Monday, August 22, 2005

War and literature

One of the aspects of the First World War in Britain that I find particularly interesting is the intersection between 'literature' and 'history'. We can perhaps have a semantic debate later about what exactly the boundaries of those two terms are. The particular relevance for my work lies in the way that modern Britons form their ideas about the war as historical event - what it was like and what it was meant - from literary sources - either the poetry they are taught in schools or the modern popular fiction which uses the war as a setting.
Earlier this summer I took part in a colloquium on 'Periscope and Telescope' at Wolfson College Oxford. The aim was to bring together 'literary' and 'military' historians to discuss 'conflicting views of the Great War'. I was slightly surprised to find myself the junior representative of the military historians. This put me in some excellent company, but left me rather open to the preconceptions most academics seem to hold about the study of military history (and since I wasn't wearing my regimental blazer, had a goatee rather than a moustache, and seldom sit up straight, this could have been confusing).
In a session set up as a debate, I was asked to speak against the motion that 'Historians need creative imagination as much as imaginative writers need historical information'. Facetiously, I opposed it on the grounds that it was insufficiently strong: historians need far more creative imagination (whether in devising a methodology, analysing incomplete information, or writing without committing the crime of 'psychological anachronism') than do imaginative writers. Indeed, if you look at the field of recent First World War fiction, it's apparent that a lot of writers use only the bare minimum of historical research, and seldom look to assess their sources (even on the simplest primary/secondary basis) in the way that a historian would do. The whole point, of course, is that it's creative writing - if historical fact doesn't fit what you want, you're allowed to bend it. Let's steer clear, for the moment, of how much some historians do exactly the same thing.
The problem for many historians of the war is that readers tend to accept these works of historical fiction as accurate pieces of reconstruction. This suspension of disbelief is probably true of all historical fiction, but is particularly the case for a war in which many Britons still feel bound up by myths of family involvement. Like many of my colleagues, I have had otherwise perfectly reasonable and intelligent people tell me that books like Birdsong or Regeneration told them the 'truth' about the First World War. This frustrates historians for three reasons: 1) we see the errors, plagiarism and anachronisms, 2) we can't understand why readers get confused between fact and fiction, 3) some of these books sell in quantities we could only dream about and reach audiences we never will.


Anonymous Esther said...

"We can't understand why readers get confused between fact and fiction"

Surely this is because throughout the century, war fiction has been presented as fact, from the 'original' war writers onwards. Even writers during the war often tended towards demurring whether or not their accounts were 'real' simply by acknowledgeing that one person could not present the whole of it. and the The language of authorship also meant that this was a very dificult thing to do / alternatively, writers' authorial modesty encouraged a reader to beleive that what they were reading was by its very nature a mixture of fact and fiction.

In which case it is easy to see why people get confused, because they are merely reacting to something that has always been the case with war lit. They don't actually know this, but have been preconditioned to accept literary texts as truth.

That is also where the frustration arises from people who study the war in more detail. The flaws become apparent very quickly, but most average readers do not look past them.. .and why should they when they have been already told that they are getting the 'truth'?

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Esther said...

- therefore we can understand it relatively easily, but it is incredibly frustrating to subsequently have minimal impact amongst most readers about something that seems so obvious after a very short time.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Off to Giessen - will add a bit more when I come back - but please to see that these fit in with the post above (lucky thing too!)

4:10 PM  
Anonymous D.F.Fleming said...

Great 'blog! I'm looking forward to reading it regularly in the future.

Now, as to those people who tell you that fiction has given them 'the truth' about the Great War--while I don't disagree with anything you or Esther have said, I think there may be a bit more going on. By 'the truth about the war' a layperson could mean a number of things, including:
(1) 'The truth' as opposed to a sanitized version. People are aware (in my experience) of the way unpleasant or traumatic events are frequently cleaned up in retellings of them, whether from authorial reticence or official censorship. So perhaps its not that surprising that they prefer a sensationalized version, seeing it as more 'true.' Since these readers are thinking of truth in terms of 'accurate reconstruction,' you could in theory at least talk them around.
(2) 'The truth' as underlying meaning, significance, or nature. In this sense, saying that Birdsong reveals the truth about WWI is similar to saying that David Lodge's novels reveal the truth about academic life. Here I am not certain that there is a lot that historical research and writing can do to change people's outlook. Even setting aside postmodern critiques of historical knowledge, it's fairly clear that complex events don't have indisputable single meanings or natures, so those who want to impose them (or select them from the variety available) are free to do so. Nor are academics devoid of this tendency themselves. De Tocqueville's Democracy in America is used with depressing frequency in academic (and journalistic) writing about the U.S.--even though it's easy to demonstrate that it includes factual errors and misunderstandings and that it is unrepresentative of foreign observers' accounts of 19th century America--because it provides a powerful vision of 'the nature' of American society and government.
(3) 'The truth' as a text that makes the reader feel as though he/she was there, experiencing past events. In the same way, a fictional film/tv program can make a historical subject more 'real' for a viewer than a dozen monographs. Here again, since the layperson isn't necessarily saying that the novel is an accurate reconstruction, merely that it engages his/her imagination and sympathy, there isn't a lot for historians to argue with.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Three perceptive visions of 'the truth' there: and you're right to spot that I, at least, had been using it rather lazily. It is a term ripe for unpicking.
I think it's interesting to note that readers seem to acknowledge two sorts of historical authenticity. 1) the imagined world of the text coincides with their mythic assumptions about the past. 2) the imagined world of the text is so different from their existing assumptions that they are forced to acknowledge these may be inaccurate.
I suspect these are the two different ways people respond to Faulks and Barker.
I think there's another whole interesting genre of texts which play around with the reader's knowledge and are complicit in their use of historical research and anachronism. How about Flashman, or - in a different vein - Julian Rathbone's novels about medieval England?

7:09 PM  

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