Fiction's a girl thing, boys heart history

Is there a gender divide in literary forms?


Carol Lloyd
March 27, 2008 6:00PM (UTC)

Before it slips into the New Yorker's vast archive of deep thoughts, don't miss Jill Lepore's fascinating essay, "Just the Facts Ma'am," about facts and fiction in history, and how fact-flinging, great-man historians have bemoaned the postmodernist historian's emphasis on the inherent subjectivity of all historical storytelling.

What struck me was the way Lepore recasts this historiographic discussion as a facet of literature's gendered history. She traces the simultaneous rise of academic history as a mostly male pursuit in the 18th century alongside the novel, something she defines as a predominantly female narrative form. In contrast to traditional history, with its "cult of the fact," the novel catered to a female readership with tales of female heroines often authored by women.

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As a historian of American civilization at Harvard, Lepore presumably knows her way around a fact or two, so it's not as if she's spouting essentialist pabulum that women -- those private, intimate, intuitive creatures -- are more naturally drawn to fiction than men -- those public, powerful, rationalist animals. But then what is she trying to say?

The article is in part a response to Gordon Wood's "The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History," which catalogs the shortcomings of "unhistorian historians" -- Lepore among them -- so no doubt the piece is a professional defense, airing some academic laundry. As someone who escaped the ivory tower long ago, I found the idea of an enduring gender divide in literary forms far more provocative.

Lepore writes: "By the end of the eighteenth century, not just novel readers but most novel writers were women, too. And most historians, along with their readers, were men. As the discipline of history, the anti-novel, emerged, and especially as it professionalized, it defined itself as the domain of men. (Women might write biography, or dabble in genealogy.) Eighteenth-century observers, in other words, understood the distinction between history and fiction not merely and maybe not even predominantly as a distinction between truth and invention but as a distinction between stories by, about, and of interest to men and stories by, about, and of interest to women. Women read novels, women wrote novels, women were the heroines of novels. Men read history, men wrote history, men were the heroes of history."

After asserting that recent academic historians exploring the subject matter only novelists dared to address (private lives of ordinary people, women's history, cultural history, etc.) have reclaimed from fiction writers "nearly everything except the license to invent ... and women readers," she drops this generalization: "Today, publishers figure that men buy the great majority of popular history books; most fiction buyers are women."

OK ... I don't have the qualifications to question her take on 18th century reading habits, but her claim that this gender split continues to this day begs for elaboration and little more -- dare I say it? -- evidence. Do men and women's reading habits remain so similar to the those reading 300 years ago? If so, why? Are women still attracted to fiction because it holds a clearer mirror to life, insofar as fictional worlds are less dominated by men than are historical worlds? Or is there something else about the distinct narrative forms that speak to each gender's experience?

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We don't get any answers from Lepore, but her essay raises intriguing questions. Although Lepore isn't advocating the dismantling of evidence-based history, she does suggest that modern historians would do well to learn something from fiction writers: "History matters, but the best novels boast a kind of truth that even the best history books can never claim. And when history books are wrong they can be miserably, badly, ridiculously wrong ..." I know I didn't fall in love with history until college, when it wasn't all about male rulers and the wars they started. Who knew that my apathy for the sometimes tautological parameters of history had such historical precedence?


Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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