sense of any sort of inaccuracies in history or nonfiction books it’s enough to ruin a career at worst and credibility at best. Interesting how things change!


  9. Very interesting! Maybe this is why I always think I’m learning “real” history when I read historical fiction! Right now I’m in the middle of Baudolino, by Umberto Eco, which is all about the blurring of history and fiction.


  10. What a fascinating article! Thanks for pointing it out. One of my very favourite classes I took in university was called “Fiction and History” and dealt with these kind of issues. My major was History and Lit so it fit in perfectly. Having an excellent professor didn’t hurt either! I’m always interested in these discussions.


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