“I do not consider literary forms to exist in a hierarchy,”
October 15, 2015 1:30 PM   Subscribe

History v Historical Fiction by Jane Smiley [The Guardian] Historical fiction is not a secondary form – I was condescended to by a conservative historian who cannot see that he too constructs stories.
“The condescender was Niall Ferguson, a conservative historian about 15 years younger than me, who wanted to be sure that I understood that the historical novel is all made up, but that historical non-fiction, written by historians is truth. He referred to his research. I referred to my research. He wasn’t convinced. I suggested that the demands of history and fiction are slightly different – that since a novel is a story, it must be complete, and since a history must be accepted by the reader as accurate, it must be incomplete.”
posted by Fizz (43 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
Dig it. I mean I love 1491, but that's got a bunch of made up stuff in there too. Lost City of Z as well.

If the there's a hierarchy, I'd say it's with how much research was done. Well-researched HF is a favorite bc then I know I'm not getting stupid bits stuck in my head. Which is I why I refuse to read Dan Brown. He makes up too much.

Kathleen Gear and her husband are archeologists and historians and write a well-researched series about Native Americans. It's at the other end of the spectrum from Clan of the Cave Bear.

So yay for this woman and now I have some new stuff to read because her books sound AWESOME
posted by sio42 at 1:40 PM on October 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


In other news, science fiction is a secondary form of science, and I don't even want to talk about literary fiction.
posted by Sparx at 1:44 PM on October 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


The number of novels I've read that tell the truth is much higher than the number of history books I've read that tell the truth.

History (the discipline) is not teleological.
posted by OmieWise at 1:54 PM on October 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Just to be clear, though, none of those novels was Dostoyevsky's The Idiot.
posted by OmieWise at 1:55 PM on October 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


When I was younger, I really, really loved Herman Wouk's historical novels about World War II and read them a bunch of times before, as an undergrad, suddenly deciding that I was above them because they were lowly historical fiction. As a sensible, history-loving adult, I've become amazed at how well - and reasonably accurately, at a big-picture level - Wouk tells the story of the war, and how reading about it as part of a narrative about characters I cared about really helped my brain engage with and remember the history. Well-done historical fiction is a great thing.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 2:03 PM on October 15, 2015 [9 favorites]


Goodness, so many many people would benefit from the realization that all History is fiction.
posted by OHenryPacey at 2:08 PM on October 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


I'm not sure I understand her claim that history, to be accepted by the reader, must be incomplete, but I do agree that a simple novel = made up and non-fiction = truth is overly simplistic. The historian chooses to write about a particular thing and takes a particular approach to the subject. For them to succeed in their job, they are going to have to do more than relay facts; they are going to have to convince me that this subject and their particular focus on it is a worthy and interesting one. I'm not sure I'd call that making stuff up, but there's more going on than just Truth (tm).

But then, Niall Ferguson seems like a bit of a dick.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:09 PM on October 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Also: Niall Ferguson is a turd. Wait a minute.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 2:09 PM on October 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Niall Ferguson Has some interesting ideas but is probably best described as writing speculative history.
posted by Artw at 2:12 PM on October 15, 2015 [9 favorites]


It's at the other end of the spectrum from Clan of the Cave Bear.

But didn't Jean M. Auel do a bunch of research too? I recall reading about her learning to knap flint and everything. I always thought of the weaknesses (but also, frankly, strengths) of those books being the result of going a little crazy in the fill-in-the-gaps phase, not lack of research.
posted by No-sword at 2:23 PM on October 15, 2015


Cavemen invented everything. EVERYTHING. Includung all sex positions.
posted by Artw at 2:24 PM on October 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


I remember being taught by a Chaucer scholar, many years ago, who explained the critical importance of understanding that, when the Knight starts his tale with "Whilom, as olde stories tellen us", there is simply no distinction in the mind of the character, or the contemporary reader, between "story" and "history".

While there is much to be said for the Enlightenment and for rationalism, it's still important to recognise the epistemolgical limitations of the narratives we construct, no matter whether we call them "stories" or "histories".
posted by howfar at 2:29 PM on October 15, 2015 [10 favorites]


I've loved Smiley's cycle of novels. Nobody who writes gushing hagiographies of Kissinger has jack shit to say to the author of Greenlanders.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 2:35 PM on October 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


Smiley's account of this clash is fascinating, in large part, because you could drop it into the early nineteenth century and absolutely nobody would miss a beat. Walter Scott's famous review of his own work, for example, anticipates by nearly two centuries Smiley's own description of what she thinks historical fiction is, and what she is trying to accomplish.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:42 PM on October 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


The condescender was Niall Ferguson

Who could have guessed?

Oh, Jane Smiley, I love you so. If it weren't for your obsession with horses and horse-novels, you would be the perfect writer. 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel is always to hand, a sort of bible, a source of comfort and consolation and understanding, and the list of one hundred novels at the end is where I go when I know I want to read something but I'm not sure what. Every time I see A Thousand Acres at the used bookstore, I snatch it up and check, just in case it's the old copy I gave to a friend years ago, although it never is. Moo got me through a very dark time. And I'm sorry I keep trying Ten Days in the Hills and not making it more than ten or twenty pages in; that's my fault, not yours. I will always believe anything you say about history or anything else. Except when you talk about how great horses are. Because they're just big and gross with the flies and all, and everyone knows it.
posted by mittens at 2:51 PM on October 15, 2015 [9 favorites]


Larissa Macfarquhar wrote an insightful essay over at The New Yorker on Hilary Mantel and her relationship to historical fiction, The Dead Are Real: Hilary Mantel’s imagination.
Historical fiction is a hybrid form, halfway between fiction and nonfiction. It is pioneer country, without fixed laws. To some, if it is fiction, anything is permitted. To others, wanton invention when facts are to be found, or, worse, contradiction of well-known facts, is a horror: a violation of an implicit contract with the reader, and a betrayal of the people written about. Ironically, it is when those stricter standards of truth are applied that historical fiction looks most like lying. It is, in some ways, a humble form. There are limits to the writer’s authority. She cannot know her character completely. She has no power to alter his world or postpone his death. But in other ways it is not humble at all: she presumes to know the secrets of the dead and the mechanics of history.

The reputation of historical fiction is unstable. In the thirties, the Marxist literary critic György Lukács argued that early historical novels like those by Scott, Balzac, and Tolstoy showed that man’s nature was not fixed but transformed over time; thus, they showed that revolution was possible and, in doing so, made it more likely. But these days the historical novel is not quite respectable. It has difficulty distinguishing itself from its easy sister the historical romance. It is thought to involve irritating ways of talking, or excessive descriptions of clothes.
posted by Fizz at 2:58 PM on October 15, 2015


I'd say that any "historian" trying to put things into a comprehensive and consistent narrative is really writing Historical Fiction. Remember, History IS written by the winners, and there is always stuff that just does not fit "the narrative". "since a history must be accepted by the reader as accurate, it must be incomplete.", so if anybody tries to sell you a 'complete history', save your money and mindspace.

Or to use one of my personal mantras: "It's always more complicated than that."
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:01 PM on October 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


No-sword - Jane Auel certainly did research but her books were more cave romance. They are great stories and I will probably reread them one day. But the Gears write far more historically detailed stuff where I feel I've learned something and not just about sex ;) I kinda appreciate the lack of sex actually.
posted by sio42 at 3:27 PM on October 15, 2015


I think I learned more about the nineteenth-century world reading the Flashman books than I ever did out of any “real” history. They certainly compelled me to keep reading about an era I wouldn’t otherwise have had much interest in. You can’t take them as absolute fact or anything, but you do end up learning a lot about the First Anglo-Afghan War or whatever.

Likewise, you learn about the same from reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich as you do from reading all of the Gulag Archipelago, and in a fraction of the time!
posted by melgy at 3:32 PM on October 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Cavemen invented horses.
posted by Artw at 3:52 PM on October 15, 2015


The Greenlanders is one of the richest, most detailed, most astonishing books I've ever read. I have no doubt that Jane Smiley understands medieval Greenland better than almost anyone who didn't live there - the same level of knowledge as a specialist scholar/historian, yes, but also the emotional intelligence, the imagination, and the patience and art all needed to pull the steep mountains of fact and the vast glaciers of theory into an actual human landscape we might call 'medieval Greenland.'
posted by erlking at 3:58 PM on October 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I see what you mean sio42. To be honest I only really like the first one or two volumes of worldbuilding/survivalism, the peak being when Ayla has a full-grown cave lion for a pet. Once she hooks up with Jondalar Catalano it starts drifting into less interesting territory.
posted by No-sword at 4:28 PM on October 15, 2015


Which is I why I refuse to read Dan Brown. He makes up too much.
Too much? Brown adds slight embellishments compared to Eco's Foucault's Pendulum or Wilson's Illuminatus!. That said, both Eco and Wilson were able to embed far more truth in their fiction than Brown does. All three are hilarious, when approached with the right degree of levity.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:07 PM on October 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Cavemen invented horses.
posted by Artw at 6:52 PM on October 15 [+] [!]


Are you sure it's not the other way around?
posted by Fizz at 5:13 PM on October 15, 2015


The condescender was Niall Ferguson

No way.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 5:20 PM on October 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


Being accused by Niall Ferguson of playing fast and loose with history to tell the story you wanted to tell must be an amazing rush. He could probably do that for money at Zen retreats, just hitting the students with an experience so unexpected, senseless and paradoxical that it cuts them loose from ever taking anything for granted again.
posted by No-sword at 8:48 PM on October 15, 2015 [14 favorites]


They are, as she says, different things. I read both and expect different things out of them. Not sure how it makes sense to try and judge works as superior, including (apologies to sio42) "amount of research." It's like comparing musical genres by counting number of notes. Although the fact that Niall Ferguson would do that completely matches my mental picture of him.

But I think my attitude about historical fiction is at odds with some of the comments here. For me some historical novels give enjoyment when they can be cheerfully untrue or anachronistic. And part of the risk, when it's not being obviously playful in hat way, is that it is much more persuasive and easier to get in my mind that I "understand" something when I still don't. The compelling novel has to come up with something that feels coherent, the good history is constantly reminding us what is unknown.

But these days the historical novel is not quite respectable.

I feel that only applies when it's a "genre." Orhan Palmuk or E. L. Doctorow never took any reputational hits for working in that field.
posted by mark k at 8:50 PM on October 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Hmm. While I agree in general with her thesis, it isn't the broad strokes that matter so much. It is the details and made up connections and coincidences that matter because they tend to overlay memories and false facts over my understandings.

History is weird enough that I need to be sure I'm not going to repeat some nonsense about lemmings learned from a faux documentary by Disney or bullshit about Newton I read in a Stephenson novel.

Sure, I know it's all in good fun when I'm reading the novel, but I've caught myself misremembering some trivial, but prosaic, detail that I can't be sure wasn't just clever writing I'd read.

Stories are compelling truths, and I'm not saying this is a bad thing. But I'm sure historians are quite sick to death of seeing the same sorts of false memories repeated all the time.

Of course, they've been sick to death of their own discipline doing the same thing for centuries.

Also, Abraham Lincoln said all of this before.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:31 PM on October 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Niall Ferguson isn't so much a historian as someone very rich, right wing people hire to give their prejudices and delusions a veneer of respectability by sounding more or less coherent to those who aren't paying very much attention.
posted by Grangousier at 11:15 PM on October 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Well-researched HF is a favorite bc then I know I'm not getting stupid bits stuck in my head. Which is I why I refuse to read Dan Brown. He makes up too much.

I refuse to read Dan Brown again until I have some reason to believe the experience will not once again resemble being force-fed library paste.

Angels and Demons was an exceptional read, in that I am not generally moved to drown paperbacks in the bathwater on completion.
posted by flabdablet at 1:08 AM on October 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


If that picture of Niall Ferguson is anything to go by, he has one of the world's most temptingly head-buttable noses.
posted by flabdablet at 1:12 AM on October 16, 2015


Ironic, since Ferguson was also the editor of Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals.

I quite like counter-factuals, not least of all because they can help clarify what people in the past were afraid of or hoping for, and thus explain why they acted as they did.

I also like historical fiction because it can go places that the historical record may not quite full enough to back up (Robert Graves is an example - no way could he prove Caligula's committing parricide, but it for him, at least, it fit the narrative, so...).

And, of course, anything to get people to read more history must be counted a good. So long as the reader is not a once and done sort of reader. False memories and all that, and the danger of thinking that the past is not a foreign country, and that they were just like us. Only up to a point, Lord Copper.
posted by BWA at 3:38 AM on October 16, 2015


I'm trained as a historian, for what it's worth.

I guess that, to me, "historical fiction" isn't really a thing. I like reading fiction, because I like good stories, I like good writing in whatever form it comes, and I think that fiction can get at human truths that often aren't accessible to writers who are bound by the constraints of only writing what they can convincingly argue to be true. Some fiction is set in the past. Some fiction is set on Mars. Some fiction is set in a hospital. I don't really care where it's set as long as it's well-written, tells a story, and hopefully gets at something that is true and revealing about people or society. There's always a danger that you will read fiction and get a mistaken impression about the past, or Mars, or hospitals, and I guess I think the solution to that is to balance your fiction-reading life with a variety of other books and experiences. I've also had the experience of not being able to enjoy a book because I knew too much about the setting and didn't find it convincing. But that's not because fiction is untrue or a lesser kind of truth. It's just that fiction isn't the only kind of truth.

I think we've probably all encountered people who think that fact is superior to fiction and that science is superior to art. It takes all kinds, I guess, but I always feel a little bad for those people, because I think they're missing out on some important and potential sublime aspects of being human. And then there's Niall Ferguson, who is just an asshole.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:37 AM on October 16, 2015 [8 favorites]


Jane Smiley has little to fear from someone who long ago gave up any real respectability to be a feckless provocateur for what's left of Newsweek.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:04 AM on October 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm not trained as a historian, but in my honours year I did have the privilege of being the first person to write a short history on a minor pioneer in experimental music for my thesis. The whole time I was constantly blown away by the fact that what I was saying was true, but that I was unavoidably choosing which bits of truth to include and emphasise to form a narrative, and to make the points I wanted to make. I was weaving a truth, but it felt weird to be writing the the only (to that time) version of this guy's story, and to have my truth be the definitive version.

From that experience, I'd say history can only ever exist on a continuum of truthiness, and to compare it to fiction is a dangerous game to play, because depending on what texts get compared, a historical fiction work could come out looking more true than a non-fiction one, depending on the choices of the writer, and what truth/s they put in their writing.

But honestly, this Ferguson guy seems like another trolling buffoon. So what if he thinks he's better than fiction authors, big deal.
posted by threecheesetrees at 6:44 AM on October 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


"he has one of the world's most temptingly head-buttable noses"

Isn't there a German word for that, like there is for "a face made for punching"?
posted by etherist at 7:07 AM on October 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't really believe that historical fiction and history are on a continuum, because I think they're trying to do different things. It's true that there's bias and omission built into archives and that all narratives are constructed and that historians choose to focus on particular details, etc. But it's completely legitimate to challenge a thesis about history by saying "what about this evidence which is inconvenient to your narrative?", and it's bad historical practice intentionally to overlook evidence or to bend facts to fit your narrative. I don't necessarily think it's wrong to do that stuff in historical fiction. I get annoyed when people respond to historical fiction by saying "they had their character do this thing in March of 1915, and in fact nobody actually did that until June of 1915," because that's not really the point. Whereas if someone can say that about your history book, then you've got a problem.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:08 AM on October 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


Isn't there a German word for that, like there is for "a face made for punching"?

Backpfeifengesicht.
posted by Grangousier at 7:30 AM on October 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think we've probably all encountered people who think that fact is superior to fiction and that science is superior to art.

History, however, is superior history to historical fiction, just as historical fiction is superior literary fiction to history.

As you point out, they're doing different things. The Three Musketeers is fantastic historical fiction, but if you want to learn the facts of the Siege of LaRochelle, read a history book about it.

Historical fiction is similar to film adaptation of real events, in that we give wide latitude to the creator to fictionalize, re-arrange, and invent for narrative purposes. But now that we have accepted this, somehow we have opened ourselves to an argument that everything is adapted and invented narrative, which isn't true at all.
posted by deanc at 7:56 AM on October 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


Too much? Brown adds slight embellishments compared to Eco's Foucault's Pendulum or Wilson's Illuminatus!. That said, both Eco and Wilson were able to embed far more truth in their fiction than Brown does. All three are hilarious, when approached with the right degree of levity.

Anytime I see these books referenced I feel compelled to mention that Thomas Pynchon, otherwise known for his prolixity, manages to trump them by telling the story in a mere 145 pages in The Crying of Lot 149
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:29 AM on October 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


The "15 years younger" thing is just so telling, I'm glad she put it right there up front.

Just because those kind of people -- those conservative grumpy condescending kind of people -- always act as if they're your elder, lecturing to the foolish and ignorant youth.

When it is pointed out that the person they're trying to lecture to is old enough to have changed their diapers, it just sucks all the gravitas out of them.

Jane Smiley just gave me something to enjoy about getting older.
posted by edheil at 1:07 PM on October 16, 2015


As far as I can reason, the only significant difference between the forms is the expectation of footnotes. A well-footnoted historical novel would be just as useful for determining the facts as the equivalent work of history.
posted by howfar at 2:22 PM on October 17, 2015


Although the fact that Niall Ferguson would do that completely matches my mental picture of him.

I have heard him speak in person and also had a short conversation with him after his speech. He is actually not as pompous and condescending in person as he is in his writing. Which, admittedly, is not a very high bar to clear.
posted by chainsofreedom at 3:55 PM on October 18, 2015


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