Norman Mailer as Standford White and Norris Church Mailer as Lady with Standford White, Ragtime, Paramount Pictures, 1981 (Via)

by Daniel Green

William Skidelsky is entirely justified in objecting to the ever-increasing number of films and novels offering “fictionalised portraits” of historical figures and events, although I can’t agree with his analysis of the origins of this phenomenon, at least where literary fiction is concerned. I share his impatience with this new genre’s exploitation of readers’ fascination with the “true story” (producing in the process mostly a type of extended narrative gossip), but I think there is–or was–a more radical impulse animating the precursors to this genre, one that has been transformed into the tedious “fact-based storytelling” Skidelsky describes.

Because of the ubiquity of this kind of narrative today, it is now more difficult to appreciate just how unsettling E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime seemed at the time of its publication in 1975. Not exactly a historical novel–it seemed designed to question the very utility of historical “fact” in our consideration of the past–it nevertheless presented a vivid if subjective rendition of the ragtime era by juxtaposing purely fictional characters with actual historical figures who are in turn treated as if they were fictional characters. Considerable liberty is taken with the historical record, and the result is a novel that not only fictionalizes history but suggests that, as far as the novelist is concerned, history might just as well be fiction. Whereas much of the self-reflexive, “postmodern” fiction of the time called attention to the artifice of fiction-making in order to reinforce the separation of fiction and reality, Ragtime seemed to propose that, for the literary imagination, the two realms are really quite permeable.

Unfortunately, the legacy of Ragtime has been the simplistic notion that the fiction writer might go back in time and pick out a “real person” to use as a character in a “fiction” that is mostly true to the facts, although some embellishment might be allowed where less is known and the reader is given access to “thoughts” of the character that of course can’t be verified. (Doctorow has written such fiction himself.) In other words, what seemed innovative in Doctorow’s novel has now become just another way of writing novels of conventional “psychological realism,” a phenomenon that perhaps reaches its apogee in Colm Toibin’s The Master, a study in psychological realism of one of the pioneers of psychological realism, a novel that seems clever in its conception but is otherwise, at least to me, essentially unreadable. It is neither a tribute to Henry James, whose originality in the representation of psychological states Toibin can’t touch, nor a contribution to “knowledge” about James, beyond reinforcing the assumption that he was homosexual, an assumption that has never been credibly substantiated. I myself don’t understand why the novel needed to be written at all.

But it is telling that this novel and many of the other fact-based novels (such as Jay Parini’s recent about Herman Melville) are about writers. This feature of the genre also, it seems to me, is a latter-day development of a phenomenon linked to the experimental writing of the 1960s and 70s. One of the ways in which postmodern American fiction “called attention to the artifice of fiction-making” was by focusing on writers in the act of writing (think Barth especially). The point of this gesture, however, was not to make a conventional “character” out of such a figure (although in some cases this could happen) but to make all elements of fiction, including character, transparent as artifice. To the extent that writers and writing became a “subject,” it was as part of an aesthetic reordering of fiction by which all of the “elements” were exposed as contingent, all secondary to language itself regarded as essentially a poetic rather than narrative medium.

Needless to say, this sort of inquiry into the nature of fiction as literary art has been replaced in the “fictionalized portrait” genre by inquiries into the same old practices advancing plot, setting, and character “depth” the postmodernists and metafictionists were questioning. The ironic self-regard introduced by the metafictionists has been replaced by actual self-regard for the vocation of writing by writers substituting “fact-based storytelling” for imagination. Nonfiction biographies have now mostly superseded literary criticism as the primary form of discourse about writers’ work, and threaten to supersede the work as well. The last thing we need is for fiction to exacerbate this problem by simulating biographies.

 Piece crossposted with The Reading Experience 2.0