Tuesday, August 12, 2008

History Versus Fiction: Go Further With Fiction

From The Civil War to the Apocalypse: by Timothy Parrish. I picked this book up in New York, during a MIRL with a fellow McCarthy forum participant, Dudley who works at St.Marks Book Shop. It's a very interesting read especially because Parrish is writing about some of my favourite novels including Beloved, Underworld, Libra, and Mason and Dixon.

From the back cover:

Why don't we read novels as if they were histories and histories as if they were novels? Recent postmodern theorists such as Hayden White and Linda Hutcheon have argued that since history is a narrative art, it must be understood as a form of narrative representation analogous to fiction. Yet, contrary to the fears of some historians, such arguments have not undermined the practice of history as a meaningful enterprise so much as they have highlighted the appeal history has as a narrative craft.

In addressing the postmodernist claim that history works no differently than fiction, Timothy Parrish rejects the implication that history is dead or hopelessly relativistic. Rather, he shows how the best postmodern novelists compel their readers to accept their narratives as true in the same way that historians expect their readers to accept their narratives as true. These novelists write history as a form of fiction.

If the great pre-modernist American historians are Frances Parkman, George Banecroft, and Henry Adams, who are the great modernist or postmodernist historians? In the twentieth century, Parrish aargues, the most powerful works of American history were written by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion and Cormac McCarthy. What survives a reading of these novels is the sense that writers otherwise identified multicultural or postmodern sharethe view that nothing matters more than history and what one believes its possibilities to be. In other words, Parrish concludes, history, not identity, is the ground of postmodern American fiction.

I am enjoying reading this book and am going to next read his book Walking Blues: Making Americans From Emerson to Elvis which I found here online!


mister anchovy said...

If I ever start mumbling stuff like "history is dead", please be sure to throw stuff at me until I stop.

I see Toni Morrison listed here. What do you think of her novels? There is something about them that causes me to stop reading and do anything else. I don't know what it is. Are there authors that you find impossible to read in spite of your best intentions?

The thing about novels is that they require the commitment of time, as opposed to paintings, for instance which require very little time to decide if you want to look at them any longer. I think us humans have a really acute facility for making lightning quick judgments based on complex sets of criteria that we might not even have consciously considered. We do it all the time about all kinds of things. Sometimes these judgments can be very specific and very accurate too. I think this goes on with reading books as well. I start reading with the best intentions, but sometimes the decision to stop dead in my tracks and read no more is made before I even know it has happened. This happens to many people with music as well. Although I listen to several different musical genres, some other music just doesn't get past my filters, even if I want to make a conscious effort to check the stuff out. Or at least, I have to make a determined effort to convince my little brain to give the material some of my time.

Underground Baker said...

I have always read history books as novels...but have never wanted to publicly admit it...because it seems like I wasn't taking history seriously enough. Interestingly enough, my favorite novelists paint what I think are amazing historical landscapes. After all, a novel, a book, (a newspaper article for heavens sake), is immediately imbedded in a moment of history whether the author is trying or not.

And speaking of novelists that I try but cannot read....wait for it Candy...you know it, that Canadian icon Mz. whats her name...Atwood.

I know, I know, she can write a mean sentence, but I don't get hooked. Sounds alot like what you get, mr anchovy, with Toni Morrison.

Ok, I have to go now because I am supposed to be getting ready for an exam. Ugh.

Candy Minx said...

I think it was a fear from tenured academics who are teaching history at universities who were afraid that "history is dead"...I sure don't expect to hear that from anyone I know Mister Anchovy. Parrish says that those history profs are "working for the Empire". It's actually a fun book to read and I like how he has connected the writers.

I absolutely love Toni Morrison and think Beloved is one of the most incredible stories. I can't say I found her smooth to read at first, she has a distinctive style. I also happened to have read her years before she got awards and was so blown away when she came to mainstram awareness with her Pulitzer. I gave Jill a copy of "Song of Solomon" and later when Morrison won the Pulitzer, Jill thought I was some kind of shaman because I had "discovered" or introduced her to Morrison unknown ha ha!

I found Morrison challenging at first, like Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting" (John LeCarre wa shard for me too!)and almost put them down. I have found though...over the years that art, music and books that I sometimes have an adverse reaction to turn out...with a little surrender and perseverance to be among my favourite things. I've had this experience with new music and strange authors. With "Trainspotting" I landed up reading it to myself outloud...and then it just clicked!

But I don't blindly like everything. For example, classical music makes my skin crawl. It just does. I know it's supposedly the greatest music ever written...but it leaves me feeling depressed and like I'm walking into funeral. BUT...it happens occassionally that I like some, my intro to classical music was movies like 2001 or Clockwork Orange...in those settings I enjoy classical music. Once I had to work in a restaurant at lunch hour and that was all we were allowed to listen to on radio...cbc classical. Some I liked some I didn't. Anita has turned me on to some classical music that I like. But I wouldn't go out and play it on my own. Or for a dinner party!

I don't like Margeret Atwood. I did read some when I was a kid and really enjoyed her...but then as I got older I fell away from her stories and characters and did not like them. I don't like Jane Hamilton, Wally Lamb and many other vastly popular writers of the 90's.

I prefer novels with massive amounts of "edge" I suppose...novels that are otherworldly, have spiritual content, interspecies relationships and action and adventure. I also really love reading mystery novels. I have "The Bookman's Promise" and "S Is For Silence" lined up to read this summer on the beach as another example.

I think one of the things I find profound about the Parrish book is the idea that "history, not identity, is the ground for contemporary (postmodern) American fiction" (I reject the term postmodern...but I know what the guy means)

I am not fond of a novels focused on drama, identity and social or soap opera styles. That's just me. I need some MEAT!

I am surprised you didn't enjoy Morrison...I think she writes like a jazz musician and so unusually...but we can't all like the same things.

I give a book the first 50 pages. Thats kind of my rule if the author doesn't have me by then...not likely to. I read "On Beauty" for a book club last year...and I hated it but I read the whole thing so I could talk about it. It just was so soap opera, characters I didn't relate to...and I believe the writer made a serious mistake, there was a stolen painting and she never ever used the mystique of that device until an afterthought t end of novel! Unforgivable!!!

Mister Anchovy I agree with you when you say " I think us humans have a really acute facility for making lightning quick judgments based on complex sets of criteria that we might not even have consciously considered. We do it all the time about all kinds of things. Sometimes these judgments can be very specific and very accurate too."

EXCEPT...for when we also judge too quickly. I thinkw e can "know" without understanding our subconsious why we like or reject a painting or book. On the other hand...we as a cultural community have become obsessed with complaining and showing our own ego's tatses. We have a trend among us to judge and reject all kinds of things in order to boost our egos and protect ourselves from things that threaten our ego's status quo.

By this, I mean this in a Buddhist kind of way...the "mind/ego" (same word in Sanskrit so bear with me) is frightened of change, growth, and new experiences. The mind/ego wants to control our taste and also has an urge to protect us from surrendering to other forces such as the spoirit and the spirit in art and literature. Fortunately art and literature often are work on the subconcious and heart of audiences rather than the egos.

So...what I am trying to say is the very instincts that are fast critics exist to protect us from danger in naure. We have these "lightening quick judgements" in order to protect us from predators or danger in nature nd life.

BUT...with art and literature that same sor of lightening quick judgments can be a weakness and is not needed...it is an over use of that protective instinct. when in galleries or studios the ego takes advantage of our natural instincts to protect ourselves from danger...but there isn't any need for that when looking at art and books.

I believe in looking at art we need to double check that impulse that wants to reject music and art and books. It is probably the "mind/ego" restricting us from freedom. It may be actually controlling our freedom to enjoy the human condition with a clear spirit. Art isn't going to kill us and neither is a book. I think pushing to at least 50 pages...or a half hour ina gallery is the least we can do.

One check I use...is when my friends and loved ones like something...I make special effort to immerse myself in their interests. I watched a lot of crazy tv shows and listened to some new music purely because my daughter liked them. At first I may have been closed minded but it turned out I had many cultural currencies in common with her to build our relationship!

I find blogging works this way too..I find because I like certain bloggers...I make the effort to expose myself to their interests. I find on the internet especially with blogging that so many people are encouraging that "lightening quick judgment" in a negative fashion. That judgement is in us for life-affirming purposes...not to be haters!

Somedays it seems like someone has peed in everyone's Cheerios. they hate this they hate that...it's like everyone has turned into the cast of Seinfeld! and look what happened to them, they all went to jail where they belong because they are sociopaths...THAT was what made the show funny!

Underground Baker: I amvery similar about redign novels as "history"...and for me it's because I've never trusted "the Empire" or he "man" and being exposed to different ways of thinking has often taught me that history is written by the victors...whereas novels have the opportuntiy of teaching and exposing in subtle spiritual ways and in subconscious like painting and sculpture. Nope, not a fan of Atwood as you know...lots of people love her though She is a great force in Cananda and for that I respect her, just not my cup of tea (although I have fond memories of "Surfacing")

Good luck with the exam..ouch writing an exam in the summer so sucks!

hurling frootmig said...

just a short queston.
i know you are an artist, but tell me. have you ever heard of a guy called tony heald?
my new stuff is at the total perspective vortex. i hope you can pass by (i've gone a bit more professianal looking!)

cappy. said...

p.s. the last one was me!

Candy Minx said...

Hi Cappy! I will go check out your new page in a few minutes. I noticed that Jihad Punk had dsaid you moved to wordpress...

I checked out some images of Tony Heald, they look interesting, I was surprised he was English because in many ways his work looks inspired or set in American desert, maybe because of the colours...and they reminded me of Georgia O'Keefe. Have you been to one of his exhibits? Is he a neighbour? I am always excited to hear that people might be checking out local artists!

hurling frootmig said...

watch my site for a post on mr heald....

Candy Minx said...

Okay dokey!