Sunday, June 27, 2004

On 'history' and 'fiction' and 'literature'

The Little Professor discusses the conventions of historical non-fiction and fiction (also posted at Cliopatria), sparked off by a letter by one Ken McGoogan (via a link at scribblingwoman), defending his book, Ancient Mariner: The Arctic Adventures of Samuel Hearne, and his methodology, following two highly critical reviews in The Arctic Review. (The reviewers were, it seems, particularly hostile to his habit of inventing passages of dialogue between his subjects.)

Anyway, McGoogan enthusiastically joins the ranks of those who blithely and crudely misrepresent current and recent historiography: 'One can't help wondering what would happen if superlative historians like Glyn Williams stopped pretending that they practice science and accepted that they write literature. Maybe history would begin to regain its audience?' 'The writer of historical fiction, I believe, has taken out a license to change dates, names and venues, and to invent, combine or kill off characters, whatever; the writer of historical nonfiction, on the other hand, must work within the known facts, changing and ignoring none of them. I take the position that, having assimilated the relevant journals, letters, biographies and histories, the non-fiction writer can then use imagination and craft to bridge gaps in the record.'

As the Little Professor comments, in what parallel universe does history need to 'regain its audience'? Popular histories have a huge readership (and quite scholarly ones sometimes cross over and sell well too), and although sometimes we academic specialists complain about them for being too broad-brush, insufficiently sceptical about sources, and so on, they do nonetheless adhere to certain 'rules' of evidence, without which writing, as she says, simply cannot be classed as 'history'.

Secondly, the characterisations of historical nonfiction vs. fiction are frankly absurd, crude and inaccurate polarisations. As a historian, I cannot simply write what I like, but I do not accept that abiding by the constraints of the sources entails dull writing and prevents all imaginative creativity. Any more than fiction is inevitably creative, interesting writing... The Little Professor also makes telling points about historical novels. Their writers are more bounded by 'fact' than we tend to realise; the best historical fiction is backed by serious research and is careful about what it does with 'real' historical actors. Here's a question: should we be asking more searching questions about the relationship between 'literature' and 'fiction', as well as that between 'literature' and 'history'? Good writers transcend the constraints of whatever genre (or discipline, or field) they work in; poor writers drag their genre down with them.

McGoogan's letter at the points quoted in fact reads like a certain kind of slightly pompous/naive undergraduate who has yet to encounter the slipperiness and ambiguity of real primary sources, the spaces (including the literal gaps) that they allow for imaginative (yet critical) interpretation. (Historical novelists use those gaps in exactly the same way as historians, even if they can get away with rather more invention and less criticism.) Possible doubts about his familiarity with primary source materials - and in particular, sources for early modern history - are heightened by a further justification of his technique in this book compared to a previous one. That, he says, came 'out of the well-documented nineteenth century, Ancient Mariner derives from the far sketchier eighteenth. Inevitably, the gaps are greater.'

Well, it is virtually a historical law that the nearer you get to the present the more source material there is available, even to the point of overload. David Starkey told the Guardian in an interview that 'he is fascinated by the Tudors because it is the first period that is suficiently well-documented to be revealing for a historian, but not so well-documented that it becomes a Sisyphean task'. Eighteenth-century historians have more, and more varied, sources than Tudor historians. Sketchy? Hmm. Certainly (unless McGoogan's field is highly unusual) not so sketchy that one is forced to resort to invention in order to have anything interesting to say. That's just cheating, bloody laziness.

I can only finish by concurring with the editor's tart response to McGoogan: 'We wish to clarify that we are certainly cognizant of the ways in which fact and fiction overlap, an ambiguity often further cloaked in the mists of incomplete records or conflicting testimony. What we object to is fiction that represents itself as fact to the reader -- who... deserves better.'

(By the way, I may be one of the few people who quite liked Simon Schama's Dead Certainties, which was also criticised for departing from the 'rules'. But Schama was honest about what he was doing, and it made for an intriguing, thought-provoking experiment.)

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