Here’s the opening of a new essay on novels, history, historical novels, orality and literacy, truth, Dan Brown, and ghosts. It’s just been published Vivian Dorsel’s magazine upstreet #6.
Before/After History and the Novel
1. Novels and History, an Exercise in Dialectics
The difference between written history and novels is contained in the difference between two theories of truth: truth in history is denotative or evidentiary while truth in novels is defined by coherence. It’s as simple as that. Yet they both rise from the same internal source in the mind, the story-making source, the imagination. This makes history and novels, at some level, teasingly similar. And then, of course, we do use that word “truth” in discussing novels in a loose and sloppy way that leads to all sorts of confusions. When we ask if a novel seems true, we often mean whether it sounds authentic, whether it’s plausible, whether the characters could have existed or events transpired. Sometimes “truth” in this context refers to emotional truth, an even more subjective truth than verisimilitude. As a novelist I have often found that what seems perfectly plausible to me in an emotional vein can be incredible to other people (readers).
But the fact remains, when you want to test the truth of an historical assertion, you have recourse ultimately to documentary or archaeological evidence, whereas, when you want to test the truth of a novelistic assertion you can only look at the text. It makes no sense to ask what Sancho Panza said or looked like outside Don Quixote, whereas you can test the claim that George Washington had false teeth or Sir John A Macdonald occasionally drank too much by examining documents from the period. This is the reason for a secondary difference between history and novels: historical explanations change when new evidence surfaces, whereas no fact in the world at large can force an author to rewrite a novel.
This is not to deny, of course, that there are sometimes criticisms of novels in terms of plausibility or truth, especially when it comes to historical novels. When you write an historical novel, you accept a certain contractual relationship with the reader in terms of verisimilitude, that quality of seeming to be real, which is one of the signal attributes of realistic fiction. But in fiction this contract can be fairly loose. When I wrote my novel Elle, it made sense to get the dates right and the proper sequences of events not to mention the correct king in France at the time. Readers accustomed to verisimilitude in novels are easily distracted by obvious mistakes of so-called historical fact. But a reader’s knowledge of any particular era is usually shallow, which leaves plenty of room for creative displacement without damaging superficial plausibility. For example, the relevant historical documents (themselves in doubt) say the woman I used as the basis for my protagonist in Elle remained on the island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence for two years and some months. But I ran out of dramatic possibilities for her after a year, so I sent her back to France early. Aesthetic considerations easily trumped historical accuracy, and no one noticed.
This is also not to say that occasionally these debates about the truth or historical accuracy of novels don’t sometimes erupt into frenzied public acrimony. These debates are irrelevant or relevant in a very interesting way. A case in point is the hysteria over Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. When the movie version of the novel was released, the Toronto Star ran a meta-commentary on the “flurry of analysis about the truth of the novel.” Among other debate armatures, the Star mentioned the Archbishop of Canterbury’s denunciation of the “lies” in the novel which might, he thought, lead Christians to doubt their faith.
One of the narrative premises on which the plot of The Da Vinci Code is based is the claim that Jesus was married and had a child and that child had descendants and so on and so on. This apparently contradicts the story in the Gospels which do not mention a wife or a child. We’re in Salman Rushdie territory here; The Da Vinci Code is a novelistic attack on the roots of Christianity. But no one in Europe or North America is going to issue a fatwa against Brown because, of course, we all know a novel is a novel and not a claim on truth. At bottom, we (except for fundamentalists and people who watch too much TV) all know that a novel is already a “lie” completely imagined for our entertainment.
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2010 © Douglas Glover