Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

JAAC X AFB Discussion: Holliday on the Puzzle of Factual Praise



Why do we care about certain facts but not others when we evaluate fiction? Why do some things need to be accurate, but others not? Today we’ll be discussing these issues in “The Puzzle of Factual Praise” by John Holliday available in JAAC’s Spring 2017 volume, 75 (2), online here.

And big thanks to Christopher Bartel for providing the critical précis (below the fold). John offers a brief response, and they will both be available to discuss your questions and thoughts in the comments.

Critical Précis by Christopher Bartel

My wife is British. Once years ago, as we were browsing through some films, we happened to spot U-571. At the mere sight of the title, she became furious. I had never seen the film, so I had no idea what the problem was. And I have to admit, I was tempted to watch it—after all, it stars Harvey Keitel and Jon Bon Jovi. Who can say No to that? Through her rage, my wife explained, in short, choppy, angry sentences. The problem was that the movie tells the story of the first capture of a German Enigma machine during World War Two, which was a major victory for the Allies—except that the film depicts the victorious sailors as Americans. In actual fact, they were British. My wife’s fury is not some weird personal quirk about her. As I understand, it is a widely shared—though not universally shared—sentiment among the British.

And such fury is understandable. Imagine that the tables were turned. Imagine that a British film company produced a movie about the first moon landing, but they depict the event as an entirely British affair. Neil Armstrong becomes Nelson Armstrong, who says, “One small step for man, one giant leap for the Queen.” While this might make for a fantastic comedy, it would be rage-inducing if the story were told with same the solemn seriousness of U-571. The American response to such a film would be apoplectic. In the boycott that would ensue, we would need to start referring to “fish and chips” as “fish and freedom fries”.

“for Her Majesty!”

The puzzle of historical criticism is the seeming contradiction between two (at least superficially) reasonable propositions: (a) works of fiction are free from the constraints of historical truth, but (b) historical inaccuracies in works of fiction mar the artistic value of such works as fictions. The defense for (a) comes from a widely shared view about the nature of fiction. While theorists will analyze the idea in different ways—in terms of imagined fictional worlds, or a nuanced understanding of speech-acts, or whatever—the basic point is familiar. The defense for (b) comes from our actual critical practices. It is not difficult to find critics who will pan a work of fiction because of some historical inaccuracy. Some accusations of historical inaccuracy are minor, and it can seem rather pedantic to pan a work for such a small offense. For instance, when Roman soldiers in background shots of Spartacus (1960) can be seen wearing wristwatches, we dismiss this as mere sloppiness. But other historical inaccuracies are serious enough to cause offense for some—my wife’s fury over U-571 for instance. The seriousness of the puzzle is easy to overlook. The condemnation of Hollywood’s practice of “whitewashing history”—that is, the practice of casting white actors to play the role of non-white historical figures—offers one potent application of the puzzle. While film producers and some supportive fans might insist that “it’s just a movie”, concerned critics will (rightly, in my view) point out that whitewashing disrespects those historical figures and contributes to the continued oppression of many today.

The puzzle is complicated by a few other desiderata. First, the problem of scope: whatever account we give of the puzzle, we must acknowledge that not all historical inaccuracies are problematic or undesirable. Second, the need for a unified theory: it would be disappointing if the best we could do is offer a piecemeal, ad hoc account that posits very different principles and explanations for each case. This is not to say that a resolution of the puzzle cannot proceed on a case-by-case basis. Rather it is to say that the principles we rely on and the explanations we give for those cases should not vary wildly. A possible third desideratum is that our account should explain the normativity of historical criticism. It is not enough to merely describe why some people are offended by historical inaccuracies, but rather we need an explanation which posits that all people ought to find offensive historical inaccuracies to be artistic flaws in works of fiction. The condemnation of Hollywood whitewashing offers an excellent example here.

John Holliday’s essay, “The Puzzle of Factual Praise”, does several things, which I think are themselves praiseworthy. First, Holliday points out that the puzzle extends beyond the criticism of historical inaccuracies to also include cases of factual praise. I think Holliday is entirely right about this. If it is puzzling why we would ever accuse works of fiction of historical inaccuracy, then it is equally puzzling why we would ever praise works of fiction for getting the facts right. And yet we often do. Holliday offers the example of “encyclopedic literature”, which are works of fiction that are praised for the way that they expertly weave matters of fact into an overall fictional story. I am unfamiliar with the example of encyclopedic literature, but I can see other cases where the same point arises. For instance, the genre of “hard science fiction” is one where works are praised or condemned (partly) based on how accurately or plausibly the author portrays and applies the scientific ideas that they draw from. Works of hard sci-fi are certainly fictional, but they aim (in some sense) for scientific rigor. So, the practices of criticizing factual inaccuracies and praising truths (whether historical, or scientific, or whatever) suggests that there is a more general puzzle at play.

Second, Holliday’s essay aims to meet each of the desiderata. Holliday’s resolution begins with the claim that an author’s aims are open to artistic scrutiny. So, if an author aims at p, but includes some element that contradicts the aims of p, then the work is open to criticism to that extent; and conversely, if the work includes some element that aids in meeting the aims of p, then the work is praiseworthy to that extent. By relying on the notion of the author’s aims, Holliday’s resolution satisfies the problem of scope. Some works of fiction, and some individual elements of a work of fiction, are open to factual scrutiny when factual accuracy is part of the author’s aim. Additionally, Holliday’s resolution is not piecemeal—while he acknowledges that we must proceed on a case-by-case basis, this is not a problem because the principles that we appeal to in each case is the same—and his resolution aims for normativity.

How do we know whether an author is aiming for factual accuracy in some work or regarding some element of a work? First, Holliday situates his account broadly within a hypothetic intentionalist view of authorial intentions. (Personally, I favor actual intentionalism, but this point is unimportant.) To know whether an author aims for factual accuracy in respect of some point, we must look more broadly at the work to get a general sense of whether the author might reasonably be aiming for factual accuracy. Holliday offers the example of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: “Everywhere else the behavior of the physical world in the novel aligns with the behavior of the physical world in the real world. So barring any special indications otherwise, the aim of Lord of the Flies is that its physical world be true to the real physical world, including the light-diffusing properties of concave glass.” It is for this reason that readers are right to criticize the novel when Piggy uses his glasses to start a fire. Piggy is nearsighted, and such glasses cannot start a fire. Of course, Piggy’s glasses serve a symbolic function, and the story arch requires Piggy to be nearsighted. But these observations are moot. We can reasonably assume that Lord of the Flies aims for a sense of realism. Indeed, the horror of the book comes from the recognition that this could happen—both in the sense that stranded boys could survive like this and stranded boys could behave like this. If Golding aims for plausibility, then factual accuracy becomes a requirement.

Two contrasting examples would be helpful here: compare U-571 to Selma. U-571 veers into the territory of historical inaccuracy only because the heroes are chasing the Enigma machine, and the first capture of an Enigma machine was a major event in the war. This makes it look as though the filmmakers wanted to tell the real-world story of the Enigma machine. The filmmakers could have chosen to tell a purely fictional story of the capture of some other object—like the capture of some updated codebooks, or plans for a new propulsion system, or even to steal Hitler’s favorite pair of wool socks. If the object had been fictional, then the accusation of historical inaccuracy would never have arisen. It is the aim of U-571 to tell the story of an actual event in history that spurs the demand for historical accuracy, and this aim comes into conflict with the additional aim of appealing to an American audience.

Now, Selma (2014) is a film directed by Ava DuVernay that tells the story of the voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. At a time when voting rights are under attack again, the film has a powerful message today. It was nominated for numerous awards and has been widely praised. However, it has also attracted criticism. Specifically, the film portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as an unsympathetic obstructionist who sought to harass Dr. Martin Luther King. In fact, Johnson helped to shepherd through key civil rights legislation. Selma seems to run into the same trouble as U-571: if it is the intention of the film to tell the story of the marches, then we can reasonably demand historical accuracy. Why make President Johnson the bad guy? The film needs a villain, but perhaps it did not need to vilify Johnson. Why not choose any one of the genuinely hostile Southern governors to tell a more accurate story? Or, if it was important to set the events around Johnson’s administration, then why not invent an obstructive White House aid?

Holliday’s handling of the example is admirably subtle. He does not clearly indicate how we should think of Selma. Instead, he notes, “whether Selma’s portrayal of Johnson is worthy of criticism turns on two questions: (1) what exactly is the aim of Selma with respect to the story of the Selma marches? (2) Is the factually inaccurate portrayal of Johnson’s involvement incongruous with that aim? Whatever the right answers are, the truth of my theory depends only on these being the right questions”. The issue, as Holliday notes, comes down to the nature and scope of artistic license. Holliday says, “Any reasonable person will agree that a work of fiction has artistic license with real-world facts; it would otherwise not be a work of fiction. The question is how much artistic license a fictional work has with the facts. And that is a matter of what a work’s aims are.” We could dismiss the inaccurate portrayal of Johnson as a matter of artistic license. In this case, we might think of this fictionalized Johnson as just a symbol of the ill-will found at the highest levels of government that obstructed the Civil Rights Movement. But, then what should we say about U-571? If we can appeal to artistic license in the case of Selma, then why can’t we do the same for U-571? The answer may be to look more broadly at the aims of each work. Selma introduces some historical inaccuracy for the sake of telling a story that captures the overwhelming obstacles faced by the Civil Rights Movement, while U-571 introduces some historical inaccuracy for the sake of appealing to an American audience. Selma’s aim is a noble one, while U-571’s aim is crass commercialism.

In the end, Holliday gives us an excellent way to address the puzzle, but some questions still remain. Whether some factual accuracy is praiseworthy or some inaccuracy condemnable comes down to whether it is consistent or inconsistent with the work’s wider aims. But it seems to me that some accusations of factual inaccuracy are not based on an inconsistency between aims and the use of facts. For instance, David Denby pans Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997) because of its inaccurate portrayal of the horrors of life in a concentration camp. (Of course, one way to handle this case would be to say that Denby is just wrong. Setting that possibility aside, let us assume for the moment that the historical inaccuracy in Life is Beautiful really is problematic.) Is Life is Beautiful a case that is more similar to Selma or to U-571? Briefly, it seems to me that the artistic aims of Life is Beautiful do not include factual accuracy, and that its wider aims are not as crass as U-571. So, we cannot criticize Benigni for holding contradictory aims, or for holding ignoble aims. Instead, it seems like Benigni is being criticized for failing to hold an aim that Denby would have liked— that is, Denby criticizes Benigni for failing to adopt factual accuracy as one of his aims. On this reading, Denby’s criticism is that Benigni should have adopted factual accuracy as one of his aims, when he didn’t. So, it is not that the author is open to criticism only when they fail to live up to one of their adopted aims. Rather, this example suggests that authors can be open to criticism when they refuse to adopt an aim that they ought to adopt.


Reply by John Holliday

Christopher Bartel wrote an excellent paper entitled “The Puzzle of Historical Criticism,” which you can find in JAAC’s Spring 2012 volume, 70 (2). It pins down an issue that’s bugged me for a long time. And it inspired my paper up for discussion here. So it’s no surprise that Bartel’s comments on my paper are also excellent. Not only does he distill the general issue wonderfully, he raises an important question: what about criticism of a work of fiction for being factually inaccurate when that work doesn’t appear to be aiming at factual accuracy? I’ll take a stab at answering that question. But before doing that, there’s one point I’d like to clear up.

Bartel explains that my analysis of Selma comes down to the scope of artistic license. But I don’t take my paper to be making that point. Rather, my point is that appealing to artistic license to dismiss factual inaccuracy is not very helpful in itself. All works of fiction have artistic license with real-world facts, including Selma and U-571. The issue is how much license any given work has; but determining that requires determining a work’s aims. If someone dismisses factual inaccuracy on the grounds of artistic license, that person is saying something (albeit something vague and unhelpful) about a work’s aims. So really, we could do away with talk of artistic license altogether and just talk of aims. I think the discussion would be better for it.

On to Bartel’s question. I think a work of fiction is never open to criticism for being factually inaccurate unless it aims at factual accuracy. So: no aim, no legitimate criticism. I don’t believe aims govern all legitimate criticism of a work of fiction. But with factual accuracy, I believe they do. But here’s the trick: I think most works of fiction aim at factual accuracy to some degree. For instance, any work that includes human characters does. Works within a realist tradition have a strong aim at accurately portraying humans. Works outside of that tradition have weaker aims at accurately portraying humans. But a work that has human characters has that aim to some degree. And so it can be praised or criticized accordingly.

Take, then, the case Bartel offers. Life is Beautiful is a film set partly in a Nazi concentration camp. The director claims he wasn’t aiming for realism. But still, it’s set in a Nazi concentration camp. Not in just any terrible, horribly brutal prison. So at some level it has the aim of telling a story situated in a Nazi concentration camp. And Denby believes it has elements inconsistent with that aim. As Denby says, “Benigni wants the authority of the Holocaust but not the actuality of the Holocaust” (The New Yorker, March 15, 1999, 99). Now, Denby may be wrong in thinking the film has such inconsistent elements. There are critics who find the film successful. But his criticism doesn’t seem to fall beyond the scope of the film’s aims.

About the contributors:

John Holliday is currently a Teaching Instructor and Director of Graduate Writing at Rutgers University. His research is engaged with the value of literature, and he is a published fiction writer.

Christopher Bartel is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Appalachian State University and has published widely in aesthetics on subjects ranging from music to video games to fiction.


  1. Perhaps the point which John Holliday makes at the end is related to reference. That is, having the villains in Life is Beautiful be Nazis and having the latter part in of the movie set in a concentration camp (to have it be true in the fiction) requires more than calling them “Nazis” and giving them the right insignias.
    Imagine an ordinary romantic comedy about a guy who works at an office in which the office is called “the Nazi Party” and the characters where Nazi uniforms to work rather than business suits. There’s a sense in which that wouldn’t be a film about Nazis at all. It might be about Nazism in the abstract, but the characters in it wouldn’t really be Nazis.
    So, perhaps, rounding out the rough edges of the concentration camp threatens to make Life in Beautiful’s Nazis not really be Nazis at all. But clearly the movie isn’t about the very concept of Nazism in some meta-level way, it just aims to have some of the characters be Nazis.

    Also: I enjoyed this post, and the JAACxAFB series is a great idea.

  2. Hi, P. D.,

    Thanks for the comment! I really like the direction that the “Nazi Party”/rom-com example suggests. If I understand your point correctly, a film might reference (e.g.) Nazis without demanding historical accuracy. That is certainly a plausible suggestion, which probably makes sense of many sci-fi works when historical characters are referenced. But then, I wonder why Benigni couldn’t appeal to the same idea. Perhaps Benigni’s concentration camp shouldn’t be held to high standards of historical accuracy because he takes himself to be merely referencing the Holocaust?

    I think my larger point would be this: even if Benigni were to try to defend his film on these grounds, one might still think that the Holocaust should not be merely used as a point of reference. In that case, such a critic is not complaining that Benigni’s film is historically inaccurate per se, but rather complaining that Benigni has not adopted an aim (e.g. to tell a story of the Holocaust that accords better with the facts) that the critic feels Benigni ought to have adopted.

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