Hyperlinking History and Illegitimate Imagination: The Historiographic Metafictional E-novel

Bruno Starrs


‘Historiographic Metafiction’ (HM) is a literary term first coined by creative writing academic Linda Hutcheon in 1988, and which refers to the postmodern practice of a fiction author inserting imagined--or illegitimate--characters into narratives that are intended to be received as authentic and historically accurate, that is, ostensibly legitimate. Such adventurous and bold authorial strategies frequently result in “novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages” (Hutcheon, A Poetics 5). They can be so entertaining and engaging that the overtly intertextual, explicitly inventive work of biographical HM can even change the “hegemonic discourse of history” (Nunning 353) for, as Philippa Gregory, the author of HM novel The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), has said regarding this genre of creative writing: “Fiction is about imagined feelings and thoughts. History depends on the outer life. The novel is always about the inner life. Fiction can sometimes do more than history. It can fill the gaps” (University of Sussex). In a way, this article will be filling one of the gaps regarding HM.

Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994) is possibly the best known cinematic example of HM, and this film version of the 1986 novel by Winston Groom particularly excels in seamlessly inserting images of a fictional character into verified history, as represented by well-known television newsreel footage. In Zemeckis’s adaptation, gaps were created in the celluloid artefact and filled digitally with images of the actor, Tom Hanks, playing the eponymous role. Words are often deemed less trustworthy than images, however, and fiction is considered particularly unreliable--although there are some exceptions conceded. In addition to Gregory’s novel; Midnight’s Children (1980) by Salman Rushdie; The Name of the Rose (1983) by Umberto Eco; and The Flashman Papers (1969-2005) by George MacDonald Fraser, are three well-known, loved and lauded examples of literary HM, which even if they fail to convince the reader of their bona fides, nevertheless win a place in many hearts. But despite the genre’s popularity, there is nevertheless a conceptual gap in the literary theory of Hutcheon given her (perfectly understandable) inability in 1988 to predict the future of e-publishing. This article will attempt to address that shortcoming by exploring the potential for authors of HM e-novels to use hyperlinks which immediately direct the reader to fact providing webpages such as those available at the website Wikipedia, like a much speedier (and more independent) version of the footnotes in Fraser’s Flashman novels.

Of course, as Roland Barthes declared in 1977, “the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture” (146) and, as per any academic work that attempts to contribute to knowledge, a text’s sources--its “quotations”--must be properly identified and acknowledged via checkable references if credibility is to be securely established. Hence, in explaining the way claims to fact in the HM novel can be confirmed by independently published experts on the Internet, this article will also address the problem Hutcheon identifies, in that for many readers the entirety of the HM novel assumes questionable authenticity, that is, the novel’s “meta-fictional self-reflexivity (and intertextuality) renders their claims to historical veracity somewhat problematic, to say the least” ("Historiographic Metafiction: Parody", 3). This article (and the PhD in creative writing I am presently working on at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia) will possibly develop the concept of HM to a new level: one at which the Internet-connected reader of the hyperlinked e-novel is made fully (and even instantly) aware of those literary elements of the narrative that are legitimate and factual as distinct from those that are fictional, that is, illegitimate. Furthermore, utilising examples from my own (yet-to-be published) hyperlinked HM e-novel, this article demonstrates that such hyperlinking can add an ironic sub-text to a fictional character’s thoughts and utterances, through highlighting the reality concerning their mistaken or naïve beliefs, thus creating HM narratives that serve an entertainingly complex yet nevertheless truly educational purpose.

As a relatively new and under-researched genre of historical writing, HM differs dramatically from the better known style of standard historical or biographical narrative, which typically tends to emphasise mimesis, the cataloguing of major “players” in historical events and encyclopaedic accuracy of dates, deaths and places. Instead, HM involves the re-contextualisation of real-life figures from the past, incorporating the lives of entirely (or, as in the case of Gregory’s Mary Boleyn, at least partly) fictitious characters into their generally accepted famous and factual activities, and/or the invention of scenarios that gel realistically--but entertainingly--within a landscape of well-known and well-documented events. As Hutcheon herself states: “The formal linking of history and fiction through the common denominators of intertextuality and narrativity is usually offered not as a reduction, as a shrinking of the scope and value of fiction, but rather as an expansion of these” ("Intertextuality", 11). Similarly, Gregory emphasises the need for authors of HM to extend themselves beyond the encyclopaedic archive: “Archives are not history. The trouble with archives is that the material is often random and atypical. To have history, you have to have a narrative” (University of Sussex). Functionally then, HM is an intertextual narrative genre which serves to communicate to a contemporary audience an expanded story or stories of the past which present an ultimately more self-reflective, personal and unpredictable authorship: it is a distinctly auteurial mode of biographical history writing for it places the postmodern author’s imaginative “signature” front and foremost.

Hutcheon later clarified that the quest for historical truth in fiction cannot possibly hold up to the persuasive powers of a master novelist, as per the following rationale: “Fact is discourse-defined: an event is not” ("Historiographic Metafiction", 843). This means, in a rather simplistic nutshell, that the new breed of HM novel writer is not constrained by what others may call fact: s/he knows that the alleged “fact” can be renegotiated and redefined by an inventive discourse. An event, on the other hand, is responsible for too many incontrovertible consequences for it to be contested by her/his mere discourse. So-called facts are much easier for the HM writer to play with than world changing events. This notion was further popularised by Ansgar Nunning when he claimed the overtly explicit work of HM can even change the “hegemonic discourse of history” (353). HM authors can radically alter, it seems, the way the reader perceives the facts of history especially when entertaining, engaging and believable characters are deliberately devised and manipulated into the narrative by the writer. Little wonder, then, that Hutcheon bemoans the unfortunate reality that for many readers the entirety of a HM work assumes questionable “veracity” due to its author’s insertion of imaginary and therefore illegitimate personages.

But there is an advantage to be found in this, the digital era, and that is the Internet’s hyperlink. In our ubiquitously networked electronic information age, novels written for publication as e-books may, I propose, include clickable links on the names of actual people and events to Wikipedia entries or the like, thus strengthening the reception of the work as being based on real history (the occasional unreliability of Wikipedia notwithstanding). If picked up for hard copy publication this function of the HM e-novel can be replicated with the inclusion of icons in the printed margins that can be scanned by smartphones or similar gadgets. This small but significant element of the production reinforces the e-novel’s potential status as a new form of HM and addresses Hutcheon’s concern that for HM novels, their imaginative but illegitimate invention of characters “renders their claims to historical veracity somewhat problematic, to say the least” ("Historiographic Metafiction: Parody", 3).

Some historic scenarios are so little researched or so misunderstood and discoloured by the muddy waters of time and/or rumour that such hyperlinking will be a boon to HM writers. Where an obscure facet of Australian history is being fictionalised, for example, these edifying hyperlinks can provide additional background information, as Glenda Banks and Martin Andrew might have wished for when they wrote regarding Bank’s Victorian goldfields based HM novel A Respectable Married Woman. This 2012 printed work explores the lives of several under-researched and under-represented minorities, such as settler women and Aboriginal Australians, and the author Banks lamented the dearth of public awareness regarding these peoples. Indeed, HM seems tailor-made for exposing the subaltern lives of those repressed individuals who form the human “backdrop” to the lives of more famous personages. Banks and Andrew explain:

To echo the writings of Homi K. Bhaba (1990), this sets up a creative site for interrogating the dominant, hegemonic, ‘normalised’ master narratives about the Victorian goldfields and ‘re-membering’ a marginalised group - the women of the goldfields, the indigenous [sic], the Chinese - and their culture (2013).

In my own hyperlinked short story (presently under consideration for publishing elsewhere), which is actually a standalone version of the first chapter of a full-length HM e-novel about Aboriginal Australian activists Eddie Mabo and Chicka Dixon and the history of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, entitled The Bullroarers, I have focussed on a similarly under-represented minority, that being light-complexioned, mixed race Aboriginal Australians. My second novel to deal with Indigenous Australian issues (see Starrs, That Blackfella Bloodsucka Dance), it is my first attempt at writing HM. Hopefully avoiding overkill whilst alerting readers to those Wikipedia pages with relevance to the narrative theme of non-Indigenous attitudes towards light-complexioned Indigenous Australians, I have inserted a total of only six hyperlinks in this 2200-word piece, plus the explanatory foreword stating: “Note, except where they are well-known place names or are indicated as factual by the insertion of Internet hyperlinks verifying such, all persons, organisations, businesses and places named in this text are entirely fictitious.”

The hyperlinks in my short story all take the reader not to stubs but to well-established Wikipedia pages, and provide for the uninformed audience the following near-unassailable facts (i.e. events):

  1. The TV program, A Current Affair, which the racist character of the short story taken from The Bullroarers, Mrs Poulter, relies on for her prejudicial opinions linking Aborigines with the dealing of illegal drugs, is a long-running, prime-time Channel Nine production. Of particular relevance in the Wikipedia entry is the comment: “Like its main rival broadcast on the Seven Network, Today Tonight, A Current Affair is often considered by media critics and the public at large to use sensationalist journalism” (Wikipedia, “A Current Affair”).
  2. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, located on the lawns opposite the Old Parliament House in Canberra, was established in 1972 and ever since has been the focus of Aboriginal Australian land rights activism and political agitation. In 1995 the Australian Register of the National Estate listed it as the only Aboriginal site in Australia that is recognised nationally for representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their political struggles (Wikipedia, “The Aboriginal Tent Embassy”).
  3. In 1992, during an Aboriginal land rights case known as Mabo, the High Court of Australia issued a judgment constituting a direct overturning of terra nullius, which is a Latin term meaning “land belonging to no one”, and which had previously formed the legal rationale and justification for the British invasion and colonisation of Aboriginal Australia (Wikipedia, “Terra Nullius”).
  4. Aboriginal rights activist and Torres Strait Islander, Eddie Koiki Mabo (1936 to 1992), was instrumental in the High Court decision to overturn the doctrine of terra nullius in 1992. In that same year, Eddie Mabo was posthumously awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Awards (Wikipedia, “Eddie Mabo”).
  5. The full name of what Mrs Poulter blithely refers to as “the Department of Families and that” is the Australian Government’s Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (Wikipedia, “The Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs”).
  6. The British colonisation of Australia was a bloody, murderous affair: “continuous Aboriginal resistance for well over a century belies the ‘myth’ of peaceful settlement in Australia. Settlers in turn often reacted to Aboriginal resistance with great violence, resulting in numerous indiscriminate massacres by whites of Aboriginal men, women and children” (Wikipedia, “History of Australia (1788 - 1850)”).

Basically, what is not evidenced empirically with regard to the subject matter of my text, that is, the egregious attitudes of non-Indigenous Australians towards Indigenous Australians, can be extrapolated thanks to the hyperlinks. This resonates strongly with Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s assertion in 2012 that those under-represented by mainstream, patriarchal epistemologies need to be engaged in acts of “reclaiming, reformulating and reconstituting” (143) so as to be re-presented as authentic identities in these HM artefacts of literary research.

Exerting auteurial power as an Aboriginal Australian author myself, I have sought to imprint on my writing a multi-levelled signature pertaining to my people’s under-representation: there is not just the text I have created but another level to be considered by the reader, that being my careful choice of Wikipedia pages to hyperlink certain aspects of the creative writing to. These electronic footnotes serve as politically charged acts of “reclaiming, reformulating and reconstituting” Aboriginal Australian history, to reuse the words of Smith, for when we Aboriginal Australian authors reiterate, when we subjugated savages wrestle the keyboard away from the colonising overseers, our readers witness the Other writing back, critically. As I have stated previously (see Starrs, "Writing"), receivers of our words see the distorted and silencing master discourse subverted and, indeed, inverted. Our audiences are subjectively repositioned to see the British Crown as the monster. The previously presumed rational, enlightened and civil coloniser is instead depicted as the author and perpetrator of a violently racist, criminal discourse, until, eventually, s/he is ultimately eroded and made into the Other: s/he is rendered the villainous, predatory savage by the auteurial signatures in revisionist histories such as The Bullroarers.

Whilst the benefit in these hyperlinks as electronic educational footnotes in my short story is fairly obvious, what may not be so obvious is the ironic commentary they can make, when read in conjunction with the rest of The Bullroarers. Although one must reluctantly agree with Wayne C. Booth’s comment in his classic 1974 study A Rhetoric of Irony that, in some regards, “the very spirit and value [of irony] are violated by the effort to be clear about it” (ix), I will nevertheless strive for clarity and understanding by utilizing Booth’s definition of irony “as something that under-mines clarities, opens up vistas of chaos, and either liberates by destroying all dogmas or destroys by revealing the inescapable canker of negation at the heart of every affirmation” (ix). The reader of The Bullroarers is not expecting the main character, Mrs Poulter, to be the subject of erosive criticism that destroys her “dogmas” about Aboriginal Australians--certainly not so early in the narrative when it is unclear if she is or is not the protagonist of the story--and yet that’s exactly what the hyperlinks do. They expose her as hopelessly unreliable, laughably misinformed and yes, unforgivably stupid. They reveal the illegitimacy of her beliefs. Perhaps the most personally excoriating of these revelations is provided by the link to the Wikipedia entry on the Australian Government’s Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, which is where her own daughter, Roxy, works, but which Mrs Poulter knows, gormlessly, as “the Department of Families and that”. The ignorant woman spouts racist diatribes against Aboriginal Australians without even realising how inextricably linked she and her family, who live at the deliberately named Boomerang Crescent, really are. Therein lies the irony I am trying to create with my use of hyperlinks: an independent, expert adjudication reveals my character, Mrs Poulter, and her opinions, are hiding an “inescapable canker of negation at the heart of every affirmation” (Booth ix), despite the air of easy confidence she projects.

Is the novel-reading public ready for these HM hyperlinked e-novels and their potentially ironic sub-texts? Indeed, the question must be asked: can the e-book ever compete with the tactile sensations a finely crafted, perfectly bound hardcover publication provides? Perhaps, if the economics of book buying comes into consideration. E-novels are cheap to publish and cheap to purchase, hence they are becoming hugely popular with the book buying public. Writes Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, a successful online publisher and distributor of e-books: “We incorporated in 2007, and we officially launched the business in May 2008. In our first year, we published 140 books from 90 authors. Our catalog reached 6,000 books in 2009, 28,800 in 2010, 92,000 in 2011, 191,000 in 2012 and as of this writing (November 2013) stands at over 250,000 titles” (Coker 2013). Coker divulged more about his company’s success in an interview with Forbes online magazine: “‘It costs essentially the same to pump 10,000 new books a month through our network as it will cost to do 100,000 a month,’ he reasons. Smashwords book retails, on average, for just above $3; 15,000 titles are free” (Colao 2012).

In such a burgeoning environment of technological progress in publishing I am tempted to say that yes, the time of the hyperlinked e-novel has come, and to even predict that HM will be a big part of this new wave of postmodern literature. The hyperlinked HM e-novel’s strategy invites the reader to reflect on the legitimacy and illegitimacy of different forms of narrative, possibly concluding, thanks to ironic electronic footnoting, that not all the novel’s characters and their commentary are to be trusted. Perhaps my HM e-novel will, with its untrustworthy Mrs Poulter and its little-known history of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy addressed by gap-filling hyperlinks, establish a legitimising narrative for a people who have traditionally in white Australian society been deemed the Other and illegitimate. Perhaps The Bullroarers will someday alter attitudes of non-Indigenous Australians to the history and political activities of this country’s first peoples, to the point even, that as Nunning warns, we witness a change in the “hegemonic discourse of history” (353). If that happens we must be thankful for our Internet-enabled information age and its concomitant possibilities for hyperlinked e-publications, for technology may be separated from the world of art, but it can nevertheless be effectively used to recreate, enhance and access that world, to the extent texts previously considered illegitimate achieve authenticity and veracity.


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Historiographic Metafiction; hyperlink; E-novel; Aboriginal Tent Embassy; Irony

Copyright (c) 2014 Bruno Starrs

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