What makes a writing "Fiction" versus "History"?

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DCHindley
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Re: What makes a writing "Fiction" versus "History"?

Post by DCHindley » Fri Jun 16, 2017 6:02 pm

I found a book by Monika Fludernik, An Introduction to Narratology, translated from the 2006 German edition by Patricia Häusler-Greenfield and Monika Fludernik in 2009, at
http://glearning.tju.edu.cn/pluginfile. ... %BB%8D.pdf

It covers White and his take on emplotment.
[58] Hayden White

The issue of fictionality in narrative is complex and highly controversial. We may start out from the assumption, as we saw in Chapter 1, that novels, literary films, dramas, [59] oral storytelling, history and autobiography may all be counted as examples of narrative texts. In this connection, Hayden White (1978) emphasizes the constructed nature of written history, an insight which is frequently (and wrongly) interpreted as referring to the fictional nature of historical writing. White contends that the naive view that historical events or facts ‘exist’ and only need to be ‘written down’ by historians goes back to an old-fashioned concept of mimesis, which is – incidentally – a literary notion. Second, he maintains that the so-called historical ‘facts’ and ‘events’ are only constructed by historiographical discourse and then have meaning attributed to them in a plot which is created by the historian. Finally, he claims that this process involves literary-rhetorical schemata which represent the course of history as tragedy, comedy, satire or farce. Since the same topics – the French Revolution, for instance – may be presented as tragedy, comedy or farce, the fictionalizing elements of historical writing are clearly located in the discourse of historiography. This can be analysed narratologically just as a novel can, and shows obvious fictional characteristics. The fictionality of narrative discourse, its teleological structure, its literary and rhetorical features all have no bearing on the truth of the content which is narrated. Every history takes what historians agree upon after the sources have been studied, and interprets this on the basis of speculation or by having recourse to fresh sources or new methods. In contrast to the novel, historical narrative can be proved false if new sources are found. So, the fictionality of history, according to Hayden White, has to do with the similarity between historical writing, especially that of the nineteenth century, and the discourse of the novel. It also derives from the fact that all plots are constructed, including historical plots in history texts.
DCH

neilgodfrey
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Re: What makes a writing "Fiction" versus "History"?

Post by neilgodfrey » Fri Jun 16, 2017 7:22 pm

The quotation re White brings to the fore various understandings of what we mean by history. There is a difference between a narrative presentation of "true/historical" events and the prior question of the "truth/historicity" of the events that are referenced in the narrative.

Example at a micro level. Two quite different narratives: "Japan attacked (the word used in a pejorative sense) Pearl Harbor" versus "Japan sought retaliation and economic survival against the oil embargo by striking at Pearl Harbor". (This second narrative could also use the word "attacked" but the context of the narrative would not make its use pejorative.)

Each mini narrative reflects a subjective party-interested perspective. Perspectives are only "true" for each party and do not hold a more universal "absolute" truth. In that sense some people like to call them "fictions". Whatever we call the perspectives, however, there remains one absolute historical fact that is "real" or "true" in the human past: that Japanese carrier planes dropped bombs on US facilities in Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The differences in perspectives do not deny or obliterate the "absolute fact".

I had lost sight Cohn in this discussion so back to her now....

Shakespeare and Aeschylus are valuable historical sources, not for their narratives per se but as literary artefacts and what they can tell us about their own time -- in a way no different in principle from the way any archaeological artefact can be interpreted to shed light on the culture that produced it.

Plutarch's narrative of Julius Caesar is a valuable historical source for reasons I suspect have already been covered.

I don't see how White's discussion changes any of this.

---------
Edited to change wording of first two paragraphs to try to be more precise with what I think I'm trying to say. (Easily distracted while typing in the back of a bus full of Thais touring through Taiwan.)
Last edited by neilgodfrey on Sat Jun 17, 2017 12:26 am, edited 4 times in total.

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Re: What makes a writing "Fiction" versus "History"?

Post by neilgodfrey » Fri Jun 16, 2017 7:58 pm

Paul the Uncertain wrote: As I understand your dichotomy, we are discussing how (whether?) people might recognize references to historical subject matter (seriously possibly real events and personages from the human past).
Ah, that's where I am finding myself confused lately. I was thinking of the question of how we can know if something really did happen in history. The question of how we recognize historical subject matter in a narrative already presupposes we know the answer to that question.
Paul the Uncertain wrote:Does Shakespeare thus being "inferior history" mean that Shakespeare is not historical at all, but "just fiction?" I don't think so, and I suspect you do. Partly, that's because I have no problem with works being treated as mixtures, and you do.
Most works are mixtures at some level. It's not the mixture as such that is the issue, but how we recognize the two, how we recognize the fiction as distinct from the historical on the dance floor where they may both be mixing.

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Re: What makes a writing "Fiction" versus "History"?

Post by neilgodfrey » Sat Jun 17, 2017 12:51 am

[58] Hayden White

. . . . White contends that the naive view that historical events or facts ‘exist’ and only need to be ‘written down’ by historians goes back to an old-fashioned concept of mimesis, which is – incidentally – a literary notion.
This concept of history really went out the window with Leopold von Ranke, or if you dispute that, certainly it went arse over tit with R.G. Collingwood's discussion setting out the way historians work(ed in his day) in The Idea of History.
Second, he maintains that the so-called historical ‘facts’ and ‘events’ are only constructed by historiographical discourse and then have meaning attributed to them in a plot which is created by the historian.
I suspect an overly loose interpretation of White here. White did at least believe in the verifiability of "real events". Taken literally, the quotation would indicate that White allows for the Holocaust story being a fabrication as much as its denial. That step was taken by a few postmodernists building on White. It is arguably going too far to attribute that extremity to White himself.
Finally, he claims that this process involves literary-rhetorical schemata which represent the course of history as tragedy, comedy, satire or farce.
White was addressing case studies of nineteenth century histories, iirc. The nineteenth century may have been an "age of ideology" for historians, with socialist and Whig views etc of historical development holding the field. Historians moved on from those days long ago.

But for the purposes of our discussion, White has been criticised for overstating the narrative or "fictional" role of the way data is selected and strung together to create a narrative at the expense of that other foundational activity of historians -- the establishment of "historical facts/events" themselves. The former cannot begin without the latter. We ought to [sorry, a "what we should do" statement about to appear] be careful not to repeat White's error of over-emphasis.

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Re: What makes a writing "Fiction" versus "History"?

Post by neilgodfrey » Sat Jun 17, 2017 3:00 am

Re Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as being in part a "historical writing" because it is based on information from Plutarch, is this viewpoint any different from, say, arguing that Barbara Cartland's romance novels should be considered in part historical writings because the author did her historical research from sources?

Is the point of the argument re Shakespeare and Plutarch to deny the category of historical fiction altogether and in effect replace it with something better called "fictionalized history"?

Is the point to deny any significance to genre at all?

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Re: What makes a writing "Fiction" versus "History"?

Post by andrewcriddle » Sat Jun 17, 2017 3:34 am

neilgodfrey wrote:Re Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as being in part a "historical writing" because it is based on information from Plutarch, is this viewpoint any different from, say, arguing that Barbara Cartland's romance novels should be considered in part historical writings because the author did her historical research from sources?

Is the point of the argument re Shakespeare and Plutarch to deny the category of historical fiction altogether and in effect replace it with something better called "fictionalized history"?

Is the point to deny any significance to genre at all?
I think there may be several different issues here.

One issue is that historical romances do mostly presuppose a historical background which the author attempts should be accurate, and this background does serve for many people as an important source of historical information and misinformation. If the background in a historical romance deviates radically from actual history (e.g. introducing real magicians with real powers) we are dealing with historical fantasy which is a different genre.

Another issue is that historical romances generally have an entirely fictional foreground and the material with any historical basis is purely background. This makes them different from works like Julius Caesar where the historically based material is foreground. (One can play around with these conventions. There is a rather good historical novel in which the history of Paul and early Christianity is retold in the background to the narrators ill-fated love affair with a young woman bull dancer.)

Andrew Criddle

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Re: What makes a writing "Fiction" versus "History"?

Post by neilgodfrey » Sat Jun 17, 2017 4:21 am

andrewcriddle wrote:
neilgodfrey wrote:Re Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as being in part a "historical writing" because it is based on information from Plutarch, is this viewpoint any different from, say, arguing that Barbara Cartland's romance novels should be considered in part historical writings because the author did her historical research from sources?

Is the point of the argument re Shakespeare and Plutarch to deny the category of historical fiction altogether and in effect replace it with something better called "fictionalized history"?

Is the point to deny any significance to genre at all?
I think there may be several different issues here.

One issue is that historical romances do mostly presuppose a historical background which the author attempts should be accurate, and this background does serve for many people as an important source of historical information and misinformation. If the background in a historical romance deviates radically from actual history (e.g. introducing real magicians with real powers) we are dealing with historical fantasy which is a different genre.

Another issue is that historical romances generally have an entirely fictional foreground and the material with any historical basis is purely background. This makes them different from works like Julius Caesar where the historically based material is foreground. (One can play around with these conventions. There is a rather good historical novel in which the history of Paul and early Christianity is retold in the background to the narrators ill-fated love affair with a young woman bull dancer.)

Andrew Criddle
I agree with your first paragraph.

I'm reminded of Vardis Fisher's historical novels. He studied in depth to recreate the factors and setting involved in the origins of Christianity and his characters were generally fictional creations built from the historical material. Earlier he wrote of Solomon, also, according to what was "known" historically at the time, but I suggest his historical portrait of the Solomon figure, for all his efforts to "recreate/present" the history of the time, is the most fictional aspect of his novel. When it came to the "person" of Solomon he had nothing in the sources to prescribe the way to go. Ditto S's JC. Merely fitting a character within the framework of known events does not make the fictionalized/dramatized character historical.

Shakespeare is not interested in presenting a historical reconstruction of JC in the sense of what we understand by historical reconstructions. He is finding useful material in JC to present a tragic hero, to talk about broader philosophical and topical and entertainment matters of interest to his patrons and theatre-goers.

The only reason we are even asking the question of "historicity" in relation to S's JC is because we know that JC was historical for reasons quite independent of S. It is to those sources that historians turn. The question was raised: What if all sources of JC were lost and we had only S's play surviving. I'd suggest that if that were the case we would have no reason to ask the question about the historicity of S's JC. We'd have no way to test any proposed answers, and we'd have no handle or point from which to even start an inquiry. The question would be moot.

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Re: What makes a writing "Fiction" versus "History"?

Post by Paul the Uncertain » Sat Jun 17, 2017 6:40 am

DCH

I didn't intend to stray far from the OP. I was especially mindful of its opening remark:
Over on the "This may be interesting" thread, MichaelBG had stated that there *must* be a way to tell from characteristics in the text.
I categorically dissent from that position, holding that there isn't *in general* a way to tell *from the text alone*. One intuitive reason is that we can construct mixed texts from "pure fiction" and "pure history," in any proportions. The range covered in discussion was from too-casually asserting that a war horse's nostrils flared on a specific occasion to a bodice-ripper getting some peripheral "local color" right.

At the point you wrote, Neil and I had drifted to what I thought was the natural follow-on to that: that *in general* we rely on background information (that is, something in addition to the text)to tell them apart. How we manage that, I think, would have been a useful and damn-near on-topic discussion.

I was adrift in good faith, then.

Neil

The "questions post:"
Re Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as being in part a "historical writing" because it is based on information from Plutarch, is this viewpoint any different from, say, arguing that Barbara Cartland's romance novels should be considered in part historical writings because the author did her historical research from sources?
It is a matter of more or less, or if you prefer andrew's formulation, foreground and background.
Is the point of the argument re Shakespeare and Plutarch to deny the category of historical fiction altogether and in effect replace it with something better called "fictionalized history"?
No.
Is the point to deny any significance to genre at all?
No, but when real works are being classified in the wild (as opposed to standard-defining examples, idealizations or hypotheticals), then genres are apt to be matters of degree or relative goodness-of-fit, rather than yes-or-no.

The "answer to andrew's post:"
Shakespeare is not interested...
That far exceeds any living person's knowledge of the facts of the matter. People have a hard enough time accurately accounting for their own interior mental states; other peoples', especially dead other peoples', aren't going to work as a basis for classifying anything.
The only reason we are even asking the question of "historicity" in relation to S's JC is because we know that JC was historical for reasons quite independent of S.
No, the example was chosen because we already fairly well know the facts about what's historical in it; in other words, because we don't need to ask about that. We only need to create a classification scheme that describes the work in a way that reflects what we know. The hope was that if we could derive principles for classifying this work usefully, then we might be that much closer to building something that we could use when we really don't know and do have to ask.

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Re: What makes a writing "Fiction" versus "History"?

Post by DCHindley » Sat Jun 17, 2017 6:48 am

Again, Neil,

I am not sure how this discussion deviated from a throwaway comment about countless posts (not necessarily from you) that had tried to prove that Jesus was a fictional character because the account had emplotments usually associated with legend, to evolve into a heated discussion about whether any historical facts can be transmitted in works of historical fiction.

Theodore von Ranke virtually invented the modern concept of "scientific" history, and yes, it is based on the principal of direct correspondence of the events of the past and modern descriptions of those events. That was a "Modernist" POV, confident that scientific examination of evidence can establish true conclusions. Collingwood is a modern advocate for this view that the past can be neutrally reconstructed from the surviving evidence by comparing sources and relics. That is fine, but isn't it a bit like Newton's laws of physics working just fine until we start to look at quantum mechanics? It becomes a convenient "fiction" (using that term as a philosopher might) to explain the observed facts.

I had another tooth pulled last week and I am a bit under the weather today, so I cannot respond as I would like. But keep in mind that the "post-modern" POVs started to question this idea of direct referentiality between past events and our reconstructions of them, and it was not without good reason. It came to be realized by most historians that it was impossible to be entirely subjective, especially in the face of revelations that a modern historian selects his or her facts from an array of evidence (relics) that have survived the ravages of time (the selection process is subjective, no matter how nuanced), and makes this evidence understandable through emplotments that are commonly used by society in the time period and place where the historian wrote.

The emplotments are often used subconsciously, without the historian even being aware of the process she/he has employed to explain the evidence s/he has selected. One historian selects a different set of "relevant" evidence to use as his/her facts than another, or even if they select the same set of facts, they can "spin" it many different ways through the process of emplotment. Your example of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941 is a case in point. This does not negate the existence of specific events in the past, but only our explanation of them. One POV selects the evidence that the bombing was effected as a surprise attack. The other stresses the economic pressures that forced the ruling government of Japan to employ that option as a preemptive strike. Yet the bombing still occurred. There is a lot of documentary evidence for that.

What post-structuralists (those who have studied and expanded on the original semiotic principals of structuralism, which had itself realized that the meaning of symbols is entirely arbitrary and based on the way the human brain is structured) do is use this revelation that the meanings are culturally dependent to look not only at the facts being presented by a historian (or narrative) but interpreting the explanation of that historian/writer in light of these issues.

It is not an attack on the past or our ability to interpret it! Even M. Fludernik accepts White's POV as valid, and she was actually a student of D. Cohn and cites her quite a bit in the book previously linked. Cohn, at least in 1999, was not so accepting of the POV of White, especially in chapter 7 of her book (boo hoo!). Cohn was critical of White because his definition of "fiction" was a variance with hers. Since, of course, she thought that her definition was better, White was making it harder for her to sell her POV (again, boo hoo!).

I have to mow the grass ... again :thumbdown:

DCH

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Re: What makes a writing "Fiction" versus "History"?

Post by neilgodfrey » Sat Jun 17, 2017 4:35 pm

DCHindley wrote:. . . Ranke virtually invented the modern concept of "scientific" history, and yes, it is based on the principal of direct correspondence of the events of the past and modern descriptions of those events. That was a "Modernist" POV, confident that scientific examination of evidence can establish true conclusions.
Despite the reputation that seems to have accrued to Ranke, Ranke did in fact recognize problems relating to interpretation of the data. He was not quite as "one-to-one" correspondence as is sometimes said.

But as for the "modernist" pov being "confident that scientific examination of evidence can establish true conclusion", I have serious difficulties with that portrayal of history/historians prior to White and various post-modernist criticisms. It simply is not true of most historians I knew or know anything about. Historians have "always" (at least since Collingwood) acknowledged the difficulties involved with interpretations, points of view, biases in both the sources and in the historians themselves, etc.
Collingwood is a modern advocate for this view that the past can be neutrally reconstructed from the surviving evidence by comparing sources and relics.
That's not the Collingwood I read in The Idea of History. Far from it.
But keep in mind that the "post-modern" POVs started to question this idea of direct referentiality between past events and our reconstructions of them, and it was not without good reason. It came to be realized by most historians that it was impossible to be entirely [objective], especially in the face of revelations that a modern historian selects his or her facts from an array of evidence (relics) that have survived the ravages of time (the selection process is subjective, no matter how nuanced), and makes this evidence understandable through emplotments that are commonly used by society in the time period and place where the historian wrote.
(I sympathize with your loss of tooth -- I corrected your "subjective" to "objective" -- hope that was correct.)

But this was very much how historians worked before postmodernism came on the scene. Postmodernists didn't discover these things. Ranke, despite his reputation, knew and understood the problem of objectivity/subjectivity, Collingwood especially, and Carr started another debate over what makes a source "historical". And narratives of various kinds were always acknowledged, and how they have to be created by the historian, etc, because "history itself" does not exist "out there".

All of this was pre-postmodernist.
The emplotments are often used subconsciously, without the historian even being aware of the process she/he has employed to explain the evidence s/he has selected. One historian selects a different set of "relevant" evidence to use as his/her facts than another, or even if they select the same set of facts, they can "spin" it many different ways through the process of emplotment. Your example of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941 is a case in point. This does not negate the existence of specific events in the past, but only our explanation of them. One POV selects the evidence that the bombing was effected as a surprise attack. The other stresses the economic pressures that forced the ruling government of Japan to employ that option as a preemptive strike. Yet the bombing still occurred. There is a lot of documentary evidence for that.
My example was taken from the fundamentals of how history works that I learned way back in the 1960s, first high school and then as an undergrad -- where all the talk was Carr's book, What Is History?
What post-structuralists (those who have studied and expanded on the original semiotic principals of structuralism, which had itself realized that the meaning of symbols is entirely arbitrary and based on the way the human brain is structured) do is use this revelation that the meanings are culturally dependent to look not only at the facts being presented by a historian (or narrative) but interpreting the explanation of that historian/writer in light of these issues.
Such discussions have long been conducted among historians. Ever since Collingwood.

Postmodernists have too often gone way too far and tossed out babies with bathwater, though.

It is not an attack on the past or our ability to interpret it! Even M. Fludernik accepts White's POV as valid, and she was actually a student of D. Cohn and cites her quite a bit in the book previously linked. Cohn, at least in 1999, was not so accepting of the POV of White, especially in chapter 7 of her book (boo hoo!). Cohn was critical of White because his definition of "fiction" was a variance with hers. Since, of course, she thought that her definition was better, White was making it harder for her to sell her POV (again, boo hoo!).
I don't become a "fan" of any scholar. I am sure most scholars like to have students who challenge and question what they teach and learn to justify their own enquiries and conclusions.
I have to mow the grass ... again :thumbdown:
Mowing the grass can be therapeutic.

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