Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Rants: Let's Ruin History, The Margaret Seltzer Way:

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.

6:37 AM