I caught this article from Gabriel Valdez’s Wednesday Collective in a sort of a roundabout way – it’s a defense of something like “The Expert Review”, in which a reviewer criticizes a work of fiction with some level of expertise – pointing out historical errors and the like. Some people think the Expert Review should die; this Historian who goes to the movies makes a pretty good case for it.
For the purpose of contributing to this consideration, I’d like to suggest that there’s a bright line we can draw between historical errors that matter and historical errors that don’t, and that actually we’ve got two ways of looking at a narrative’s relationship to the past. For the sake of argument, let’s call these two things History and Historicity.
History, we all know what history is, but just for the purpose of this article I’d like you to accept the following definition, even if it’s not how you’d usually define it: “History is a complex set of narratives, evaluated in the present, encompassing more or fewer artifacts from previous time periods, generally established for the purpose of creating, destroying, or reinforcing a cultural or political identity.” In this case, we might say that a history that encompasses very few artifacts from a previous time period is a bad history, but creating a narrative based on them is still the process of history, however we might like to wish it isn’t. And you’ve noticed, I’m sure, the interesting feature about history being evaluated always in the present, and what this means for all previous histories – don’t worry, we’ll get to it.
Historicity might be something that I made up (or, alternately, a real thing that I am describing incorrectly), but for the sake of this article let’s work with this definition: “Historicity is the quality of resembling one point in history or another.” I don’t think that his necessarily means that something with a high degree of historicity is historically accurate – I think that as we go forward, I’m going to show that “historical accuracy” can fall into one or the other category – but I do think that something with a high degree of historicity has a lot of details that are meant to make it resemble something that is historically accurate.
So, here is what I am proposing: historical details matter when we’re talking about history; historical details do NOT matter when we’re talking about historicity.
Here, let me do a few examples.
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