Blogs > Cliopatria > Recent Fiction as Oral History

Jul 21, 2004 6:32 am

Recent Fiction as Oral History

So, I'm writing this review, and struggling with an evidentiary issue which my fellow bloggers and readers should enjoy thoroughly. The author supplements his other sources -- which include oral history interviews and questionnaires -- with fictional accounts by a participant in the events. Not a lot (three in three hundred pages), and the writing is clearly rooted in firsthand observations and experiences (and it's pretty straightforward fiction, too: no 'magical realism' or postmodern irrelevancies). There's no confusion: the fiction is clearly identified as such, though there's no evidence from the text that the author asked the writer to elaborate on the historicity or imaginativeness of the stories. But there's no qualification in the text, either: he doesn't say"this is fiction, so take it with a grain of salt"; rather, it is presented as a more honest and full account than the sometimes constrained interviews.

Is this a flaw? Is this an example of innovative and creative history writing that should be lauded? Is it different because this is a book largely based on direct testimony of the same people who wrote the fictionalized accounts?

Non Sequitur: Tim Burke followed up his critical comments on Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 with this wonderful meditation on the power of taking the high road:

Who brought Joe McCarthy down in the end? Not somebody playing “dirty”, down in the same gutter with McCarthy, but someone who waited for their moment and caught McCarthy in a decency trap, who revealed the man’s fundamental unfairness and viciousness in part by being scrupulously decent themselves. How did Archibald Cox defeat Richard Nixon? By walking the straight and narrow. Being decent and fair and meticulous isn’t intellectual wankery: it’s hardball.

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Derek Charles Catsam - 7/22/2004

Maybe "evidence" is the wrong word here. But what about citing ideas? Most good Southern historians worth their salt have stolen appropriately from Faulkner. And I raise this to debunk another creeping misconception, which is that historians simply regurgitate the facts laid down by others on paper. In fact what we do is make the past lively, and in so doing invoke a whole range of folks. In that sense, we footnote because we should, not so much as "evidence" but as attribution.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/22/2004

It seems to me that your audiences' reservations are based on a failure to understand that some literature is intended to be as realistic and revealing as possible, that some authors place a premium on describing as precisely as possible what they see and think.

I use fiction in many of the same ways you do (especially as pedagogical tool: interestingly, when I described my texts for next semester to a fellow historian, she thought I was going a "cultural history" route, when I see the literature as primarily documentary, though documents, as you suggest, with evidentiary issues which will be fun to discuss with my undergraduates), and I agree with your statement that "there's no essential or fundamental problem" except that the use of the texts was framed, in my opinion, weakly. So it's an authorial problem, not an evidentiary one.

Timothy Burke - 7/22/2004

I've often used African novels and other fiction/poetry not just as pedagogical tools, but as "evidence" of consciousness, etc., and in a dual-way, treating the novel both as a kind of "oral historical" testimony by its author (and thus related to the author's social identity or position) and as a kind of reportorial document about the social landscape represented in the novel. All of this with a major grain of salt and the usual questions one has about the representativeness of a testimony, plus the additional importance of remembering that fiction is written as fiction.

What's interesting to me is that when I've done this in audiences that were mostly or significantly composed of literary critics, there's been some questioning of whether this is proper, and on interesting grounds, on the grounds that this is a kind of strip-mining of the literary of its character, a making of texts into something they're not and were not meant to be. Even avid historicists in English Departments tend to want to pay more attention to hermeneutical and expressive questions, to not simply make a novel into a document. It's an interesting tension, though there's no essential or fundamental problem here, I think.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/21/2004

I admit it's not my field, but I don't think this is exactly an either-or.

If McCarthy had been censured by the senate for nepotism without personal profit, he would probably have remained a force as it would not have negated his central message and he probably could have made credible counter-charges about other Senators.

But the public image of his core mission turning into an abusive and self-destructive obsession made it impossible for him to recover, politically or publicly. Until, of course, the current rehabilitative movement, but that's another story.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/21/2004

I'm assuming that the "fiction" is a fictionalized version of first person experience. I see nothing wrong with citing it as a "See also" reference in a footnote, which further illustrates a point already made more substantially with hard evidence.
Of course, if one were writing cultural or social history in which works of fiction are themselves evidence, one would expect to find fiction cited as evidence.

Anne Zook - 7/21/2004

Why is it okay? Or by "evidence" do you mean "illustration"? (Maybe I just don't understand the context?)

Because I'm no academic, but I can't imagine presenting fiction as "evidence," no matter how clearly labeled.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/21/2004

On Jonathan's primary issue, it seems to me to be acceptable to use a fictional account as evidence in a subsidiary role in documentation, so long as it is clear that the historian and the reader both understand it to be that.

Jonathan Rees - 7/21/2004


Of course you're right. I guess I need to explain myself better.

Compiling information from news reports and respected investigative journalists such as Craig Unger and Greg Palast is not dirty. It's practically scholarship. You can object to Moore's tone. You can argue about how he uses specific factual information, but to immediately dismiss his work because of the tone is downright unscholarly. We should encourage more political commentators to be this open about their sources, not condemn them.

Speaking of which, did you see this:,1,491231.story?coll=la-news-a_section

The story is entitled, "Bush Took Quote Out of Context, Researcher Says," and the researcher was a Dartmouth undergraduate.


Ralph E. Luker - 7/21/2004

Jonathan, Neither you nor I have the time or interest in tracking MM's documentation. If I had the time or interest, I could show you the possibility of documenting a text in such a way that gives the appearance of source citation and evidentiary demonstration, but which does everything but that. How would you handle evidence for a post hoc propter hoc argument? You can always show evidence for chronological sequence that may have nothing whatsoever to do with causation.

Jonathan Rees - 7/21/2004

The man has footnoted his entire film on his website here:

Shouldn't we be encouraging this kind of thing?


HNN - 7/21/2004

Sorry to cast stones at a pretty picture, but Joe McCarthy was not brought down by Joseph "Have you no decency, sir" Welch, as Burke apparently implies.

He was brought down by Ike, as Fred Greenstein demonstrates conclusively in The Hidden Hand Presidency. Ike acted after McCarthy began attacking the army, the ninstitution to which Ike had committed his life. Operating subrosa, Ike ordered up a chronology of the military contacts McCarthy had made on behalf of his aides. The chronology gave senators hard proof of McCarthy's scandalous interference in the military and his willingness to use his position of power to extend rewards to his friends.

This is the too-short history of what led to his censure.

Of course, Murrow played a role, as did Welch. But Ike pulled the strings that led directly to McCarthy's demise.