Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review: 6/15/94
Q&A E.L. Doctorow: Reduced to Art
HB: For various reasons, including difficulty in categorizing a book I was writing, I became interested in the issue of genre in contemporary literature. That led me to your essay, “False Documents,” a superb piece I’ve returned to again and again.
ELD: I wrote “False Documents” because I was astounded by some of the reaction to Ragtime. People seemed to think it was somehow a transgression to incorporate historical figures into a fiction although I had spent my youth reading books that did just that. The Three Musketeers has Cardinal Richelieu as a character. In War and Peace, Napoleon and all his generals appear. What, then, was so transgressive about what I’d done in Ragtime?
I felt what was being called into question was fiction itself. Somehow a reduced notion of fiction’s legitimate territory had become prevalent. I didn’t subscribe to that notion. “False Documents” — Kenneth Rexroth’s marvelous phrase, for which I credit him in the piece — was a useful way for me to articulate my own presumptions, and to understand that fiction was, in fact, a system of knowledge that might even be superior to the social sciences or any of the other disciplines that incorporate its techniques without admitting it.
HB: In your view, fiction is not advancing. It is trying to hold its own against an onslaught.