False documents.

June 15, 2010, 8:49 am

A reader kindly points me to the essay “False Documents,” by the great E.L. Doctorow. It is of course through Doctorow that many readers now know of Sherman’s march or the Rosenberg trial; which is to say that Doctorow’s gripping narrative of these events has in those readers’ imaginations a place that is somewhat surer than the pure recitation of known historical facts. This is of course just as Doctorow would want it.

In the essay Doctorow uses Walter Benjamin to assert the decline of storytellers, who once had pride of place by the communal fire. The tales they told there gave a people their communal experience and sense of who they were.

Now the storytellers have gone, banished to the margins and recast as novelists, their prideful place taken by politicians and reporters and social scientists, who rely on a language of fact to develop a much attenuated version of a people’s shared experience.

Doctorow spends a fair amount of time in the essay on the relatively commonplace understanding that factual writing is simply another species of fiction, a composed narrative with just as much of the unreal in it as any novel. I think by now if you are a practitioner of nonfiction this sort of argument is either something you get very upset by, or accept and recognize that it does not really change the rules of your discipline — nor is it really an attempt to change those rules; it’s an effort to change the balance of authority between fiction and nonfiction.

Which is the really interesting part of the essay; Doctorow notes that Cervantes and Defoe, among other early novelists, were at pains to deny their own place as authors and asserted rather that they had come to their stories through memoirs or manuscripts, themselves collected perhaps by another person altogether. The denial of authorship gives the text authority.

And why would a writer of fiction want to claim for his text that kind of authority? Well, to Doctorow the language of fact is the language of the regime, of power; the language of fiction is therefore a language of freedom capable of restoring to our attention the experience storytellers once purveyed. We know, we everyday see, how the language of fact gets used to corrupt, exclude, exploit what we know, or knew before we watched the news, to be true. The creation of false documents is at its best an act of liberation, to tell something truer than the established truth.

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