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)).