February 24, 2013

Why is Fiction so much more popular than History?

This was sparked by a quote from Hayden White, On Paul Ricoeur:
Historical stories and fictional stories resemble one another because whatever the differences between their immediate contents (real events and imaginary events, respectively), their ultimate content is the same: the structures of human time. Their shared form, narrative, is a function of this shared content. there is nothing more real for human beings than the experience of temporality - and nothing more fateful, either for individuals or for whole civilizations. Thus, any narrative representation of human events is an enterprise of profound philosophical - one could even say anthropological - seriousness. It does not matter whether the events that serve as the immediate referents of a narrative are considered to be real or only imaginary; what matters is whether these events are considered to be typically human.
If you don't think he's right, then please read it again. He's absolutely correct, in the sense that he means what he says. But if your head's already swimming, then just dive into my take, as follows:

Most people, if asked, will tell you that - Yes, of course it matters! And it does. That is, knowing whether something is a true story or not has an effect on people. Try telling someone a story is true, and afterwards reveal it was actually false, and you'll find out! However, the quotation above is not actually saying the opposite.

White's point, a la Ricoeur, is that reading a novel or watching a movie is most engaging to us precisely because of this representational interplay. We know some aspects of the story are "false", but it's the aspects of the story that do strike us as "typically human" that cause us to be so fully engrossed, disturbed, enlivened, or even inspired. In other words, Fiction has a powerful ability to present us with realistic aspects of what real life is actually all about.

So what's History's problem?

The major trick, I think, is probably all about letting the audience know where the boundaries are, right up front. Nobody gets upset about fiction being "untrue" as long as the boundaries are made clear as things move along. Once an audience knows where the truth can be found, the realistic and compelling aspects of fiction are free to have their natural impact. It's not that your hero's situation isn't completely ridiculous. It's that you recognize aspects of what it feels like to be truly alive. And you feel you've gained something.

Sadly, however, Historical Storytelling has too often focused on declaring or convincing or proving that such-and-such is the true version of things gone past, or that version-you-heard-once-before, well, that isn't the real story. Such ugly work can be necessary, and certainly has it's place, but it necessarily reverses the dynamics that make Fictional Tales so effective, and so enjoyable. Instead of marking off reality first, and then getting to the story, we work through the story in order to (finally) set boundaries.


What's even worse is when a Historian is inordinately authoritative. Usually, unless the audience has other reasons to agree, the tale can be as likely to spark skepticism as confidence. After that, well, the whole thing can seem pointless. In Jesus studies, liberal and conservative portrayals alike have leaned hard on this authoritarian approach to Storytelling. The results for both sides, to be fair, have been mixed, but the disappointed seem to outnumber the elated.

One must admit - although this will serve case in point - that whenever a reader or a room full of listeners is agreeable to the truth value of the History being presented, Historical Storytelling can become a rousing affair, quite on par with the emotional experience of the most powerful fictions, and often more so, because of the belief that this story is fully, wholly and completely true.

Sadly, however, the general experience is that huge segments of an audience which really should by all rights greatly enjoy engaging with history -- with past sagas as relatable human experience, with case studies as compelling true-to-life dramas, with the endless fascination of how and why people go about behaving in the odd ways people do -- these large crowds who should hang on History's stories have instead become turned off to the whole subject area.

The battle over history has rendered it seemingly impossible. This is tremendously unfortunate, because the magic of narrative is exploring possibilities.

There may yet be hope. I have personally found, on occasion, that it can spark curiosity in some readers and listeners if I first lay out the boundaries of our historical knowledge right from the start. If I tried to summarize that tonight, it might sound something like this:

Here's what everyone agrees with, and over here's where we've got some solid clues to work with. Now, here's where I'm doing my bit. If I'm wrong, the Story changes, and we explore a different Story. Maybe you'll decide which version you believe, and maybe you won't, but these possibilities are what History has to offer. The adventure is discovering how these different Stories might affect our worldviews differently.

If there is Truth in a Story, that truth should be able to present challenges, naturally, as the Story unfolds. But whenever we engage with Stories, we prefer to know the boundaries up front. Exploring stories together is a wonderful way to share aspects of life experience, and to connect with others despite all of our differences. Exploring past stories together eventually brings these dynamics into play. What is real? Do we know?

Whether we aim to explore various stories, or present one cherished version of Truth, and whether we aim to produce History or Historical Fiction, our Retellings of History will always have fuzzy boundaries. That is, History and Fiction get fuzzy in very different ways, but they do both get a bit fuzzy.

The chief sin, in either case, is pretending they don't.

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton