There’s a very interesting article in The New Yorker by Jill Lepore on the relationship of history and fiction as it has played out over time, touching briefly on the recent scandals over fake memoirs such as the one by Margaret Jones (aka Seltzer). I love this article because it reminds us that ideas we take for granted now were not always seen as true, and, as many articles of this sort do, it uses the eighteenth century as a reference point.
The argument is that while today we take for granted the differences between history and fiction — one tells us facts, the other makes things up — in the past and particularly up until the eighteenth century, history was a place where invention was expected and encouraged:
Invention was a hallmark of ancient history, which was filled with long, often purely fictitious speeches of great men. It was animated by rhetoric, not by evidence. Even well into the eighteenth century, not a few historians continued to understand themselves as artists, with license to invent. Eager not to be confused with antiquarians and mere chroniclers, even budding empiricists confessed a certain lack of fussiness about facts.
Eighteenth-century novels, on the other hand, were often labeled “true history,” even though their contents were fabricated. Writers like Defoe and Richardson claimed that they were presenting genuine, real-life, historical documents they found, not ones they made up. Novels were also considered truthful in the sense of containing human, universal truth, if not the literal, factual “truth” we accept today. Lepore writes that for Fielding:
… there are two kinds of historical writing: history based in fact (whose truth is founded in documentary evidence), and history based in fiction (whose truth is founded in human nature).
Lepore points out that the history we’re familiar with today developed around the same time as the novel, interestingly enough, and so is a relatively new discipline. Lepore then connects these developments to gender; she points out that from the novel’s beginning (more or less) in the eighteenth century it has been associated with women, and that history has been associated with men. This dynamic continues today, with most fiction buyers being women and most history buyers being men. In the early days of the novel, when people (usually although not always men) worried about the time women were “wasting” reading novels, they recommended that women spend their time reading history instead. Over time, history came to be seen as the professional discipline, the domain of seriousness and truth, while fiction was seen as frivolous.
All this is interesting, isn’t it? Lepore doesn’t say that much about the “fake memoir” genre — she compares Margaret Seltzer unfavorably to Henry Fielding, arguing that while they both claimed their fictions were truthful:
“Love and Consequences” is a fraud; “Tom Jones” is not. Fielding was playing; Seltzer was just lying.
Yes, Seltzer’s book is a fraud, but the point remains that the differences between fact and fiction, history and novel, have never been all that easy to sort out and people have not always understood these terms in the way we do today. Our outrage at Seltzer and people like her is partly a product of relatively recent developments in the way we think about genre. I must say I find it rather silly when people denounce Seltzer with great seriousness and claim that she represents the degeneracy of our times. I’d rather just think of her as another example of the way we can never say exactly what it is we’re holding when we’ve got a book in our hands.