Conventions of Historical Writing

This post is prompted by an event co-organized by the Institute of Historical Research and the Raphael Samuel Centre for Public and Creative Histories on ‘New Approaches to Writing History’.

What is new in recent historical writing?

The problem with answering this question is that historical writing has never been a fixed target. As long as there have been historians, there have been innovative writers. Historians today know better than anyone else that sometimes we need to forget what we know about the present in order to fully understand the shock of the new in the past, to imagine the impact of a Michelet, or an NZ Davis when their works first appeared.

So how can we talk meaningfully about novelty?

During the panel yesterday, I was struck by Sarah Knott‘s framing of the question around conventions. Discussing her recent ‘unconventional’ history Mother Knott drew attention to three historical conventions that she bucked in the book (this is my paraphrasing):

  1. To seek change over time
  2. To tell narrative
  3. To write in the 3rd person

Instead, Knott told the audience, she wrote a book suited to the topic itself, a book that engaged with the embodied labour of motherhood as a form. This meant emphasising a diversity of experiences rather than change over time; preferring anecdote to narrative; and writing in the 1st not the 3rd person.

Which raises a question: what other conventions of historical writing could or should be broken?

The power of this question lies in its specificity and universality. If there is a general sense – often openly discussed at events like this – that a lot of historical writing could be different, or perhaps better, what are the specific structures of writing we would like to see challenged?*

Overlapping with and departing from Sarah Knott’s conventions, here are a few that spring to my mind. Like Knott, I am not suggesting that we abandon these conventions wholesale. All of them serve their functions in historical writing. But what would happen if we were willing to break them?

Please please please if you have suggestions, do post a reply: I would like to write a follow-on post gathering up more ideas.

Conventions of prose
1. Does history have to be single-authored?
I am aware of the long and continuing traditions of multiple-authorship in history, that have diverse intellectual genealogies.
But. Let’s be honest: what percentage of historical writing is written by ‘one’ author? Co-writing, as anyone who has tried it knows, is hard work, but the payoff is the emergence of historical forms that no one single person could have ever created.

2. Does history have to have footnotes?
I know the rationale for footnotes (or endnotes GOD FORBID). They play specific and important roles in the ways that academic research works. But my own uneasiness about footnotes comes from a suspicion of formal and technical redundancy. Footnotes are there to authenticate the truthfulness of the account and to allow the interested reader to follow a trail of documentary evidence. But any reader of academic work will know that many footnotes are frankly redundant, unneeded to substantiate the point being made. Who hasn’t felt the urge to footnote something just to prove they did the work, did the reading, did the research? And on the other hand, the technical device is no replacement for the function it is meant to serve: if we make footnotes an arbiter of truthfulness, what risk is there of overlooking the other ways historical texts establish their veracity? A text without notes is possible (gasp!) and could even be scholarly, I think. In genres where notes are impossible or undesirable, writers find other ways to signal the provenance of their evidence.

3. Does historical writing have to be narrative prose?
There is a huge amount of historical writing being done by creative writers, although academic historians have really tended to notice just two areas: (historical) fiction, and memoir. What about poetry, and drama, to mention just the two areas that the ‘Creative Histories of Witchcraft’ project explores? On the project, there is no neat division of responsibilities between the Historian, the Poet, and the Playwright, and one of the most rewarding things for me personally has been writing poems (not necessarily good poems!) and scripts (OK I am a bit prouder of my documentary theatre script, but I’m saving it for a national premiere. JK. Not kidding.) As with any of the other conventions we might want to challenge, I would suggest the power of alternative written genres (without even mentioning non-written forms) could be combined with some of the conventions of historical writing. Documentary theatre, for instance, has footnotes, as do many poems.

Conventions of structure
4. Does does a piece of historical writing have to have one linear reading, and one ending?
I am thinking here of Julia Laite’s wonderful thoughts on the appeal of ‘choose your own adventure’ histories. She explains the appeal in this post which I strongly urge you to read right now.

5. Must the parts of a history be clear, uniform subdivisions of a whole?
This is a hard idea to explain and I am not sure this question captures what I mean. I am thinking of the conventions of much historical writing that divides a topic into various sections which are tackled chapter by chapter. Meanwhile, creative writers have this whole range of alternative structures. I’m thinking particularly of the braided essay, where (apparently) different themes are braided together, drawing in to a central point, before fraying again at the end (I’d probably count Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk as an example of this). Or what of books that are made up of lots of little pieces, whose connection is sometimes opaque (perhaps Laurent Binet’s HHhH is an example, or more clearly Svetlana Alexievich’s documentary novel forms)?

6. Must a history have an argument?
I think that one of the reasons historical fiction continues to be a source of fevered discussion and inspiration for historians is that we can mistake historical novels for contributions to academic debates. Some clearly can fulfil this function: I think Hilary Mantel has been clear that she sees her Wolf Hall books as a reappraisal of the role and character of Cromwell. But the commitment academic historians have to argument is so hard-wired into how we think about the past that I sometimes worry that we are hobbling our own potential. Powerful books do not necessarily have arguments. The power of the past is not a series of examples to feed into a machine that dispenses printed ‘I Told You Sos’.

Conventions of voice
7. Does history have to be written in an authoritative voice?
This, for me, is a more interesting question than the red herring of ‘lying’. The most conservative and reactionary responses to ‘postmodernism’ in the 1990s succeeded in reframing the questions posed by a diverse range of thinkers as all-out attacks on historical truth. We can draw a direct line to the hand-wringing about fake news today, and the desire by some to blame the current predicament on cultural theory. It is more powerful, I think, to continue to reflect on the implicit positioning of the Historian as an authority, a teller of truth, even after the serious and sustained questions raised by the cultural turn (and which Julia Laite discussed at the panel) around the authority of the historiographical voice. Lying is not the only alternative. What, for instance, of humour? I am struck that humorous uses of highly specialised historical knowledge have particularly flourished in blogs (such as Jonathan Healey‘s) and on Twitter (I’m thinking especially of Charlotte Riley or of Bob Nicholson’s Victorian Humour). And there are other alternatives to the authoritative voice that do not necessarily go all the way to lying, such as the uncertain narrator. Even the unreliable narrator is arguably not a liar…

8. Does history have to be realist?
Is there a rule that says our commitment to truth-telling does not permit us to employ, for instance, magical realism, or sustained imagination and fantasy? Again, I think it is really important to signal that challenging this kind of convention does not mean necessarily abandoning all others. I can imagine a history that is carefully documented, written in a straightforward narrative form, even with an argument etc, that includes clearly demarcated fantastical invention. In fact, I can think of several examples: Matt Houlbrook’s Prince of Tricksters and Keith Hopkins A World Full of Gods

9. Must history be grammatically-correct?
The ‘I’ in historical writing has been and continues to be the focus of a huge amount of intellectual energy, even though the evidence suggests that historians are more comfortable than many other academics with using the first person in their academic work (that’s an insight from Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing). Have any other topics of grammatical correctness elicited similar discussions? It’s the flourishing online domains of history that I’m thinking of again here, with their playfulness with punctuation, spelling, vocabulary, and style. Will we see more of this grammatical playfulness in Serious Historical Writing, and will we welcome it if we do?



*I think this is a much more powerful question than ‘Ugh! Why don’t academics write better?!’… as if writing better was a universally-understood simple formula. And it is a more subtle way of addressing the fact that many innovative history books actually belong to clear traditions of historical practice, albeit ones that academics have not recognised or engaged with… which is a whole separate blog post. As is the question of audiences, arguably indissociable from the question of conventions, but which I have arbitrarily completely ignored.

6 thoughts on “Conventions of Historical Writing

  1. Excellent post, Will. Some thoughts on the creative aspect of historical writing. I hope they’re the kind of thing you are looking for.

    I think historical fiction plays an important in the literary canon as it can make history accessible to a wider audience. People who might be put off by an academic piece of historical writing might find fiction easier to digest whilst also learning (at a rudimentary level at least) about the topic addressed. Besides those of Hilary Mantel, a couple of examples that spring to mind are the novels of Philippa Gregory or Nigel Tranter. Furthermore, creative writing can potentially also be an opportunity for a historian to explore a subject outside his usual area of research, or one loosely related to it, before going on to tackle it as a serious academic work. And, surely, the historical plays of Shakespeare may also serve to to educate, not only in a literary and dramatic capacity, but in a historical one, too. When it comes to realism and fantasy, the American writer, Deborah Harkness, has proved it can be done with her hugely popular All Souls Trilogy of novels. These are well-researched stories about witches and vampires, combing historical facts with romantic fiction.

    Historical memoirs and biographies are usually single-authored works (although I see no reason why there can’t be co-authored instances of them). I believe they are another form of writing that makes historical figures and their place in history more appealing to a general reader who would find an academic text too daunting.

    The 21st Century has already blown so many age-old conventions to the wind. Reaching out to new readerships by making historical writing more inviting and learner-friendly to non-academics can only be a good thing. It might even be a first stepping stone for he next generation of historians.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is certainly worth exploring the numerous graphic novels with a historical bent. Graphic novels allow a lot of the flexibility in content and style being discussed here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s