29 December 2007

History is not 100% fiction

There seems to be a debate in historical circles surrounding the idea that history is fiction. Particularly those historians who are influenced by the deconstructionist movement believe that a historical narrative is not much different from fiction. That, at the end of the day, what historians do is put together whatever evidence there is and try to make sense of it in a narrative form. Which is exactly what good storytellers do.

That’s why, these days, we see some change in the way that history is presented to us. Whereas in the past, history books were seen as having undisputed authority over the past (and were written in an authoritative tone), nowadays, we see historians openly working through their prejudices and ideologies and presenting history in a narrative form which is (given a little licence here and there) as entertaining as a story.

Of course, some writers of fiction – and filmmakers too – try to take this idea farther. They believe fiction is a better vehicle than history because they can get into the time and into the period with more depth than historians can. Because they – i.e. writers and filmmakers – can use their imagination, empathy, skills and techniques (of the trade) to create a better picture of the events, people and their lifestyles of that period.

Do I agree with this? Yes, I do. But then, I don’t assume that this fiction is 100% history. Nor do I assume that history is 100% fiction.

I understand that writers and filmmakers – as well as historians, biologists, physicists or fiction authors – bring something of themselves and their beliefs into their work. I understand that filmmakers and writers of historical fiction use their creative licence to present to us a more colourful and entertaining version of history than what we may have found in our history books earlier. And that’s where it all stands.

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