The New Yorker just published a ridiculous, hand-wavy essay questioning the importance of factual truth in history and providing some sliver of refuge to fake memoirists like Margaret Seltzer even as it badmouths them. The essay is littered with questions, and they all have the sort of "everything is relative, man" ring you'd expect from discussions in an undergraduate philosophy class. "What makes a book a history?" "Is historical truth truer than fictional truth?" "If a history book can be read as if it were a novel and if a reader can find the same truth in a history book and a novel... what's the difference between them?" "Is history at risk?" There are a total of 16 question marks in the piece beginning to end, but they all drive transparently at the same answer, delivered toward the close of the essay in this summary of the historic meditations of English writer William Godwin: "The novelist is the better historian-and especially better than the empirical historian-because he admits that he is partial, prejudiced, and ignorant, and because he has not forsaken passion." The piece concludes by exploring, in a crescendo of absurdity, the idea that history — real, true, actual history as the term is understood today — should perhaps embrace a "license to invent" to draw in women readers, since women read novels and avoid contemporary history:
By the end of the eighteenth century, not just novel readers but most novel writers were women, too. And most historians, along with their readers, were men. As the discipline of history, the anti-novel, emerged, and especially as it professionalized, it defined itself as the domain of men.
...Maybe the topics that have seized professional historians' attention-family history, social history, women's history, cultural history, "microhistory"-constitute nothing more than an attempt to take back territory they forfeited to novelists in the eighteenth century. If so, historians have reclaimed from novelists nearly everything except the license to invent . . . and women readers. Today, publishers figure that men buy the great majority of popular history books; most fiction buyers are women.
Is "history at risk"? If women barely read it at all, and if men mostly read books with titles like "Guts and Guns," it just might be.
The most frustrating thing about the New Yorker essay is that author Jill Lepore, who apparently is a Harvard professor of history, never once stops to examine the function of her profession, despite all her questions.
It is hardly original or controversial (or male, really) to observe that the noblest and most important goal of history is to learn from the mistakes of the past and thus avoid repeating them.
The next time there's a genocide, I hope it is the "historical truth" historians who get to the scene first, because it's going to be a lot harder to refute the inevitable genocide deniers with a historian who dabbles in "fictional truth."
When the U.S. Congress debates the federal budget in the next cycle, I likewise hope the discussion is informed by studies of past deficits and tax schemes conducted by historians with some allegiance to the idea of objective accuracy instead of to insanity like "a reader can find the same truth in a history book and a novel."
And, yes, the next time there's a discussion on how to combat urban poverty and inner-city crime, I'm glad no one will be holding up Margaret Seltzer's "memoir" as an example of anything, despite the heavy-handed political ideology the author bandied about before she was caught.
If many women aren't buying history in the strict sense, the solution is not to change the definition of history or standards of historic study, it's to convince more girls and women there's a point in preparing for a time when they have a good deal of power and need to use it wisely.
I will now conclude this stern and dry and probably boring rant and return to my attempts to entertain with blog posts based on information of often uncertain accuracy, since I am not a professor of history at Harvard University.