Friday, 16 January 2009

History and Writing

You'd think historians would be better writers, really. Somehow, though, despite the largely literary nature of our undertaking, good historical writing is hard to find. I'm not going to claim any superiority in this respect, either, because I have a mode of history writing that is dull, fact laden, and complicated.

Since I'd like to think that my other writing is vaguely readable, something to do with history or the way it is taught must be to blame. I suspect that the idea of a special way of writing to which historians have to conform has something to do with it, especially when the need to write in that way for essays and articles helps to perpetuate it.

I also think, though, that it has something to do with the historiography of the subject, particularly the continuing insistance in some quarters on historical empiricism. Writing in too normal or entertaining a way runs the risk of not sounding dry and factual enough, and of revealing the historian's involvement in the process of creating the work. What was it they used to say to me at school? 'Avoid the word "I" in history essays. It makes it sound like you aren't being objective.'

I could make the point that no one ever truly is. But that would take a while. I'd rather just suggest that, if historians paid as much attention to writing in a readable way as they did in a precise way, more people would probably read the work in question.

5 comments:

Heather said...

This brings me back to my days in university and how ridged I was in making sure every sentence had an endnote and footnote and three page bibliography - I'm making a bit of that up but the paranoia I felt lest I indicate that I was making a new point. Afterall - there were no new points to be made as it had all already happened.

stu said...

I'm with you on the footnote paranoia. Possibly less so on the no new ideas angle, since if I weren't making a new point I'd be in a little bit of trouble on the PhD front.

Heather said...

Oh definitely! I was talking about a first year course I took in which the TA gave me A+ upon A+ for never trying to make any new points! LOL

http://englishcoach.wordpress.com/ said...

I tell you who's even worse, and it's ironic considering what they do: profs of literature. Fair enough, every writer reads a lot, but not everyone who reads a lot can write. These guys are often not dealing with facts but theoretical/philosophical ideas. And they're not often great at getting them across. Usually sounds very erudite, though.

stu said...

Anything that spills over into philosophy/theory tends to do this. Most philosophers are so awful to read that half the arguments are about what they actually meant.