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

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Paul the Uncertain
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Re: What makes a writing "Fiction" versus "History"?

Post by Paul the Uncertain » Fri Jun 30, 2017 6:29 pm


Fine. If you feel our discussion is of insufficient commuity interest, then I withdraw.

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

Post by neilgodfrey » Fri Jun 30, 2017 6:52 pm

Paul -- I'm open to being proved wrong. Happy to continue here if sufficient interest is demonstrated.

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What makes Herodotus "Fiction" versus "History"?

Post by neilgodfrey » Sat Jul 01, 2017 4:19 am

The "Father of History", Herodotus, might be an interesting case study for this particular question.

Ancient historians have often taken Herodotus as a valuable source through which they can interpret Egyptian and Babylonian culture and history, but in recent years a few scholars have revived doubts of some of the earlier scholars who suspected Histories was a narrative more fictional than historical.

The work reads as if its narrator wants us to believe he really did travel to all those places to garner first hand information etc, and it frequently claims to cite actual inscriptions on stone as well as report what various authorities personally told him.

On occasion Herodotus even confesses that he has encountered opposing narratives about a particular event so he sets both of them out for the reader -- and will sometimes explain his own reasons for preferring one over the other.

That all sounds very genuine as "historical" writing.

But problems or at least questions arise when scholars examine the text as literature -- or do a literary analysis on it. Mandell and Freedman, for instance, demonstrate some remarkable similarities between the Histories of Herodotus and the "Primary History" (Genesis to 2 Kings) of our Bible. Both works can be read as theological narratives demonstrating how the will of the deity is worked out through a historical-sounding narrative. Nielsen also addresses strong similarities between the work of Herodotus and the Deuternomist's biblical narrative.

Then we meet the "minimalists" -- Thompson, Lemche, Davies, Whitelam, et al -- who ask us to reconsider the evidence for any historical validity at all to the history of "biblical Israel" at least up to the time of the sixth century bce.

Before these guys made serious ripples, however, we already had scholars like Fehling who opened up the case for Herodotus likewise being in very large measure fiction. Herodotus never travelled as he claimed; his supposed quotations of stone inscriptions were fabricated; his assurances that various local authorities told him stories were worthless. Armayor and a succession of other scholar appear to have published more granular criticisms of Herodotus in Fehling's wake.

What has opened up Herodotus to a case for fabrication, fiction, is literary analysis coupled with a bit of testing against independent third-party witnesses.

(I do acknowledge that not all ancient historians have followed Fehling, Armayor and others any more than biblical scholars have rushed en masse to follow "the minimalists". Who wants to admit to a method and conclusions that undermine a life-time's work?)

Literary analysis can show the rhetorical functions of many of Herodotus's seemingly factual claims. Many of them function too neatly as narrative persuaders -- far more-so than we encounter in other less indisputable historical works. Moreover, comparisons can be made with other works either known to Herodotus and/or from his own times, and one can reasonably infer that Herodotus has drawn upon literary sources rather than first-hand accounts from priests in Egypt. And in at least one instance we can see with our own eyes that Herodotus has failed to quote an inscription on a stone monument in Asia Minor with reasonable accuracy.

The point here is, I think, not that we cannot distinguish between history and fiction, but rather that we in fact can distinguish between them.

Literary analysis, including comparative literary studies, along with testing against independent sources -- that's a good start.

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The fictional resemblance of history by "the father of history"

Post by neilgodfrey » Sat Jul 01, 2017 2:48 pm

In my previous comment I mentioned how literary criticism has been applied to Herodotus to undermine confidence in the historicity of his claims. Detlev Fehling writes of one such literary clue:
The world of Herodotean narrative has no room for the real situation in which anyone collecting reports from different sources finds himself, that is, of grappling with various statements that coincide or diverge in a bewildering way. In the world created by Herodotus contradictions only arise where motives are obvious; and otherwise there is total agreement among all the testimonies and proofs, an agreement which has the unreality of a fairy tale but in the world created by the narrator is natural and -- above all -- economical. It is wrong to reinterpret certain elements or explain them away in the hope of extracting from that world such partial confirmations as might at a pinch enable us to resettle Herodotus' statements in the world of reality. (pp. 84-85)

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Narrative does not render history indistinguishable from fiction

Post by neilgodfrey » Sun Jul 02, 2017 1:32 am

Hayden White's theories of the place of narrative in historical writing may be criticised for relying upon the way history was written in the nineteenth century, but another historian has opposed postmodernist arguments by coming to the defence of narrative in contemporary history. Beverley Southgate (male), in Why Bother with History? (2000) comments on Annabel Patterson's openly partisan investigation into the dissenting liberal tradition:
Her study of the birth and growth and transmission of a dissenting liberal tradition in the face of official repression utilises numerous 'elements of things' -- letters, memoirs, court transcripts and all the usual (and unusual) data that constitute historical evidence. They are given a 'wholeness' that could not possibly have been 'theirs in life', if only on account of their geographical and chronological diversity. But they have been deliberately moulded into 'one of those globed compacted things' -- a coherent historical narrative and argument -- because they seem to the author (and this reader) to relate to 'our own prospects for toleration' today. Over such narratives, thought might well linger -- not because they reveal some truth about how things were (they don't: their 'wholeness' [was] not theirs in life'), but because such 'historical knowledge' has a point for the present and the future, in continuing to inform 'courageous political critique'. That's why we bother with it. (p. 153, my emphasis)
Narratives have the ability to provide understanding and insights, and open up channels for further understanding and interpretations. Participants in the past events may not be aware of such narrative shaping of what they are involved in, and may have other narratives in mind. So we have different perspectives but these do not render the historical events themselves indistinguishable from fiction.

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

Post by neilgodfrey » Fri Jul 21, 2017 8:44 pm

All bolded emphasis is mine....
DCHindley wrote:
Mon Apr 24, 2017 8:37 am
I was hoping to further the discussion of the characteristics that make something "fiction" versus "historical explanation."

To illustrate the complexity of a historical narrative, here is a summary of Hayden V. White's elements of historical representation . . .

(Table omitted)

Can you think of ANY historical explanation that does not employ these elements (except perhaps Annals)?

perhaps the real difference is "explaining" evidence as it exists as opposed to "explaining away" threatening evidence to get rid of it.

Yes. Hayden White himself conceded an example according to another historian, Richard J. Evans (In Defense of History, 2000). On page 107 he writes:
There is in fact a massive, carefully empirical literature on the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Clearly, to regard it as fictional, or unreal, or no nearer to historical reality than, say, the work of the "revisionists" who deny that Auschwitz ever happened at all is simply wrong. Here is an issue where evidence really counts, and can be used to establish the essential facts. Auschwitz was not a discourse. It trivializes mass murder to see it as a text. The gas chambers were not a piece of rhetoric. Auschwitz was indeed inherenty a tragedy and cannot be seen as either a comedy or a farce. And if this is true of Auschwitz, then it must be true at least to some degree of other past happenings' events, institutions, people as well. 'What then are the implications of this for postmodernism?

In a conference devoted to this subject, published in Probing the Limits of Representation, editedby Saul Friedländer, a number of postmodernists and their critics sought to address this problem. Hayden White in particular retreated from his earlier position in order to defend himself against the accusation that his hyperrelativism gave countenance to the "revisionist" enterprise of "Holocaust denial." He conceded that the facts of the "Holocaust" closed off the possibility of using certain types of "emplotment" to describe it. But in making this concession, he implicitly acknowledged the primacy of past reality in shaping the way historians write about it, thus abandoning his central theoretical tenet. The past turned out not to be completely at the mercy of historical "narrativity" and "emplotment" after all.

In the same chapter Evans demonstrates that historians do indeed take great care to be sure they get their "facts" right and do not allow narrative emplotments to decide the day. One of his examples is of a Marxist historian who was exposed for carelessly distorting primary evidence to support his narrative that capitalism produced Hitler. Postmodernist appeals to everything being reduced to mere discourse be damned. The historian was driven from the academy.

Evans further points out the salient difference between theory and method. Often postmodernist criticisms seem to confuse the two concepts. On page 109 Evans explains the point well:
Keith Jenkins has argued that historical method does not lead to historical truth. But in saying this, he confuses theory and method. Historical method is not what he says it is: feminist, neo-Marxist, structuralist, Annaliste, Weberian, or whatever. These things are theories. Historical method is based on the rules of verification laid down by Ranke and elaborated in numerous ways since his time. It is common to all historians working in all these various theoretical modes, as a glance at their heavily footnoted works will easily show. Even major methodological differences, for example, between cliometricians churning quantitative data through their computers, intellectual historians engaged in a close reading of a small number of texts, or medieval historians deciphering archaeological finds still fade into the background in comparison with the shared duty of "getting it right": of copying out and punching in the figures accurately, of verifying the wording and authorship of the text, of reporting the correct location of each find in the dig. It is not true to say that historians are "not too concerned about discrete facts." On the contrary whatever the criteria for the facts' selection, the vast majority of the historian's efforts are devoted to ascertaining them and establishing them as firmly as possible in the light of the historical sources. Even Jenkins uses footnotes. Footnotes and bibliographical references really are designed to enable the reader to check the sources on which a historian's statement is made and to see whether or not they support it. They are not mere rhetorical devices designed to produce a spurious "reality effect."
As for the difference between history and fiction as the point was argued by White, Evans again on page 86:
So in this approach there is no real difference between history and fiction. For Hayden White, researching and writing a history book are much the same as researching and writing a novel. Both are made up of elements of real human experience. Both have to meet the demands of correspondence to that experience and coherence in the way they present it. Both use language as their means of representing reality. Just like novelists, historians, says White, prefigure their field of inquiry by applying to the selection and evaluation of the evidence the linguistic and imaginative tools that are also to be used in the construction of the resulting narrative. There is something to be said for White's observation that the great nineteenth-century historians whose work he analyzed in his first major book, Metahistory -- Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, Burckhardt -- had a great deal in common with their contemporaries among the novelists, like Flaubert, though given the dominance of literary realism in the novels of the day, this was hardly surprising. But White goes on to argue that the literary and linguistic forms by which different historians and novelists construct their work are all equally valid ways of representing the past.
And that last sentence returns us to the above quotations from Evans's book.

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