I was recently reading a blog entry on History is Elementary about the value of telling stories when teaching elementary history. The blogger waxed eloquent about all the reasons stories are didactic gold (they help children analyse political events around them, to realise there is always a story behind the story, and that representations of events or characters are never simple things). But ‘there are many reasons why I love to tell the story’, she concludes, ‘the main one being I’m just compelled to do it’.
Academic historians talk about telling stories as well, of course – especially the historians offering postgraduate instruction about how to publish outside the institution. I’ve been party to plenty of earnest and sometimes agonised discussions about how much the story is acceptable in an academic history, and about how far it may be proper to stray into literary prose. But of course the love of story isn’t enough to drive an academic discussion on its own, and nor should it be either – otherwise just write fiction, why dontcha?
Having said that, I find it hard to be honest with myself about whether I am in fact just a frustrated historical fiction writer. I mean: do I not write fiction because it’s somehow too difficult, or more to the point, because it doesn’t give me grant money? Is the main reason I am in fact interested in story simply because I feel compelled that way?
I remember being affronted when I received a reader’s report on a grant proposal I wrote a while ago, which declared (in the highhanded manner of the genre) that the approach I had taken was purely antiquarian – that all I was evidently interested in was knowledge for its own sake. Being delivered so magisterially, it’s inevitable that such criticism would spark an immediate flare of indignation. Upon more temperate reflection now, I do still think it was overstated. But like all critique that draws a response like that, it had its granule of truth. I am interested in the peculiar oxygen of the past for its own sake. I love the heady feeling I get at moments when it feels as if I’ve breathed the air as it was back then, whenever back then happened to be. Much what I’ve been doing over the past couple of weeks has been searching for talismans like that cockatoo in 1850s Bendigo, something capable of bringing a streetscape or theatre interior into lucid proximity.
But that isn’t all I’m interested in (and nor, might I add, is it all that concerns the historical fiction-writer, either, by and large – check what these writers have to say, for example). Part of this is about my methodology for this project, about which I shall say more in future posts. I want to get into the heads of ordinary people ‘back then’, and part of that is about trying to find moments of imaginative transformation which make that goal feel more possible. The question of why I think the academic historical forum is the best way ultimately to achieve this, however, must form the subject of future reflection.