No More Non-Fiction For Me

No, I’m not giving up reading histories and the like; in fact, I’ll probably read more and more – this is certainly my tendency. What I am giving up is ever using the term “non-fiction” again. (I shall be inventing new terms to replace it on Books Read).

What’s the reason for this? Well, one of our brethren suggests – as other people too have suggested before – that histories – or at least, historiographies – make out that they are non-fiction, whereas in fact they are doing nothing but using the devices of fiction.

Let’s have some Hayden White on this, since he is The Man:

the elements in the historical field are organized into a chronicle by the arrangement of the events to be dealt with in the temporal order of their occurrence; then the chronicle is organized into a story by the further arrangment of events into other components of a “spectacle” or process of happening, which is thought to possess a discernible beginning, middle, and end.

Great stuff, Mr White. I’m sure we all agree. But –

it comes as no surprise to me that this idea of their being a connection between histories and stories is made by someone who speaks and writes in English (as a remarkable observation of the 1970s – certainly, the twentieth century – which had never been made before). Perhaps though, if you look closely enough at the two words, you too can find a connection between “histories” and “stories“. No? – Let’s try it in some other languages shall we? – What about Spanish? Can you see any connection between the words “historia” and “historia“? What about Italian – “storia” and “storia“? French: “histoire” and “histoire“? German: “Geschichte” and “Geschichte“? Russian: “исто́рия” and “исто́рия“? Portuguese: “história” and “história“? Greek: “ιστορία” and “ιστορία“?* (Those of different mother-tongues can correct me on these if they like).

Weird that, eh? – I wonder what the reason can be? Could it be – no – surely people couldn’t always have believed that there’s a connection between histories and stories, so much so that they’ve throughout the whole history of European thought mistaken one for the other and used the same word for it. And in fact, isn’t it the case that this seeming history/story mish-mash is the basis of every single literary tradition in the Western world (and possibly the Eastern too, I am lacking in familiarity)? Whereas fiction is merely some sort of degenerate offspring of this tradition, which has chosen to deny any (or at least most) pretension to any connection with real events? – Thus it is not history which borrows fiction’s techniques, but fiction which has appropriated those of history.

A more interesting question, and one I am not qualified to answer, is when it was in English (and why) that people started distinguishing between the concepts of “history” and “story”. The OED says “story” is a Middle English word “denoting a historical account or representation” (and derived, like “history”, ultimately from Latin – well, Greek – “historia” – and thence to some Indo-European root) – so, that gives us a terminus post quem. Let’s have a guess though that it was some time in the 19th or 20th centuries.

When, then, do you think the word “non-fiction” was coined, and why? It certainly doesn’t sound like it was long ago – it has a sort of c20th feel, thought up by the kind of people who liked making false dichotomies. Well, according to some online dictionary (not the OED, which expresses no opinion on the matter), 1903. Why? Well, perhaps because fiction is king, and everything else is merely to be identified by its relation to fiction. And perhaps it’s because of this that we’ve come to expect non-fiction therefore to contain no fiction (or perhaps it came to be called non-fiction for that reason, who knows), when this is a wholly unreasonable and unhistorical thing to expect.

*Interestingly, I looked at Turkish and Chinese too, and there doesn’t seem to be the connection? Must be a European way of thinking.

(I wrote a few other posts on this subject long ago, here and here [hmm, I swear I wrote two posts, but then much of the early part of this blog has been lost]. (I notice in the first post, I also used the word “brethren”, possibly the only 2 occasions I’ve used the word in the last 4 years)).


22 thoughts on “No More Non-Fiction For Me

  1. I wonder if the concept of history itself is specfically a Westen concept. I don’t know enough of Chinese, Japanese or Persian cultures, but history certainly did not feature in Ancient India: there are Sanskrit poems, epics, dramas, scriptures, philosophy, treatises on science and medicine and mathematics and politics, etc etc – but, much to the frustration of modern historians of India, no histories. There is no Indian Herodotus, no Indian Thucydides. Is it the same in Japan, China, etc. i wonder?

  2. To me, non-fiction is always a marketing term, as if to say, this is “fact” not silly little fictions. It defines itself against fiction rather than with “histories”, as the name suggests. Non-fiction may even have contributed to our confusion between history and fiction. And isn’t fiction really history meddling with poetry’s techniques? (You could say epic is the original fiction, in the sense of being unconnected with real events.)

    Perhaps this is more connected with the textual/oral division in our literary past. The first stories were oral and were likely of religious/ritual nature. The first writings were the ledger books of Sumerian accountants. I read somewhere that for Aboriginal culture, religious or epic content was reserved for oration (poetry) and simple “reportage” was kept in writing, highlighting the importance of the former over the latter. The true story of the culture was kept orally.

  3. Chinese historians appear as early as the 9th century BC, and they do have a Thucydides of sorts, Sima Qian, author of the 1st century BC Records of the Grand Historian.

    Japanese literature, by contrast, does not even really begin until the 8th C. AD, but histories are among the earliest works.

    I will admit to looking up the details on Wikipedia, but I knew enough to know what to look for!

    I am glad you wrote this. I read our Brother Blogger, too, and was baffled. He doesn’t like history because historians tell stories? What?

  4. I’ll read Thucydides and Homer with pleasure, the latter with more pleasure than the former, but I am sure we would all agree these sit outside of the category we define as history today. Perhaps I’d find the history genre less troubling if I knew that it would all be labelled mythology in two-hundred years time, and not accepted as objective or true in any real sense.

    What upsets me firstly about much modern history is its presentation as objective science, rather than the biased interpretation of a contemporary writer with the inevitable knowledge and prejudice of all the years in between a history and its conception. As someone far wiser than me once said, “All history is contemporary history”.

    Secondly the artistry in much modern history is lacking. I’ll read Kapuściński and Dyer’s histories/stories with pleasure. It seems to me that in writing history, writers are judged by the amount of research they conduct rather than their ability to construct narrative with elegance and wit. I am in favour of history as art, not history as social science. The latter seems more in favour today.

  5. Ah good, some debate!

    AOG: Yes, the Chinese have a strong historic tradition (as AR says) – and yes, the Japanese copied the whole of Chinese culture in the c8thAD, so they will have one too. In fact, I think history would comprise the majority of Chinese works up to recent times.

    I was wondering, the Sanskrit epics etc, are they based on supposed historic events, like Homer is?

    ElCal: I would, I suppose, view epic (Greek, at least), as connected with real events, and indeed Greek myth too – though sometimes embellished beyond recognition. I must look into oral story-telling a bit more. I have the idea though that the first stories were “accounts” by people of “what they did over the weekend”, as it were. I imagine this is prior to more speculative questions.

    There are, of course, a lot of ancient chronologies which predate Homer: lists of emperors, they kind of thing – which is a mode of history which seems to exist a lot in early written culture (and indeed continues right through western european culture).


    I’ll read Thucydides and Homer with pleasure, the latter with more pleasure than the former, but I am sure we would all agree these sit outside of the category we define as history today.

    Homer, yes – but no, I wouldn’t categorise Thucydides outside what we define as history. In fact, I cannot think of a worse example from the ancient world to choose. Thucydides has all the traits of the modern historian: a belief in his own objectivity, a balanced approach, a will to research things, a judicious interpretation of sources, an ability to distinguish myth from history.

    Perhaps I’d find the history genre less troubling if I knew that it would all be labelled mythology in two-hundred years time, and not accepted as objective or true in any real sense.

    But is this genuinely what you consider history to be? – Do you think, for instance, that the Peloponnsian War didn’t happen? Or that it didn’t happen for the reasons set out in Thucydides? That the description of it we have possesses only the equivalent truth to, say, the surviving information we have about the life of Orestes? I think most people would consider someone who held such a view to deficient in some kind of discernment. (Even people in the ancient world could see the difference).

    Does modern history present itself as objective? – I will certainly read it as an apparent account of things which have genuinely taken place; and even some of the reasons it puts forward for things taking place I might believe if they seem plausible enough. Something, after all, must have happened in the past. I’ll probably be inclined to let things have value if I myself am ignorant of them or if they agree with other things I’ve read. But no, I’d never suppose a historical work had the kind of value I might attribute to science. (The most I can do with history, is examine the same sources as the historian and come to my own conclusion about them. In general, I would say that, where people have done this, they tend to agree that some historians are more likely to be accurate than others, and therefore to give them credence).

    Some historical writing is indeed heavily biased, but some I’d be hard pressed to discover any bias in at all. I think, if anything, modern writers are more aware of their biases than heretofore, and will try to iron them out. (But then there’s still Thucydides, of course). On saying which, you always have iconoclasts.

    You would rather then ill-informed yet artistic speculation, that is what you seem to be saying. A highly contemporary prejudice. (One wonders why you read any literary criticism, on this basis. – Oh, I see, I answered my own question).

  6. The Peloponnesian War is documented by multiple sources, not only Thucydides, so I can believe that it happened. Once we go beyond basic facts and into areas of interpretation I struggle with the validity of history. The further we are from a historical event, the higher the likelihood that bias and mythologizing becomes accepted, in some future, as objective history. We know little of Thucydides own life. How do we know that he wasn’t the fifth-century equivalent of Fox News or Niall Ferguson? (I’m not making that claim, simply saying that we don’t know, and the further from the event, the less likely we are able to know the objectivity of a historian.) Even today, revelations are surfacing that change the received history of the Second World War (i.e. the mythologizing of the French Resistance).

    I am not claiming there is no difference between history and myth, but that history is rarely free from personal and/or political prejudice. As such, I might appreciate it as story-telling (art) but not as objective science. I judge it by literary merits because I find it difficult to test the validity of its assertions (beyond a basic level that can be compared to alternative sources). You may have the time and inclination to investigate the bias, or lack of it, of modern historians. Except in a couple of unique cases I don’t, hence my dislike of the genre. My impression of many of the best-selling contemporary writers of histories is that they provide prejudiced interpretations, but that seems almost inevitable.

    I fail to see a parallel with literary criticism, which I read to better appreciate literature and, in its finest instances, to make me a better reader.

  7. The Peloponnesian War is documented by multiple sources, not only Thucydides, so I can believe that it happened.

    But I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that. There’s plenty of sources for the Trojan War (including archaeological ones), and yet we don’t believe Homer’s account of it – his interpretation of it – is true; not in the way we’re inclined to believe Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. (I’d go so far as to suggest that one of the reasons we don’t think Homer’s account is true are those very literary qualities you admire in histories. Wasn’t there some questioning recently of the veracity of Kapuściński’s reportage?).

    How do we know that he wasn’t the fifth-century equivalent of Fox News or Niall Ferguson?

    Probably in much the same way as you seem to believe Fox News and Niall Ferguson are biased in the first place? (What is your basis for this belief? It can’t be reason, because then you could apply the same notion to a historian. Prejudice and social conditioning, I suppose?) Probably in much the same way that your using Fox News and Niall Ferguson as examples of bias would lead me to believe that you’re left-wing, opposed the Iraq War, are deeply suspicious of American foreign policy, dislike bankers, and aren’t particularly proud of the British Empire. (Have you read Ferguson, btw, since you did say you didn’t enjoy history? Or is your belief about him conditioned by the media?). Of course, I could be wrong in these assumptions.

    Thucydides was an Athenian, living in Athens and wrote his history while it was besieged during the Peloponnesian War, he fought as a general in that war, saw his countryman killed and die of plague etc. At no point does he demonise the Spartans, think they’re wrong in what they’re doing, apportion blame to them. When the Athenians commit war crimes, he states this; when the Athenians suffer disastrous defeats, he records this. Most people, I would suggest, would derive an idea of his objectivity from a judicious reading of his text. (What we might even consider, for lack of a better name, a kind of literary criticism? – Though, not a kind we’re allowed any more, I suppose. We could say, perhaps, the author gave the appearance of objectivity in his narrative by his usage of certain particular effects).

    You insist on making the claim for history that it is objective, but I’d be surprised if many historians would make this claim. When challenged about his views on empire, Niall Ferguson does not respond by merely stating that what he’s written is an objective fact, he starts pointing at different kinds of evidence which might back up his claim. Other people might point at other evidence to come to a different conclusion.

    You may have the time and inclination to investigate the bias, or lack of it, of modern historians. Except in a couple of unique cases I don’t

    I find a quite frightening assertion – at least, if you apply it to any of the rest of living outside historians. Newspapers, for instance, are full of biased opinions. But it’s possible to pick up on this bias quite easily, I find, and interpret what is written there in light of it. How difficult is it really to know that Niall Ferguson is in favour of capitalism, and that his histories might therefore contain this slant? You seem already to know his bias.

    My impression of many of the best-selling contemporary writers of histories is that they provide prejudiced interpretations, but that seems almost inevitable.

    A somewhat self-defeating statement, as you admit: but, before you wrote that caveat, isn’t there some creeping notion in there that not all historians – perhaps some non-best-selling, non-contemporary ones – are biased in their interpretations? Or that, even if they do have prejudices, perhaps these aren’t all that important or relevant.

    parallel with literary criticism

    You say that history loses its validity when it goes into “areas of interpretation”. This would, I suppose, be interpretation of texts of one kind or another. But what is it about literary criticism that makes you believe its interpretation of texts does have validity. Literary critics are, after all – like historians – full of personal and social prejudices. Literary critics tend to use the same sorts of arguments as historians – use the same sorts of judgements. Perhaps though it is safer in the world of literature, which makes no appeal to anything outside of itself.

  8. What historian of any stature or competence calls history an
    “objective science”? Marx and some of his followers, I guess. Who else? It would be nice to know who we’re talking about. History is housed in the Humanities.

    That most historians are bad writers, not worth reading by non-historians, is true, but a non sequitur, completely irrelevant to the question of whether they meet the standards of evidence and argumentation of their field and whether those standards are useful. At least historians are, on average and overall, better writers than social scientists, although what a low bar!

    Anthony, the small number of historians who write with elegant and wit would not exist without the army of slog-along professionals, the historians who make their little contribution in their nearly unread articles and monographs. Great men stand on the shoulders of giants, and on the bald heads of thousands of dwarfs. Every field of knowledge, even the objective scientific ones, works this way.

  9. Prejudice and social conditioning, I suppose?) Probably in much the same way that your using Fox News and Niall Ferguson as examples of bias would lead me to believe that you’re left-wing, opposed the Iraq War, are deeply suspicious of American foreign policy, dislike bankers, and aren’t particularly proud of the British Empire. (Have you read Ferguson, btw, since you did say you didn’t enjoy history?

    If I had used The Guardian and Robert Fisk as my examples, prejudice and social conditioning would have lead you to a different set of snap judgements. This is precisely my difficulty with reading history. Beyond basic facts, history is an act of interpretation, defined by prejudice and the social conditioning of the time. All history is contemporary history.

    My very limited understanding of historiography is that since the 1970’s, the study of history, in Europe anyway, has been subject to a tug of war between humanities and social science. I’m in over my head because I have not followed the debate closely. Braudel was, I think, a leading exponent of the view that history needs to move beyond subjectivity. As far as I understand, historians remain polarised on the issue. I could easily be wrong, perhaps humanities won this debate long ago.

    I am pleased that we all appear to agree that history cannot be an objective science, hence my tendency to judge it primarily by literary and artistic standards

    Tom, I agree wholeheartedly with your closing paragraph. The difficulty I find with history (and historiography) is identifying the giants and ignoring the bald dwarfs. I am not attempting to convince anyone not to read history, just explaining my approach to reading (history).

  10. To review:

    1. You were “upset” that history was “present[ed] as objective science.” It is not. You are thus no longer upset, which is progress.

    2. Although the artistry in modern history is indeed lacking, it was always so and will always be so, in history and in every field of study (see criticism, literary), which has nothing to do with objectivity, or the value of history, or the contribution of Braudel to the field, but with the rare talents of a small number of writers.

    3. I identify the historians worth reading by people who are not professional historians the same way I identify the literary critics worth reading by people who are not literature professors: read reviews, follow references, trust authority, take my chances, get lucky, and read as widely as possible. What other way is there? Your difficulty is not at all unique to history.

    Recommendations: John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, well written and hugely influential. It is in part about the very issue you were discussing in your own post, the way historians write about battlefield experience.

    Also, have you read Jonathan Spence – say, The Death of Woman Wang? Spence writes history using the techniques of fiction, yet without violating the evidentiary standards of history. He’s an extraordinary writer and thinker.

  11. Good, I’m glad we’ve got all that sorted out. I can get back to studying the taxation of chargeable gains.

  12. Having enjoyed this debate from the sidelines, I’d just like to note that Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War is one of my all-time favorite works for what it tells us about the constancy of human nature (somewhat depressing that!) and for the artistry and power of its writing/presentation. Despite its flaws, I’d rank that work ahead of any piece of U.S. or British fiction/literature ever for insight into “the human condition” if truth be told!

  13. If anybody is interesting in pursuing how oversimplified or plainly wrong my comments here are, the classic starting place is Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity” Question and the American Historical Profession, 1988.

    It is a gigantic book, and I have done no more than browse it, but it is now the standard reference for the American side of the question. I don’t know of an English or Continental equivalent.

  14. R: It’s a long time since I read Thucydides (when I was 17, I think). He’s going to be part of an unstated project, which I’ve begun, which consists of Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon’s Histories, in that order. (Along with Plutarch, read out of sequence). I’m particularly interested in the Xenophon, since I’ve never read it, nor really know what period it covers. (The c4th is an interesting time).

    AR: This book, what point of view does it have? I mean, is it post-modernist in its views or is it actually worth reading?

  15. I do not think it is postmodernist, exactly. Novick is skeptical of objectivity, but also skeptical of the critics of objectivity.

    Although Novick presumably does have a well-defined point of view, I am so philosophically naive that I doubt I would be able to identify it even if I actually read the book.

  16. EH Carr’s ‘What Is History?’ (in the subjectivist corner) was recommended when I was a student (some time ago). GR Elton (objectivist), whose ‘England Under The Tudors’ must be familiar to most A level students of a certain age, led the fightback with ‘The Practice Of History’. Arthur Marwick’s ‘The Nature Of History’ I remember as quite a good account.

  17. See, we do not have that problem in German we do not know the term non-fiction, we say Sachbuch and Belletristik, which, if you anaylse it also stops making sense but that’s another story. When I look up Sachbuch, I do obviously find the term non-fiction. It didn’t even strike me as maybe absurd. When I was reading Elsa Morante’s La Storia for my Literature and War Readalong this year I did have a huge problem. It clearly has a double meaning but the English translation is called History which is already n interpretation and cover only one part. The German translation is called La Storia beause they were aware of the double meaning and the German Geschichte doesn’t have this double menain, here I must correct you because we work with articles. History is much racher Geschichte, whitouth an article while Story would be “die Geschichte”.

  18. Yes, that’s interesting. Sachbuch seems a much more sensible term. There must still though in German be a noticeable connection between the terms Geschichte and die Geschichte, as people might eventually notice in English a connection between history and story. German is a bit the odd-man-out though, because all the other languages (including Russian bizarrely) derive themselves from Greek.

  19. I’ve been missing all this debate as I haven’t been round much these last few days, but this is all fascinating, so thanks everyone for that.

    Obooki, while it is believed that the Ramayana & the Mahabharata may have been based on historic facts, there is, as far as I know, no empirical archaeological evidence. Thucydides may well be, as has been suggested, teh Ancient World’s equivalent of Fox News, but the intentions behind The Peloponnesian War are quite clearly different from those of Hmer’s Iliad: the intention, however flawed it may or may not be in practice, is to give a true account of what happened. It may be that the outcome is *not* a true account; it may be that a true account is not possible. But Thucydides was not attempting to write a work of poetry as Homer was: he was a chronicler rather than a poet (which is not to say that the chronicle cannot be poetic: that of Thucydides certainly is).

    In the Sanskrit world, the very concept of chronicling events was unknown. real events were seen – much as Homer may have seen them – as a basis on which to construct poetry. Reading the excellent book “Early India” by Romila Thapar, one is constantly struck by the lack of ancient texts that even *attempt* to chronicle events.

  20. The intentions of the author, eh? – That’s a radical idea in literary criticism.

    I have Romila Thapar’s A History of India vol 1 – which might be much the same thing. I suppose I might finally read it.

  21. Ah well, I’m one of those unreconstructed types who reckon that while it is true that the *exact* intentions of the author cannot be established, to say that we can tell *nothing* of an author’s intentions is self-evidently bollocks. At a guess, I think it fair to say that Wodehouse intended to make us laugh, that M R James intened to scare us, etc. But I guess this rant is for another thread…

    “Early India” is a revised & expanded version of “History of India, Vol 1”.

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