Sunday, November 15, 2009

Debating history-as-fiction and fiction-as-history

While I was busy contemplating the awfulness of Colin Farrell’s bleach job in the film Alexander, Magistra et Mater picked up on my post as the opportunity to ask some deeper questions about “the rising cultural importance of historical novels … [and] the uneasy relationship between the two genres of history and historical fiction.” What, she asks, “do authors or would-be authors of historical novels think that writing fiction allows them to do that more conventional historical forms don’t?”

Amongst the possible answers she poses is the ability to gain a much wider audience and therefore to sell more books than the lowly historian could ever dream was possible. The historical novelist may also have the ability to write more vividly than the historian, though I think this is debateable. Some best-selling 'historical' novelists write dreadfully clunky, lifeless prose (Dan Brown, I’m looking at you!), while some historians have the ability to sweep you along in stories that are more exciting than any fiction. Of course, the novelist also has the unique freedom to make things up when it suits them.

It seems to me that Magistra is also touching on some much bigger issues, such as those old unanswerable questions about the purpose of history and the historian’s role in society, and whether history is an art or a science. If we consider that the historian has some responsibility to reach out to the general public (and I do, because if historians don’t do this, then politicians have free reign to manipulate history to suit their own purposes), then we have to be concerned about developing the communication skills to engage a wider audience at least some of the time. I’m also of the school that believes that the way scholarly and academic history is written - the narrative approach used, the rhetorical constructs chosen and so on - is as much a part of the history itself as the research, the facts, the analysis and the scholarly apparatus.

I find it interesting that Magistra appears to make a very black-and-white distinction between being a writer of fiction and being an historian, as though one can be one or the other but not both. The creative writing that I do definitely enriches and improves my academic writing, and a number of the novelists I enjoy reading are qualified historians (have PhDs in history), so I see more overlap between the genres and skills than she perhaps does. To me, it’s a bit of a cop out to think conveying the facts in dull, workmanlike prose is enough just because the historian’s task is to write about ‘what really happened’. Yes, it’s true that most historians aren’t going to be able to come near what the best writers (of fiction or non-fiction) are capable of, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take good writing as seriously as they do thorough research and well-supported analysis.

I also believe that novelists should not be the only ones aspiring to make us emotionally engage with the past. Historians like Marcus Rediker or Judith Walkowitz have the ability to tell what really happened with faultless attention to the scholarly apparatus, and to make us care about what happened and possibly use that knowledge of the past to help fuel change in the present. To my mind, that is an extremely important skill for historians to possess, particularly those who work on the histories of the marginal and the previously unconsidered (the poor, the mentally ill, migrants, slaves etc.). But it does open up the fraught question of whether academic history should also be serving the causes of social activism (as many historians believe - that was, after all, integral to the feminist history that emerged in the 1970s), or is indeed by its very nature political regardless of any claims to objectivity.

To write history that engages us on both the intellectual and emotional planes does not mean making things up. But it does require a more mindful approach and a commitment to honing one’s writing as a craft in and of itself that perhaps some (many?) academic historians either don’t have time for or don’t consider a core part of the job. In my experience, writing skills are often an under-rated, if not completely ignored, aspect of the teaching of history at university level. (For any history teachers/professors reading this, do you consider teaching the skill of writing in itself as part of your purview? Or is that something for the literature/composition teachers to worry about?)

Magistra is right in saying “Most of the books by academic medievalists/early modernists which do find a wider audience are either on conventional kings and battles topics or are lucky enough to have found sources/archives which contain a lot of information on a small group of people (such as the inquisition records for Montaillou)”. But in the case of Montaillou*, for example, it was not simply the unique nature of the evidence that made it such a popular work but Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s vigorous and accessible prose style, which is characteristic of the best of the Annales school. (It might also reflect a different and distinctly French view of the historian’s function in society, and therefore of what types of skills the profession requires.)

Having said all that, I confess I’m bothered when writers of historical fiction try to blur the boundaries and claim more for their creations than they merit. For example, this quote highlighted by Magistra really disturbs me: ‘As [novelist] Sarah Dunant puts it in History Today: ‘I want to sink the reader deep into the period, to say, “Have the confidence to follow me because I know what is true”'. My response to that is to say yes, Ms Dunant, you may have done in-depth historical research and ‘know what is true’, but when it comes to choosing between what is true and what is interesting or what best moves the story along, you’re going to pick the latter every time.

* This was a history of the lives and beliefs of peasants living in the village of Montaillou, in what is now southwest France, in the early 14th century. It was based primarily on the previously unexamined records of the Catholic inquisitor Jacques Fournier. Le Roy Ladurie's interpretation is profoundly flawed because he took Fournier's highly-mediated accounts as factual descriptions , but the book still stands as one of the first examples of 'history from below', which sought to expand academic history beyond the study of the lives of elites.


tenthmedieval said...

For any history teachers/professors reading this, do you consider teaching the skill of writing in itself as part of your purview? Or is that something for the literature/composition teachers to worry about?

In as much as I count, I do it from the UK system where the students are very unlikely to have composition teachers too; they're in a history course and bits from outside the mainstream of history will be rare. That said, my current teaching location does have four staff members, across Arts and Humanities, who have an additional remit of teaching writing on a one-to-one-or-few basis, and I am going to make sure my students know this. There's no room in my teaching schedule for explaining grammar and style, really, but I have distributed handouts talking about planning and structure.

In my heart of hearts, though, I don't think I really grasp the problem. People have been kind enough to tell me my academic writing is a pleasure to read; I think it needs a lot of simplification but at least it's usually grammatical. But I had that even at school, which is the last time anyone taught me how to frame a sentence; I suspect that I think this sort of thing should, like the idea of criticising sources, be in the students' heads before they get to university level. I'm not sure this is realistic, or whether it ever has been.

Ink said...

My favorite historical fiction (or historiographic metafiction, technically) is _Alias Grace_ by Margaret Atwood. Have you read that one, and, if so, what do you think? :)

Janice said...

I write fiction. I write popular history. I write for reference works. I write scholarly history. I write pedagogical materials.

What matters is that I write with the audience in mind. As educators, we should teach our students how to be better writers.

That's why I have such writing-intensive courses even though it kills me with the marking. If they don't write, they don't improve in this, one of the most vital skills they'll take out of the profession (along with research and analysis).

Published historical novelists are almost always good writers. They're also usually made better by good editors (we should all sing the praise of our editors!).

Academic historians need to reach out to popular history publishers and work with them to show how actual history can be marketed in compelling ways to ordinary historians.

The super-specialization of modern academe works against this in many ways, of courses: we aren't respected among our peers unless we've published something new, however arcane it appears to people outside our own sub-specialties. It's hard work to master both the specialist and populist voices, too!

(My favourite historical fiction is actually Tarr & Turtledove's collaboration, "Household Gods" which combines fantasy/time-travel with a really interesting slice-of-life treatment of life on the frontier of the Roman empire under Marcus Aurelius. It's not "history" but it's got a lot more history than most people will have learned about this era, coming to the book.)

dr ngo said...

As a long-time supervisor of post-graduate students in history, and the editor of several books, I would say I've spent much of my career trying to improve the writing of history. BUT . . .

. . . 90% of what I have done is in the interest of clarity - both of structure and of actual prose - rather than the attractiveness of the narrative. Not that I don't believe that history should draw readers in, if possible; where I find a colorful and telling anecdote, I try to encourage it, watering it carefully with praise. (And I try to practice such skills myself, both in my academic writing and in, for example, a lengthy series of very short [700 word] pieces for one of the bi-weekly magazines they stick into Sunday newspapers.)

But to me it's far more important - and, apparently, still quite difficult - just to frame a historical argument well, organizing the evidence and marshalling the logic so that it actually makes sense.

If I can ever get a student (or author) to do that I sigh happily and move on to the next problem case, without worrying much over how the writer might learned the art necessary to give the story more "zazz."

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. Also Tuesdi, Wednesdi, Thursdi, etc.

Bavardess said...

Thanks for your comments. It's great to get some perspective from people who are actually out there on the front line, teaching history and teaching writing.

Tenth - Of course you count! I agree with you that being able to write at a basic level of competence is something people ideally should have mastered by the time they finish secondary education. To me, it's a basic 'life skill' that is going to be necessary in any environment, even if the student doesn't go on to university. It's interesting that at university level, at least in the system I'm familiar with, students starting Business or Science degrees are required to do a communication/writing paper that teaches the basics of grammar, structure etc. However, a similar paper is not required for Arts/Humanities majors (including history). I imagine this is because it's assumed that students studying in those areas will already have the basic skills but maybe there is a gap there that isn't being addressed.

Ink - I like Margaret Atwood but I haven't read Alias Grace. Must hunt it out. I'm intrigued - what do you mean by 'historiographic metafiction'? Or do I just need to read the book and find out for myself? :)

Janice - "What matters is that I write with the audience in mind." Absolutely. When I do contract work with business clients who want something written or edited, "who is this for?" is always the first question I ask, and often, they haven't actually thought about it. I think you're dead on, too, with the difficulties of walking the line between specialist and popular (but again, that comes down to writing for the specific audience). I'll have to check out Household Gods. I'm embarrassed to admit that much of my knowledge of classical history comes from reading Mary Renault and 'I Claudius'!

Dr ngo - You're right - the ability to structure and effectively support a clear argument is not easy, especially in history where we are often working with lots of unweildy sources and trying to incorporate both detailed evidence and a more generalised thematic framework. Until a person can master that (no small task), there is no point in trying to move on to making the prose more engaging or colourful. When I worked as a magazine editor, I got freelance contributions from people with qualifications in the Humanities or journalism who had real difficulty simply conveying complex information comprehensibly, let alone making it compelling reading.

RPS77 said...

I have always liked the classic narrative style of writing about history, where the subject is literally treated as a story rather than a theoretical problem or research data. I later learned that there are good reasons why academic history has moved away from that style - not the least of which is that the narrative style almost always privileges a very small minority. Apart from that, academic historians have to impress specialists in their own fields before they can worry about impressing a broader scholarly community, let alone the general public. Thorough and rigorous research, a strong theoretical framework, and clear, logical arguments are all considered much more important than an elegant prose style. Still, the old narrative style is so much better at actually engaging my interest and getting me emotionally involved to some degree that I hope there is a way to combine the rigor and inclusiveness that contemporary historians aim for with the more engaging style of narrative history. I think that it can be done, and is done by some writers, but not very often.

Bavardess said...

I know what you mean about the classic narrative style. I love good old Edward Gibbon because he's just such a great story-teller with a wicked sense of humour, but yes, he's probably pretty unreliable as a source on the Roman Empire! It's interesting how different schools of history and different theoretical approaches have influenced how history is written and the adoption of narrative vs. non-narrative approaches. Here in New Zealand and in Australia, there has been a shift back towards narrative history in the last decade or so. I believe that's at least partly a reflection of post-colonialism and the involvement in the field of many more people from non-western cultural backgrounds, who usually don't carry the post-Enlightenment baggage of trying to make history into an empirical science stripped of all story-telling.

magistra said...

Thanks very much for this post. I've just posted something about emotional engagement back on my own blog, because it's a fairly long piece. But on two other points you raise:

It's not that I think you can't be a historian and a writer of historical novels, but that seem to be to be two styles of writing which pull in very difficult directions, like writing poetry and novels. The more you are drawn to the rich worlds that a novelist can create, the more you're likely to be frustrated by the gaps in the evidence that you have to work with as a historian. And conversely, the more satisfaction you get from the historical chase, of seeing exactly how you can recreate something substantial from fragments and strain at the limits of knowledge, the more it seems like 'cheating' just to make things up.

Several people have already weighed in on the teaching of writing skills to historians, so I'd just add that in the British university tradition, almost nobody gets formally taught to write. This isn't just about historians: nor do those doing English degrees or other humanities subjects get taught composition. The expectation is that you will have learned basic grammar at school and that you will learn style through practice in repeatedly writing essays (one a week or more in old-fashioned degree courses) and by wide reading. The only change with the move to more mass higher education is that most universities will now have some kind of remedial English teaching service to which a lecturer can individually direct any students who have particular problems.

Whether this is now adequate for history students as a whole is a debatable question. But if you compare historians trained in British universities with those who come through a system where composition is widely formally taught (such as the US), I don’t think that British historians are systematically worse writers. This suggests that this method is effective for the top few percent of students (which is, of course, what really matters in the British system).

Bavardess said...

Thanks for your latest post, Magistra. You picked up on something I've been mulling over further since I wrote this installment, so I'll add my thoughts over at your place soon. Re: your first paragraph above, I see where you're coming from and to a large extent I agree with you, although I perhaps see more continuity and complementarity between forms and genres than you do.

Your perspective on the teaching of writing in the UK system is interesting. I think perhaps the standard for university entrance may be higher there than it is here, so that even first year students have writing/communications skills that are above average. Over the last few years, there has been an on-going debate here about new national standards that replaced the older university entrance exams (which I think were more closely based on the UK system) and that have arguably the bar of expected achievement. A number of the more prestigious private and state secondary schools are now using international exams like the Cambridge International Exam to prepare senior students for university instead of the default national standards, so there is a bit of a two-tier system emerging.