Greater Minds: Niall Ferguson and Jane Smiley fight over history

  • Two historians and a novelist argued about the roles of historian and historical novelist.
  • Niall Ferguson argued that a novelist projects their own view on to past events.
  • Jane Smiley argued that historical fiction and non-fiction are both constructs of the authors’ theories.
  • Gabriel Gorodetsky argued that only history can properly advise policy.


(Dickson Phua [CC / Flickr])

If you’re read a few of my pontifications, you’ve probably gathered that I’m a Radio Four bore. How could I resist all those people talking about subjects they’re knowledgeable and passionate about? The panel discussions are usually well chaired to keep the experts on topic and to time, but now and again the panellists seize control, diverting the program on to a tangent that’s too fruitful for the chair to pull them back from.

That’s what happened when a Start the Week panel lurched from discussing the Cold War into a debate about the respective value of the academic historian and the historical novelist. Listen to the podcast and you can practically hear the chair throw away his plan for the program and let them get on with it. It was a wise decision because if we cut through the bombast and barbs, Niall Ferguson and Jane Smiley made some profound points about the distinctions and similarities of their respective professions.

The weigh-in

The podcast is available here, and spends the first half hour focusing on Henry Kissinger and Ivan Maisky, two defining politicians of the Cold War. It’s interesting in itself, but if you just want to listen

The panellists, or rather combatants, were:


Niall Ferguson in 2011 (Chatham House [CC / Flickr])

In the blue corner, Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson, author of a recent biography of Kissinger.

Also in the blue corner, if not quite in the ring for most of the fight, is Gabriel Gorodetsky, an academic historian who recently translated and edited Maisky’s personal diary of the 1930s and World War Two.

In the red corner, Pullitzer Prize winning historical novelist Jane Smiley who recently concluded a three-part family saga of 20th century America with Golden Age.

Playing the role of referee is Andrew Marr, who apart from being a broadcaster and journalist, is also an author of both popular history and novels.

View from the kitchenette

Marr rang the bell for the fight when he asked Smiley about the role of the ‘view from the kitchenette’ that her novels offer, and Smiley answered that history tells us what happened while novels tell us how it felt:

I think that’s what novels are for. History and memoirs tell us what happened but novels tell us, or have a theory about, how it felt and they make it live for us.


Jane Smiley in 2016 (Christchurch City Libraries [CC / Fickr])

The dichotomy was too much for Ferguson who donned his gloves to insist that what happened is not separable from how it felt:

This is an important distinction and one that I wouldn’t make if you weren’t implying that historians were just giving you what happened as opposed to how it felt.

Gorodetsky backed him up:

 History perhaps is the only profession that can provide today a proper advice as to policy making. The political sciences actually proved to be somewhat bankrupt during the Cold War.

An appeal to authority?

Ferguson was undoubtedly correct in his argument that historians cover ‘how it felt’ as much as what happened, especially when they are writing biography as he and Gorodetsky had been doing. Both of them had drawn heavily from the private diaries and correspondence of their subjects, and Ferguson’s opening description of Kissinger’s early years focused very much on how his feelings shaped the views he would later convert into policy.

Well-aimed as Ferguson’s opening blow was, he and Gorodetsky left a few gaps in their defence, and I do not mean Ferguson’s overbearing manner or his repeated insistence that history is based on research as though Smiley had never opened a book on her own subject.

For one thing, Gorodetsky’s assertion that history alone can inform policy making implies that looking at the past is more informative than information about the present, which can be gleaned by academic disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, economics and


Gabriel Gorodetsky in 2010 (Ggorod [Wikimedia Commons])

epidemiology. For another, it risks placing historical analysis on a pedestal, invalidating criticism from the disciplines he dismisses as ‘bankrupt’. We can’t evaluate his claim for the primacy of history as a discipline as he didn’t get a chance to explain it, but even if he had made a convincing argument to back up his claim, it would be dangerous for a policy-maker to assume that every historian is diligent and unbiased enough to offer the ‘all-encompassing’ perspective he described.

Gorodetsky’s insistence on the primacy of history comes perilously close to being an argument from authority, which is a logical fallacy that we can only hope he wouldn’t tolerate from his students.

Projections on projection

As blows were traded, Ferguson’s beef appeared to be as much with Smiley’s claim to know how it felt as with her statement that how it felt was distinct from how it happened. Gorodetsky summed up Ferguson’s rather lengthy point with, ‘you project your views and perceptions’.

Ironically enough, reactions to their argument offer case study on projection. It was covered by the Daily Telegraph and, as inevitably happens, argued about in the comment section. People who had listened to the same ten minutes of discussion came away with opinions ranging from, ‘heard it, and agree with Ferguson – though he was characteristically rude and patronising. Must be an historian thing’ to ‘He is a high-status idiot along the lines of Stephen Colbert (the character)’.

These are people who followed the event in its entirety, yet projected very different perceptions on to it.

At the same time, Gorodetsky’s point about projection touches on something that historians and historical novelists must have in common: an opinion. Historians are never happier than when they’re offering an opinion what led to what in the past, or what the


(Hartwig HKD [CC / Flickr])

people around at the time thought about it. We bring different assumptions to history and historical fiction; we assume that history is fact other than where it is identified as speculation, and we assume anything in a novel is fictional unless an author’s note informs us that it is not. It’s very difficult to draw a clear line

Ferguson argued that historians are rigorous in their separation of facts and opinion:

As a historian you have to be really careful because you can’t really easily distinguish in your mind between these imagined facts and real ones. Historians are in the business of reconstituting past experience.

Smiley was quick to challenge him with, ‘you don’t think that’s projection?’ It’s a good question. Ferguson referred several times to the large volume of primary sources that underpinned his book on Kissinger, which begs the question of how he chose what to include and how to balance how much prominence he gives the different elements.

If a novelist’s projections appear in what they invent and put in, can a historian claim that projection plays no part in what they choose to leave out?

Soviet monster or Soviet mouse?

Ferguson returns to Smiley’s own novel of the Cold War, in which a character working for the CIA admits to exaggerating the Soviet threat:

Anyone reading it who was trying to understand the Cold War would say there wasn’t a Soviet threat at all…the historian’s job is to say one vantage point is to say that the CIA exaggerated the Soviet threat and another vantage point is to say that there really was a Soviet threat.

The gravity of the Soviet threat is a separate debate, so let’s concentrate on Ferguson’s argument that ‘anyone reading it’ would take a novel as definitive historical fact. Smiley said the historian’s role as to present the available facts and to identify the gaps in them:


Korean War-era recruiting poster (James Vaughan [CC / Flickr])

The historian must say that my record is as complete as I can make it but it’s not truly complete because if it were then it wouldn’t be accurate…the historian is pointing toward accuracy and therefore must have incompleteness. The novelist, in order to have a story that works for the reader, for the reader to willingly suspend disbelief, must offer a sense of completeness.

Ferguson acknowledged Smiley’s craft, if not her intellectual rigour:

I could never write a novel. I tried once and it’s difficult because you have to make stuff up.

Seconds out

In the ten minutes of argument, Ferguson and Smiley had dug deep into the two different forms and Marr had to ring the bell for the end of the round long before the combatants had given all they had. He gave the last word to Ferguson, who probably would have insisted on it, by asking if there is any sort of truth best expressed in fiction. Ferguson answered that, ‘it’s dangerous to think that it’s historical truth. There may be a truth about the human condition.’

Not to be outdone, Smiley offered her summation when she wrote about it a few days later:

If there is one thing that I do know about history, it is that it must be based on the author’s theory of what happened. He or she may change the theory as the research is completed, but without a theory, and if the research doesn’t fit into the theory, then the text has no logic, and therefore makes no sense. If it makes no sense, then readers will not read it. A history book is, therefore, a construct.

In short, Ferguson and Gorodetsky are suspicious of historical fiction because it depends on the author’s projection and invention to form the satisfying narrative Smiley mentioned. Smiley defends her corner by insisting that a historian must themselves be projecting a theory.


Who won the bout? (Katia Sosnowiez [CC / Flickr])

If I was scoring the fight, I’d say Smiley won on points but not by knockout. Although she retreated from her initial statement that historians tell what happened while novelists tell how it felt, saying ‘it’s not a split, it’s a continuum. That’s how the two forms work’, she made a convincing argument that a historian needs a theory as much as a novelist.

Ferguson and Gorodetsky never refuted her argument that theory is as much the domain of the historian and the novelist. Instead, Ferguson delivered an impressive uppercut to his own chin when he said, ‘novelists are at a disadvantage because they’ve never worked in organisations’, demonstrating that even Harvard professors of history are given to fact-free statement.

Who do you think won the belt? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

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