Wednesday evening, Columbia welcomed the self-proclaimed writer without style E.L. Doctorow to the Faculty House to deliver a lecture he called, “Notes on the History of Fiction.” The event was part of a two day symposium on fiction and histories. Postmodern enthusiast Allie Curry was in attendance:
When I arrived mid-way through the panel, the crowd was sparse. Those that remained were exceptionally tweedy and elbow patchy even for a literary event. As the 6 pm panel dispersed and a group of students arrived just to see Doctorow at 7, I heard poorly concealed grumbling the row behind me. E.L. Doctorow is the influential author of 10 novels in which historical and fictional personages from the 19th and 20th meet, scheme, experience car trouble, or fall in love. His 1975 novel, Ragtime, is often cited as a formative moment in postmodern American literature and is so frequently assigned that it has its own SparkNotes study guide. Doctorow’s lecture served as the capstone event of a two-day symposium inviting historians and novelists to examine issues of history and fiction. Throughout the talk, he consistently characterized fiction writers as spectators to academic and historical discourse—“specialists in nothing”—his bold claims aimed to reformulate the audience’s understanding of an entire literary genre.
Bold claim #1: “There is no such genre as historical fiction.” The 80-year old, soft-spoken author led off his talk denying that period and fictionalized renderings of historical figures qualify a work as “historical fiction.” He pointed out that The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and For Whom the Bell Tolls are set in a time earlier than their writing but are not considered historical fiction. Likewise, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Shakespeare’s Richard III novelize and dramatize actual historical figures (which, despite how surprising many found the technique in Ragtime, Doctorow argued was nothing new), but “the politician makes a fiction of himself before the novelist even gets to him.” This led to an involved discussion of several physical, philosophical, and cultural ontologies of time.
At one point, Doctorow brought attention to Steven J. Baum foreclosure firm’s recent homelessness-themed Halloween party. Doctorow cited page 34 of Ragtime: “It became fashionable to honor the poor. At palaces in New York and Chicago people gave poverty balls. Guests came dressed in rags and ate from tin plates and drank from chipped mugs.” Then, he compared Occupy Wall Street movement to the teach-ins of the 1960s and the NYPD raid upon Zuccotti Park Tuesday morning to other recent acts of police brutality. “Societies rearrange themselves in recurrent patterns,” he said. Hence, “all novels are historical, or none of them are.”
Ultimately Doctorow views the fiction writer as someone who works from personal experience and the historian as someone who works with historians and theorists. While he told the audience he doesn’t generally discuss of his own “adventures”, he made an exception for the occasion. Certainly he draws a great empowerment from history (“The sense of time can orient [the writer] just as the sense of place… I had the first decade of the 20th century.”) though he detects a kind of anxiety regarding historical writing. Doctorow described the postmodern novelist as “longing” for the Bronze Age, the time of Homer, and the “system of authority… he wishes he could recover.” According to him, Ragtime gained the “transgressive” reputation it did partially due the American literary landscape of the early to mid ’70s and the “timidity” characterizing serious fiction of the time. Doctorow’s opinion that the remarkable historiographers of the future will draw literary techniques from fiction writers echoed that of Schama and the sentiment I noticed in last few minutes of the earlier panel. Doctorow recalled Barthes in his assertion that the objective voice so commonly assumed in historical writing is itself a fiction. “To be culturally objective,” he said, “is to have no place in the world.”
The author was given to several self-deprecating pauses and interruptions, at one point asking “Am I repeating anything I’ve already said here?” Despite several of his unnecessarily provocative barbs, the lecture was a fascinating opportunity to see how Doctorow himself executes the task of the fiction writer, which as he sees it is “to guess the unseen from the seen.” And in Doctorow’s own closing words, “Who would not want to see into the unseen? The end.”