Historical Expertise

Why Novak Lost to Inman

Matt Novak from Paleofuture took Matthew Inman and his comic about Telsa to task in his “Edison vs. Tesla & the Myth of the Lone Inventor” at SxSW. Novak adopted a two-pronged approach: he attacked the comfortable idea that there was a lone inventor and, along the way, refuted many of the specific claims for Tesla having invented something (at least according to one report). Unfortunately, this approach is doomed to fail.

Inman dismissed Novak’s concerns with a nonchalant “The goal with my comic wasn’t to write nonfiction, it was more to paint a portrait of Tesla’s character and why I admire that and why I admire geeks in general.” Inman can ignore the facts because they get in the way of the story he wants to tell—or, in this case, the character he wants to celebrate.

Inman’s cavalier attitude to the historical record recalls Ben Affleck’s in “Argo.” In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Affleck rejected the “Bookkeeper’s reality” for the “poet’s:”

It’s OK to embellish, it’s OK to compress, as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and what happened.

Neither Terry Gross on NPR nor Matt Novak had a good response. Both lost themselves in the details of this or that distortion. Such an approach is as ineffective as historians’ efforts to rebut distortions about Galileo.

Both Affleck and Inman want to invest their stories with the authority of historical reality but don’t want to be constrained by that reality. In this way they disguise their opinions and values as fact.

Historians need to articulate why fidelity to the historical record and standards of evidence and argument matter (see, for example, Carlo Ginzburg’s recent effort in “Just One Witness: The Extermination of the Jews and the Principle of Reality” in his Threads and Traces).

2 replies on “Why Novak Lost to Inman”

What did you think of Amenábar’s film Agora, with Hypatia and the destruction of the Library at Alexandria? I enjoyed it, although I knew while watching it that the astronomical history was bogus. I also took it for granted that the filmmakers had an equally cavalier attitude towards all the history I wasn’t familiar with.

Some other relevant data points:

(a) The Coen brother’s Fargo famously had the title card:

THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.

although the film is fictional (but based loosely on various real events). When Joel Coen was asked about this, he responded:

We weren’t interested in that kind of fidelity. The basic events are the same as in the real case, but the characterizations are fully imagined…If an audience believes that something’s based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept.

The Getty museum held two talks on the topic of accuracy in historical fiction. Both are available as both audio and video downloads:

“Writing Historical Fiction: The Ancient World in Modern Literature” ( This discussion featured Steven Saylor and Steven Pressfield, both well-known historical novelists.

“Balancing Fact and Fiction: The Ancient World of HBO’s Rome” ( Here the speaker is Jonathan Stamp, the history consultant for the HBO/BBC Rome TV series.

And oh yes, a recently discovered mp3 of Homer reveals that the Illiad actually began with the line, “The tale I’m about to tell is Based on a True Story…”