Does Fiction Shape the “Reality” of History?

At the essence of every work of historical fiction is this question: How close to what actually happened does the author come in telling his or her story?

Yet perhaps the more profound inquiry should turn the question on its head and ask: How will my historical novel shape the “reality” of history?

In a contribution for The Stone, a series of discussions on philosophy moderated by The New York Times, literary theorist William Egginton, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at John Hopkins University, has written a thought-provoking essay that explores the effect of fiction on the collective perception of reality.

His offering is essential reading for the historical novelist, if for no other reason than it opens the Pandora’s box of what in reality constitutes “reality.”

In a response to an earlier essay in the series by Professor Alex Rosenberg on the superiority of naturalism and science over literature in the search for knowledge, Egginton argues that:

In fact, the common notion of objective reality that most of us would recognize today and the one on which Professor Rosenberg’s defense of naturalism rests — as that which persists independent of our subjective perspectives — is mutually dependent on the multiple perspectives cultivated by the fictional worldview. It is not a coincidence that the English term “reality” and its cognates in the other European languages only entered into usage between the mid-16th and early-17th century, depending on the language.

Egginton submits that Cervantes’ Don Quixote changed forever how the Western World understood itself. And only with the arrival of Descartes and his Meditations at the end of the 1630s did there come to exist “a rigorous distinction between how things appear to me and how they are independent of my perspective entered the philosophical lexicon.”

Egginton explains this basis for this transformation as follows:

The fictional worldview, then, is one in which we are able to divide our selves to assume simultaneously opposing consciousnesses, and to enter and leave different realities at will, all the while voluntarily suspending judgments concerning their relation to an ultimate reality.

Interestingly, Egginton does not differentiate among the various genres of fiction. I would argue that the willing suspension of judgment is not always present for historical fiction; the perceptive reader is almost always judging whether the narrative informs what he thinks he knows about so-called reality-based history.

When vexed by this tension between fiction and reality, I always take comfort from my two favorite sources on the subject.

Jane Austen understood the difficult and potentially subversive task of the historical novelist when she had her heroine in Northanger Abbey remark about history, “I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. . . ”

And then there is the insight of author Tim O’Brien, who wrote about the Vietnam War in his “How to Tell a True Story”: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”

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