Linda Hutcheon: Reading Notes, Chapters 7 and 8

By April Mason and Jack Somers

Reading Notes for Chapter Seven: “Historiographic Metafiction: ‘The Pastime of Past Time’” from A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction by Linda Hutcheon

Section I

Hutcheon begins this section by discussing the relationship between literature and history in the nineteenth century and the postmodern objection to their separation into two disciplines.  Recent critical viewpoints tend to focus more on the similarities between history and fiction, and Hutcheon discusses the parallels. She writes: “They have both been seen to derive their force more from verisimilitude than from any objective truth; they are both identified as linguistic constructs, highly conventionalized in their narrative forms, and not at all transparent either in terms of language or structure; and they appear to be equally intertextual, deploying the texts of the past within their own complex textuality” (105).  She connects these characteristics to the “implied teachings” (105) of historiographic metafiction, reminding readers that this genre asserts that history and fiction are historical terms that change in meaning as quickly as history itself (105). Further examining the contradictions of postmodernism, Hutcheon suggests that historiographic metafiction “keeps distinct its formal auto-representation and its historical context, and in so doing problematizes the very possibility of historical knowledge, because there is no reconciliation, no dialectic here – just unresolved contradiction” (106).

Hutcheon elaborates on the relationship between art and historiography. She references Aristotle’s belief that a historian can only focus on events from the past, while a poet can focus on what might happen, allowing he or she to deal with more “universals” (106).  Thus, many historians have incorporated “fictional representations”  (106) into their works, allowing them to “create imaginative versions of their historical, real worlds” (106). Hutcheon states that the postmodern novel has also taken these opportunities. She writes: “It is part of the postmodernist stand to confront the paradoxes of fictive/historical representation, the particular/the general, and the present/the past. And this confrontation is itself contradictory, for it refuses to recuperate or dissolve either side of the dichotomy, yet it is more than willing to exploit both” (106).

Focusing on the overlap between the genres of history and fiction, Hutcheon describes the ethical concerns in the eighteenth century about truth in narratives (106). This led to a debate about historical “fact” and the issue of writers wanting readers to believe that anything incorporated into their works of fiction was in fact true. Hutcheon writes: “Most readers today (and many then) had the pleasure of a double awareness of both fictiveness and a basis in the ‘real’ – as do readers of contemporary historiographic metafiction” (107).

Hutcheon addresses the fact that writers of fiction and historians can include or exclude certain events and people. Thus, women are excluded from many traditional historical accounts, an issue of plurality in postmodernism (107). Further, Hutcheon discusses the concern in historiographic metafiction between what is fictitious and what is untruthful, providing Rushdies’s narrator in Shame as an example of an “insider/outsider” who is writing about Pakistan from his view in England. She writes: “The eighteenth-century concern for lies and falsity becomes a postmodern concern for the multiplicity and dispersion of truth(s), truth(s) relative to the specificity of place and culture” (108). Thus, Hutcheon focuses on the postmodern concern of the subjectivity of those who write history (108).

Lastly, Hutcheon focuses on the “long tradition” (108) of the view that fiction is superior to history, as history is limited to particular occurrences. Historiographic metafiction works to “demarginalize the literary through confrontation with the historical, and it does so both thematically and formally” (108). Hutcheon focuses on Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth as an example (108).

Section II

Hutcheon begins by presenting the structuralist point of view that “literature is not a discourse that can or must be false . . . it is a discourse that, precisely, cannot be subjected to the test of truth; it is neither true nor false, to raise the question has no meaning: this is what defines its very status as ‘fiction’” (109). She then echoes this structuralist point of view by highlighting the fact that historiographic metafiction presumes that the terms “truth” and “falsity” may not apply to fiction, but for different reasons than those of the structuralists. She stresses the postmodern idea that truths are plural; there is no falsity, only others’ versions. She writes: “Fiction and history are narratives distinguished by their frames, frames which historiographic metafiction first establishes and then crosses, positing both the generic contracts of fiction and history” (109-110).  Hutcheon believes that the interplay of the historiographic and the metafictional contributes to the inability to claim  “both ‘authentic’ representation and ‘inauthentic’ copy alike, and the very meaning of artistic originality is as forcefully challenged as is the transparency of historical referentiality” (110).

Hutcheon suggests “that to re-write or to re-present the past in fiction and in history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological” (110).  She focuses on Susan Daitch’s L.C. as an example. The protagonist’s journal is translated twice, yielding different interpretations and pointing to what Hutcheon refers to as “the rewriting of history” (110). This concern of the subjectivity of historical accounts is a recurring theme in postmodernism.

Hutcheon points to “both the need to separate and to the danger of separating fiction and history as narrative genres” (111). Citing Hough and Kermode, she writes: “Novels (with the exception of some extreme surfictions) incorporate social and political history to some extent, though that extent will vary; historiography, in turn, is as structured, coherent, and teleological as any narrative fiction. It is not only the novel but history too that is ‘palpably betwixt and between’” (111).

Focusing on the theory that “history’s problem is verification, while fiction’s is veracity”, (112). Hutcheon uses Coover’s The Public Barn Burning to support the fact that “history and fiction are cultural sign systems, ideological constructions whose ideology includes their appearance of being autonomous and self-contained” (112).  Doctorow’s quote illustrates the point. He says: “History is kind of fiction in which we live and hope to survive, and fiction is a kind of speculative history . . . by which the available data for the composition is seen to be greater and more various in its sources than the historian proposes” (112).

Hutcheon ends the section by making reference to Fredric Jameson’s belief that “historical representation is surely in crisis as is the linear novel”, (112) suggesting that in order to solve the dilemma in reporting a true version of history, historians should instead focus on a “concept” (112) of history. Hutcheon believes that postmodern historiographic metafiction has already accomplished this task; however, she does not believe that history and fiction “adopt equivalent representational procedures or constitute equivalent modes of cognition” (112).

Section III

Hutcheon begins by suggesting that historiographic metafiction attempts to distinguish between fiction and history, clouding the difference in the process. Though she cites the Bible as an example of a classic text that is problematic in this manner, she believes that “the simultaneous and overt assertion and crossing of boundaries is more postmodern” (113). She states that historiographic metafiction, not historical fiction, serves to narrate the past (113).

Hutcheon goes on to distinguish between postmodern fiction and nineteenth-century historical fiction. She defines historical fiction “as that which is modeled on historiography to the extent that it is motivated and made operative by a notion of history as a shaping force” (113).  She does, however, credit Lukács for the most widely accepted definition. He believes that the historical novel “could enact historical process by presenting a microcosm which generalizes and concentrates” (113). Further, the protagonist should be representational of “all the humanly and socially essential determinants” (113).  However, Hutcheon asserts that the protagonists of historiographic metafiction are not those associated with the “typical” protagonist. They represent the “other”, representing the postmodern belief in plurality (114).

At this point in the text, Hutcheon cites Lukács to contrast the historical novel and the postmodern historiographic metafictional novel. Lukács believes that the “use of detail” (114) in the historical novel is insignificant, seeing it “only as a means of achieving historical faithfulness, for making concretely clear the historical necessity of a concrete situation” (114). The validity of that detail is immaterial. Postmodernism challenges this viewpoint. Hutcheon points out that historiographic metafiction “plays upon the truth and lies of the historical record” (114) and, unlike historical fiction’s use of data to verify the fictional work, in historiographic metafiction the characters are often seen trying to decipher the data they have collected. Hutcheon writes: “Historiographic metafiction acknowledges the paradox of the reality of the past but its textualized accessibility to us today” (114). Lukács also assigns historical figures the role of secondary characters in the historical novel, yet this is not the case in postmodern novels.  In addition, historical figures are often incorporated into historical novels as a means of authenticating the fictional text. Metafictional postmodern novels, however, do not operate under any such deception; they question our ability to know the past. Thus, historiographic metafiction is interested in making readers examine historical texts (114-115).

Hutcheon refers to the non-fictional novel, which developed as a response to the perceived challenges of the historical novel, as “more a form of documentary narrative which deliberately used techniques of fiction in an overt manner and which usually made no pretence to objectivity or presentation” (115). She is clear to assert that there are significant differences between the non-fictional novel and historiographic metafiction (115). This form of “New Journalism” was spurred by the Vietnam War and the distrust of the subjectivity of facts, resulting in “overtly personal and provisional journalism, autobiographical in impulse and performative in impact” (115). This non-fictional novel questioned who was responsible for creating truth (116).

Many see connections between the non-fictional novel and historiographic metafiction. Both stress the power to “create unities”, (116) and both aim to avoid a reduction of a unified meaning (116).  Although acknowledging the similarities, Hutcheon does see distinctions (116).

Section IV

Hutcheon begins this section by focusing on “the interaction of historiography and fiction” (117).

Historiographic metafiction utilizes two modes of narration, multiple points of view and an openly controlling narrator, that blurs subjectivity. However, in neither of these modes does there exist a narrator who, with any confidence, is certain of his or her ability to know the past (117).  Hutcheon writes: “Postmodernism establishes, differentiates, and then disperses stable narrative voices (and bodies) that use memory to try to make sense of the past. It both installs and then subverts traditional concepts of subjectivity; it both asserts and is capable of shattering ‘the unity of man’s being through which it was thought that he could extend his sovereignty to the events of the past’” (118).

Next, Hutcheon alludes to the postmodern technique of parody as a means of incorporating the past into the present (118). She also discusses the use of intertextuality, as a means in which to “close the gap between past and present or the reader and a desire to rewrite the past in a new context” (118).

Hutcheon’s discussion continues to include referents, suggesting that history’s referents are believed true and those in fiction are believed false.  At this point Hutcheon refers to the idea that in postmodernism referents refer to other texts, as we only know the past through the texts that are left to convey information. Postmodernism complicates referents, as it questions our ability to know a reality and to be able to “represent it in language” (119). Hutcheon writes: “Postmodern fiction also poses new questions about reference. The issue is no longer ‘to what empirically real object in the past does the langue of history refer?’; it is more ‘to which discursive context could this language belong? To which prior textualizations must we refer?’” (119).

In addition, Hutcheon focuses on the theory that the referent in historiographic metafiction is already in existence in the discourses of our culture, and it is this connection that “acknowledges its identity as construct, rather than as simulacrum of some ‘real’ outside” (119).  Hutcheon includes a quote from Rushdie that clarifies this concept. He writes: “History is natural selection. Mutant versions of the past struggle for dominance; new species of fact arise, and old, saurian truths go to the wall, blindfolded and smoking last cigarettes. Only the mutations of the strong survive. The weak, the anonymous, the defeated leave marks . . . History loves only those who dominate her: it is a relationship of mutual enslavement” (120).

Thus, the question in postmodernism is that of whose version of history exists (120). Hutcheon quotes Hayden White when he says: “every representation of the past has specifiable ideological implications” (120). However, postmodernism against complicates matters because it relies on the very foundation in which it is attempting to deconstruct (120). Thus, “novels like The Public Burning or Ragtime do not trivialize the historical and the factual in their ‘game playing’, but rather politicize them through their metafictional rethinking of the epistemological and ontological relations between history and fiction” (121).

Subjectivity, intertextuality, reference, and ideology are many of the characteristics of the relationship between history and fiction in postmodernism, and Hutcheon explains that it is the narrative that can encompass them all. She writes: “Narrative is what translates knowing into telling, and it is precisely this translation that obsesses postmodern fiction. The conventions of narrative in both historiography and novels, then, are not constraints, but enabling conditions of possibility of sense-making” (121).  Hutcheon moves on to present the postmodern view that reality is created by “cultural representations” (121).  Again, Hutcheon stresses the postmodern stance that we can only know reality through our own subjectivity and our own cultural experience. She reiterates the postmodern belief that we are restricted in our ability to know the past (121-122). 

Hutcheon focuses on the difference between “events” and “facts”, (122) and she quotes Munz who believes that events are “configured into facts by being related to ‘conceptual matrices within which they have to be imbedded if they are to count as facts” (122). Postmodernism questions the method in which events are transposed into facts. What texts is one using? How reliable are those texts? What has been added or excluded from documents that are used to create such facts (122)? In addition, Hutcheon focuses on the idea of “semiotically constructed contexts”, which are dependent on institutions and individuals (122). She stresses the importance of remembering that our history is a semiotic transmission, again reinforcing the postmodern idea that our history is a reflection of those who record it (122).

Reading Notes for Chapter 8: Intertextuality, Parody, and the Discourses of History from A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction by Linda Hutcheon

Section I

At the beginning of Chapter 8, Hutcheon observes how postmodern texts that weave together history and fiction (texts Hutcheon dubs “historiographic metafiction”), refer back to a “textual past” which itself reflects particular historical discourses (Hutcheon 124).  Discourse is a word Hutcheon uses to describe the ideological structures, value systems, and social mores upheld and validated at particular time in a particular place.  These ideological structures and value systems are, she suggests, inscribed in texts.

Hutcheon goes on to say that, in addition to pulling together discursively situated textual antecedents, historiographic metafiction engages in a “parodic reworking” of the past (Hutcheon 124).  In other words, historiographic metafiction revisits the textual past but clearly (and sometimes playfully) communicates an awareness of its inevitable difference and separation from the past.  The notion underlying this sort of postmodern parody is that readers in the present can only know the past from its textual remnants and can never hope to access any sort of real, actual, or unmediated experience of the past (Hutcheon 125).  Hutcheon asserts immediately after making this point that, while historiographic metafiction questions the accessibility of a real, “empirical” past through parody, it does not efface or deny the existence of a real past (Hutcheon 125-126).

Following her discussion of the relationship between historiographic metafiction and the past, Hutcheon focuses more explicitly on the idea of intertextuality.  Intertextuality, Hutcheon indicates, is the concept that all texts refer back to prior texts and derive meaning from an understanding of the discursive environment in which those prior texts were produced (Hutcheon 126).  The construction of intertextual meaning is complicated by the fact that the reader of a text in the present is also embedded in a discursive context which necessarily influences his or her interpretation of text.  At the end of the introductory section of the chapter, Hutcheon notes how an intertextual view of literature, by positing that texts are not spontaneously brought into being but rather refer back to prior texts, subverts the humanist understanding of originality.  She also recognizes how the concept of intertextuality undermines the modernist notion of closed, singular meaning by acknowledging the presence of multiple meanings and discursive elements within texts (Hutcheon 127).

Section II

Hutcheon begins the second section of Chapter 8 by discussing the notion underlying historiographic metafiction that history is always narrated (talking about the past is always a matter of telling a story).  She links this insight to the realization that talking about the present is also an act of narration, so that discussion of the present, regardless of whether it occurs in writing or in speech, is always “irremediably textualized” (Hutcheon 128).  Hutcheon goes on to observe that because history writing is always narrated, organized, and constructed, it is not markedly different from fiction writing.  In this way, Hutcheon blurs the line between so-called “history-writing” and fiction writing (Hutcheon 128).

Expanding her discussion to include the social implications of intertextuality in the present age, Hutcheon points out how the parodic reformulation of “canonical” texts can contribute to the postmodern project of de-centering the dominant narratives of the “white, male, middle-class, heterosexual, Eurocentric culture” (Hutcheon 130).  She notes, too, that while postmodern fiction works to undermine the Western literary “canon,” it is also curiously obsessed with and linked to that canon.  The postmodern preoccupation with the Western canon can be seen in the writing of Thomas Pynchon which draws clearly from works like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the texts of Jacobean theater (Hutcheon 130).  According to Hutcheon, it is also important to observe that American postmodern writing relies not just on European canonical works (like the works of Conrad), but also on works from the American canon—works by writers like “Hawthorne, Poe, and Cooper” (Hutcheon 130).

Hutcheon ends the second section of the chapter by reiterating her point that historiographic metafiction incorporates intertexts (textual antecedents) from both literature and history (Hutcheon 132).  She illustrates this point by referring to Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor and Berger’s Little Big Man as examples of texts that combine the supposedly factual with the clearly fictive.

Section III

Hutcheon opens section three of Chapter 8 by clarifying that the intertexts of historiographic metafiction are not drawn exclusively from literature and historical writing.  On the contrary, she asserts, historiographic metafiction incorporates a wide variety of texts including “comic books,” “almanacs and newspapers” (Hutcheon 133).  In some cases, Hutcheon contends, the interweaving of multiple intertexts and discourses in postmodern fiction increases the likelihood that writing will “enact” the “totalizing tendency of all discourses to create systems and structures” (Hutcheon 133).  She seems to imply that, by presenting the reader with a multitude of texts from various sources and discursive contexts, the postmodern writer encourages the identification of patterns and lines of connection between (or, perhaps, “among”) intertexts.  The emergence of patterns (or “systems”) of meaning in postmodernist fiction, she observes, works against the postmodernist project of dismantling centered meaning structures in texts (Hutcheon 133).

As Hutcheon continues her examination of intertextuality, she suggests that the presence of patterns in postmodern parodic “reworkings” of past texts is not strictly contrary to the de-centering, subversive activity of postmodernism.  At times, she states, the “parodic use” of “overtly conventionally plotted forms” in postmodern fiction can function to satirize or critique the assumptions inscribed in those forms or the outmoded views of American life those forms capture and encode (Hutcheon 124, 133).  She also describes how postmodern parodies of conventional story forms and canonical works can serve to destabilize myths about American culture, highlight racial difference, and call attention to the idea that we can only access the past through discursive representations of the past (Hutchinson 134-136).  To highlight this last point, Hutcheon compares two texts that weave together the historical and the fictional, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and Heinrich von Kleist’s “Michael Kohlhass.”  Hutcheon concludes by contending that, while these two texts blend history and fiction, they do not suggest that one is more important than the other.  What these works emphasize is the similarity between history and fiction as narrated texts (Hutcheon 136).

Toward the end of the third section of the chapter, Hutcheon stresses that intertextual parody and the ironic inversion of canonical texts occurs in Canadian and British fiction as well as in American (she offers Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Susan Daitch’s novel L.C. as examples) (Hutcheon 139).  She concludes by observing that the idea of intertextual relation pertains not just to novels but to works of art (including “installations” and “paintings”) and music (Hutcheon 140).

Questions for Consideration

1. According to Hutcheon, postmodern fiction incorporates and reworks prior or past texts (intertexts).  In addition, it communicates an ironic awareness of textual antecedents and sources.  In a world where texts are viewed not as new creations by autonomous authors but as the results of intertextual combinations, Hutcheon admits, “the question of originality obviously has a different meaning” (Hutcheon 136).  How are we to define originality in a postmodern world where everything we create has some sort of textual antecedent?  Can there be such a thing as an original artist?

2. Hutcheon indicates that texts generally refer not back to some origin, source, or real experience but to other texts (Hutcheon 128).  In such an intertextual world, can we say that some texts are more authentic than others (for instance, is a diary from a soldier who fought at Gettysburg a more “authentic” account of the battle than a book about the battle by historian Shelby Foote writing about the battle in the 20th century?)  Does the notion of authenticity become irrelevant in a world where all texts are viewed as inevitably detached from “real” experience?

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Works Cited:

Hutcheon, Linda.  A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction.  New York: Routledge, 1988.