"If language is differential rather than referential, if we owe our ideas of things to differences which are the effect of language in the first instance, then we can never be certain that what we say about the world in language or, indeed, in any other signifying system, is true." (Belsey, 2002, p. 71)
One of the main ideas in postmodern theory is that historical accounts, sources, and history as science are viewed under the lens of a skeptic. The dubious approach to all metanarratives in the postmodern era is well known, and the problem of history is just a part of that large spectrum. It has been the topic of many literary projects in the past few decades, and of research papers as well. One of the most influential voices in the world of postmodern theory is Linda Hutcheon, and in her book A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, she analyses the key constitutive elements of postmodern thought and extrapolates her findings to historical fiction which exemplifies the aforementioned doubts. She has named this genre "historiographic metafiction" and delineated its characteristics.
Because historiographic metafiction is on the rise in contemporary culture, it is important to describe key ideas represented in such publications in a way that can be understood by the average reader. The first question that presents itself is: How exactly is history seen in postmodern literature? The viewpoint differs among critics, but the most prominent one is that historical discourse, like any other discourse, is a construct.
"What the postmodern writing of both history and literature has taught us is that both history and fiction are discourses, that both constitute systems of signification by which we make sense of the past ('exertions of the shaping, ordering imagination')." (Hutcheon, 2004, p. 89)
The postmodern interpretation of language as a construct is heavily influenced by Jaque Derrida's deconstruction method ("Deconstruction", 2020). He presents language as a set of linguistic signs that do not refer to an object found in reality, nor even to an idea in the mind of the person using language to convey content. The meaning of a word can only be realized by differentiating it from the meaning of other words. In the same way, all texts derive meaning not in relation to reality, but in relation to other texts.
"As Umberto Eco, a significant postmodern theorist, put it in his amazingly popular postmodernist novel The Name of the Rose: 'books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.' This view only ends up in a kind of textual idealism, because all texts are seen as perpetually referring to other ones, rather than to any external reality." (Butler, 2002, p. 32)
To take the most appropriate example for this topic, the differentiation between 'history' and 'fiction' can be analyzed. One can easily conclude that 'history' would have to reference actual events that occurred in the past, while 'fiction' describes events constructed in the writer's imagination. Even though the past did occur, it is the way in which the past is told, and therefore shaped, that has been the subject of postmodern criticism.
However, Hutcheon challenges critics of postmodern thought who claim it is ahistorical. She asserts that the goal is not to completely deny the relevance of history, but merely to reevaluate what prejudices and misconceptions are hidden in the historical discourse, i.e. historiography. Historiography is separate from the historical method (historical sources and first-hand accounts of events are examined, which grants history an empirical basis and a method that allows it to be identified as a science). Writing history is an "imaginative reconstruction," and the act of constructing a story of the past is the object of postmodern criticism. "It is historiography's explanatory and narrative emplotments of past events that construct what we consider historical facts" (Hutcheon, 2004, p. 92).
It is from this standpoint that prosaists challenge their readers to rethink historiography as an establishment. What permits them to do so is the fact that history and fiction are narratives with similarities, such as character types with motivation, descriptions of events in a determined time and place, both usually told by the third-person limited narrator. Writers use these traits as a basis to show that historical texts should always be seen as only texts that claim to be true, while historiographic metafiction claims that as well, but, as the name suggests, has the self-awareness of its own textuality.
"Historiographical metafiction refutes the natural or common-sense methods of distinguishing between historical fact and fiction. It refuses the view that only history has a truth claim, both by questioning the ground of that claim in historiography and by asserting that both history and fiction are discourses, human constructs, signifying systems, and both derive their major claim to truth from that identity." (Hutcheon, 2004, p. 93)
Literary works are recognized as historiographic metafiction if they possess certain elements. Referencing Georg Lukács', Linda Hutcheon emphasizes three traits of historiographic metafiction. Firstly, unlike in typical historic novels, the protagonist of historiographic metafiction is not a stereotypical, ideal example of a certain group or an important historical figure, but a person from the margin of historical events, seemingly irrelevant. For example, in Julian Barnes's novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, in the first chapter Stowaway, which is about the biblical tale of Noah's Ark, the main character is a woodworm that hid in the body of the ark.
Secondly, historiographic metafiction portrays historical details and facts in a specific way. Similar to the way protagonists are not known historical figures, but rather are figures on the margin that could have existed; historical data, even intentionally false data, is often used to legitimize the work of fiction, but also subvert the historical discourse. "Historiographic metafiction acknowledges the paradox of the reality of the past but its textualized accessibility to us today." (Hutcheon, 2004, p. 114).
Finally, this all serves to question the ontological nature of both historiographic works and the works of historiographic metafiction by setting them up side by side, with the main difference being the self-consciousness of historiographic metafiction of its own fictiveness, and the parodical subversion of true historiographical discourse.
"In many historical novels, the real figures of the past are deployed to validate or authenticate the fictional world by their presence, as if to hide the joints between fiction and history in a formal and ontological sleight of hand." (Hutcheon, 2004, p. 114)
The mentioned traits are not the only important aspects of this genre. Intertextuality plays a crucial role in postmodern prose as well. It is often included in a transparent way to once again confirm the idea that all texts are interwoven together, like words in a language. An example of this is in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose when Adso encounters a mysterious woman and references the biblical Song of Songs. The intertextual nature of meaning in literature is therefore often portrayed in contemporary fiction with images of libraries, archives, and labyrinths.
All the mentioned characteristics can be found in a number of contemporary works. Some of the most brilliant examples are the novels My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, and How to Quite a Vampire: A Sotie by Borislav Pekić. The worlds they depict lay unintelligibly on the border between reality and fiction, being and non-being. They are oftentimes filled with humorous details, and with a hidden didactical purpose, making them a poetic and commercial success.
Belsey, C. (2002). Poststructuralism - A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2020, October 20). "deconstruction". Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/deconstruction
Butler, C. (2002). Postmodernism - A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
Hutcheon, L. (2004). A Poetics of Postmodernism. New York and London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Figure 1. Photograph of Linda Hutcheon [Image]. http://www.english.utoronto.ca/facultystaff/emeritiretired/hutcheon.htm
Figure 2. "Still shot from the movie The Name of the Rose, dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud" 1986 [Image]. https://garagemca.org/en/event/lecture-by-andrey-velikanov-umberto-eco-the-name-of-the-rose-universalities-the-postmodern-condition
Figure 3. Book cover of "A History of the World in 10½ Chapters" written by Julian Barnes [Image] https://www.amazon.com/History-World-10-Chapters/dp/0679731377
Figure 4. Cameron Stewart (2020)"Suzzalo Library, Seattle, WA, USA" [Image]. Unsplash. Retrieved on March 5, 2022. https://unsplash.com/photos/jo9eYA750V0