History as Storytelling

In a combox below we fell to talking about the role of history as “storytelling”.

I felt happily vindicated on Monday morning when I read this story in The Australian: Historians neglecting storyteller role.

HISTORY has been “dulled down” by focusing exclusively on analysing evidence and argument, with historians neglecting their role as storytellers. Award-winning historian Peter Cochrane is urging his colleagues to look to the narrative techniques of literature to recreate the past in a vivid and lively way.

Cochrane, an inaugural winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History, said historians should be able to cross freely into the territory of novelists and poets to use their techniques of plot, character, and imagination.

“We spend a great deal of our time on the intricacies of analysis, evidence evaluation and argument while we tend to neglect the literary side of history writing,” he says in a speech prepared for this week’s Australian History Teachers Association annual conference in Brisbane. “This, I think, is an old, ingrained prejudice. Historians tend to see themselves as social scientists, as scholars whose job it is to ‘write up’ or report on their findings, rather than as writers whose job it is to create or imagine the past, to captivate anaudience. We should be crossing boundaries and borrowing what we can from fiction, or at least from fiction writers … in terms of structuring and vivifying a story.”

…Narrative skills were needed to bring history alive: devising a plot, composing a paragraph, choosing a metaphor and evoking the character of the protagonist are all fundamental to the skills of history, all require historical imagination. “The history profession, with some exceptions, has been wary of biographical or character-driven narrative mode because it might be the ‘first step into the Hades of commercialisation and dumbing down,” he says. “Narrative movement, along with character and human drama, is essential to the historian’s duty to ensure the story’s not a bore. I don’t think there’s any sense in which this is falsification, something fiction writers are allowed to do and historians aren’t.

Can I make an admission here? I have learnt a lot of history from reading fiction and from watching historical docu-dramas. In fact, often such fictional narratives have been the inducement to investigate the “true” story more deeply.

A couple of examples. I am currently on a run with Roman history. Fraser lent me his copy of “Rubicon” by Tom Holland. It is described by a reviewer on the front cover as “narrative history at its best”, and it really is. The same reviewer goes on to say: “It really held me, in fact, obsessed me.” All history-telling should be like that.

As for fiction, I first came to the history of the late republic through the novels of Colleen McCullough’s series of six Roman novels. These are fiction, but extremely well researched fiction, and a good way of getting into the subject.

And at the moment, I am reading a series of short stories by Steven Saylor in his Roma Sub Rosa series with Gordianus the Finder. Not just another historical who-dunnit, Saylor bases most of his novels on real cases – such as Cicero’s first case in the trial of Sextus Roscius against the charge of parricide.

To be sure, there is a difference between history and fiction – one of which is that the former should not be polluted with the latter while the latter often benefits from a good dose of the former. Nevertheless, both are forms of narrative. In terms of communication, the effectiveness of both literary forms depends upon the skills of the author as a storyteller.

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0 Responses to History as Storytelling

  1. David says:

    Hopefully these historians will use new storytelling platforms like Heekya to be able to properly preserve and share history!

  2. Victoria says:

    Fiction masquerading as history and historians disregarding objective truth in order to advance an ideology is a great problem these days.

  3. Schütz says:

    Mmm. Heekya. I haven’t seen that before. That would be an interesting way of doing history…

    Victoria, you are correct that if fiction is “masquerading” as history, we have a problem, but interesting things happen on that level. Here in Australia, the fictional work “Picnic at Hanging Rock” was such a well written piece of historical fiction, that many people were convinced that it was actually historical.

    And I have the suspicion that ideological bias is a lot harder to hide in the forest of “objective facts” when history is done in a narrative fashion.

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