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Historical fiction and truth

Kate Pullinger, whose The Mistress of Nothing will soon be released in the US, wrote a great post last week about historians who dismiss historical fiction (in this case, Antony Beevor and Niall Ferguson):

According to reports, Niall Ferguson says he never reads historical fiction because it ‘contaminates historical understanding’; Beevor says he thinks that historical novelists ought to mark in bold type ‘the bits they made up’.Nice to see two such hardy fellows claiming their unparalleled access to the truth.

Pullinger then quotes from a talk about history and historiography¹ delivered by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 2006 and printed in the NYRB., in which Schlesinger argues that “All historians are prisoners of their own experience and servitors to their own prepossessions. We are all entrapped in the egocentric predicament. We bring to history the preconceptions of our personality and the preoccupations of our age.” Beevor and Ferguson, no matter how pristine they consider their own historical understandings, are just as time-blind as everybody else — if not more so, because they’re so submerged in their own cultural context that it’s become invisible to them. (This is the same problem I have with Stanley Fish’s frequent tirades in the NY Times about bias in the classroom: the underlying assumption that choosing not to discuss one’s political beliefs in the classroom means that bias is eradicated. Right.) I’ll put the bits I make up in bold when Beevor agrees to do the same thing.

Pullinger concludes: “this is why fiction can sometimes be the only way to tell the truth.” In essence, she’s making a point pretty similar to that of Sarah Dunant’s recent piece in the London Times, which presents historical fiction as a means of “penetrating ‘otherness.'”

I agree with Dunant, and I loved Pullinger’s post, but I’d drop the “the” before “truth” in her last sentence. The point of Schlesinger’s essay, as Pullinger points out, is that there is no historical “truth.” It doesn’t exist, and even if it did, in some rarefied ideal form, we wouldn’t have access to it. But here’s the thing: for historical fiction, it doesn’t matter that there’s no one truth.

Schlesinger says that “the historian is committed to a doomed enterprise—the quest for an unattainable objectivity.” Writers of historical fiction aren’t. When I write historical fiction, I’m trying to make art. I want the art I make to be truthful, but I don’t pretend that I’m identifying or recording the truth about history.² (I don’t mean to suggest that Pullinger or Dunant would claim this either, though I assume that Beevor and Ferguson think they would.)

I don’t think most readers care if historical fiction represents “the truth,” either. Some do, of course, and I think most readers respond negatively to the obvious importation of contemporary attitudes or speech patterns or modes of thinking into historical settings. But the word that kept coming up in our Wiscon panel discussion about historical fiction wasn’t truth but “authenticity” — the feeling of truth, in other words. The bits we make up as historical fiction writers are there to add to that feeling of truth, whether they’re accurate or not, and the feeling of truth and recognition is crucial to the success of any kind of art. Human understanding — that’s what we’re after.

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1. “Historiography” is one of my favorite things and one of my favorite words.

2. “Even things that are true can be proved.” (To keep company with the “stark postmodernist sentiments” Schlesinger quotes from John Lothrop Motley’s 1868 lecture.)

7 Comments

  1. Fair! But I think that aim is sort of still about authenticity, maybe? Or at least, you can have that goal — satisfying people who know a lot about the period, capturing the flavor of existence in that time — and still acknowledge, as you did, that you’re trying to write something truthful without claiming that it’s the only truth of medieval Britain.

    That said, I just went and read your blog post about how you found Hild, and I see what you mean. It’s a gift to find something you want to write about with your whole soul, that way. (And if that’s the sort of magisterial project you were referring to in your earlier post today, then I very much agree that writers older than 30 are probably better able to manage it than young writers are.) I can’t wait to read it.

  2. Sandra, thanks! And yeah, that’s something I’ve never gotten either, wanting the truth claim of “non-fiction” rather than memoir but not being willing to let the truth stand unembellished or to acknowledge that you’re making dramatic alterations.

  3. Dear Katharine –

    Thanks for responding to my post on your blog. Your point about ‘truth’ versus ‘the truth’ is spot on, and I agree that I should remove that ‘the’. I find the argument about historical fiction completely infuriating – after all, ‘War and Peace’ was a historical novel, as is Lorrie Moore’s recent ‘The Gate at the Stairs’, which is set in 2002. What writers and readers want most of all is good stories, well told.

    Regards – Kate

  4. Kate, thanks for visiting! I hope my point about “the” wasn’t too nitpicky — your post was just great. It’s always fascinating how strongly readers and writers feel about historical fiction, in particular — it seems to inspire people (including me) to want to make big claims about it!

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