As I work through the reading list for this project, I think it’s time to pause for some working definitions of purpose, and maybe we’ll get at what the technical writers call “the problem of the report.”
Here’s a first stab at it.
It is the sworn duty of the professional historian to apprehend and correct error within the collective memory of a people. Sources of error are many—lazy, incompetent, or purposefully misleading histories; legend; myth; local lore; national epic; poetry; and fiction.
Among these, fiction may pose the greatest threat. Its purpose, as James Dickey once told Willie Morris, is to entertain first and foremost. As Barry Hannah asked, “Beyond beginning, middle, end, and thrill us, what else is there to teach?” If a narrative succeeds at entertaining us and bears close similarity to an historical narrative, an error unleashed in fiction could contaminate the collective memory. If the fiction containing “the error” is any good, then the error has attractive packaging, is readily remembered, is succinctly portable, and if it’s thrilling to tell and repeat, that “error” will replicate.
Consider how much of the imagery from the Garden of Eden in the collective memory comes from the Bible, and how much from John Milton’s great poem “Paradise Lost.”
Fiction, like a virus, can replicate and supplant history in the minds and memories of a narrowing and less discerning readership whose waning, overstimulated attention has already been exposed to genre-bending transmutations of fiction and history (or nonfiction). Consider the work of Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and then pile on E. L. Doctorow to slicken that shrinking and overburdened readership’s grasp on what is fiction and what is nonfiction history.
How difficult the decisions now! What is a work of history? What is a work of fiction? And do I have time to sweat the difference when all I want is “content”?
Now I think I see the threat more clearly. Viewed crassly it is a contest for space on the shelf in the bookstore, in the home, on the Kindle, or lately in the smart phone. Viewed more broadly, it is the threat to collective memory (what the many believe happened) and its narrative of what is our shared story.
But the contention, the contest, the threat, is a false one and a shame. It denies a whole set of knowledge of the human heart (fiction) and alienates writers from another rich set of knowledge (history). Some of this opposition—the historian lancing at the fiction writer for “getting it wrong”—is needless. The fiction writer may have had at hand all the material needed to “get it right,” but trusted instead imagination to take the story in a more satisfying direction. Depending on which of the types of historical novel the writer had chosen, the choice to imagine and make a narrative more entertaining becomes less a sin and more a necessity of the practice.
If both parties agree to do a much better job delineating purpose, then much of this misgiving could be eliminated.
A work of fiction has as its purpose first to entertain and second, if it is literature, to evoke empathy and the recognition of emotional truth through an invented conflict of the human heart in crisis with itself, with others, with the times, even with nature.
Despite or maybe especially because of all the new problematics and the charges deconstruction has waged against history, a work of history has as its purpose the attainment of a narrative as near to the eventual truth of what actually happened in human events, as near eventual truth as can be wrought from all the evidence at hand selectively presented by the historian (see as well Working definitions of eventual and emotional truth).
To suppose that fiction strives to get us near to factual truth denies fiction’s purpose on so many levels as to negate the need for fiction all the way back to Cervantes. He begins his masterpiece, Don Quixote by setting the need for hard facts aside in the very first sentence (though intriguingly from Chapter IX onward Cervantes couches his fiction in the posture that what he is giving the reader is a translation of an historian’s work, testimony that these two carriers of narrative, fiction and history, have been interrelated from the start).
En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.”
Translated: “In a place in La Mancha, the name of which I don’t care to recall, not long ago there lived one of those old gentlemen with a lance in the rack, an antique buckler, a gangly horse, and a greyhound for racing.”
What more could you ask of a beginning sentence for arguably the first novel? And look at the contract it makes with the reader from the outset. Cervantes sets out clearly what matters: the hidalgo, and the details of his life. Not the exact place, not the exact date. We’re putting living flesh on the page, not a timetable and a map. Readers recognize the emotional truth of one not exactly similar, but human kin through truths of the heart. And the author quickly carries us to empathy with Don Quixote by entertaining. Fiction’s emotional truth has our attention, and we are ready to follow its revelations.