Creative History

(This is the fourth of five posts I have written about the Modern British Studies Conference in Birmingham in July. For an overview of the posts, see here:

If the past is a foreign country, most of the guide books are written by people who have never been to the places they describe.

Imagination is not optional for the historian.

So why do historians react so strongly to the idea of ‘creative history’ (or indeed ‘rethinking history’, postmodernism, historical fiction etc)? I’ve been thinking about this since the excellent panel on ‘creative history’ at MBS2015, which provoked some strong discussion on the day, which has continued on social media afterwards.

My thoughts on the panel are guided by a simple point: historians need good stories.

An example.

I’ve been reading Jon Ronson’s romp The Men Who Stare at Goats. It’s a true story, journalistic account of Ronson’s journey into the weirdest parts of the US military establishment and their fascination with supernatural warfare techniques. It’s fun, a bit silly, contains no footnotes, relies heavily on foreshadowing, suspense, dialogue, and action, and got made into a film with George Clooney.

Ronson is skilled at making good stories. But it’s the stories he gets ready-made that are the most powerful illustration of how powerful a compelling narrative can be.

In 2003, NBC ran a story revealing that US forces used the theme song from ‘Barney the Dinosaur’ during interrogations or psychological torture in Iraq. The story was bonkers, and completely true. But – as Ronson points out – the media and public fascination with it completely drowned out other legitimate concerns about US (and other) torture in Iraq. It was a compelling story, humourous to many Americans, and deeply worrying for some, but a story that overtook any other, harder to process narratives.

This is not click-bait-bait: I am not proposing that historians go out and copy Ronson’s style of writing punchy narratives, and I am certainly not proposing they use humourous, or even sensational stories just to hook readers, at the expense of more important narratives.

What I do think is that if historians DON’T make good enough stories about the topics that matter, they will abdicate their role in public debates.

I believe there is value in a university system that confers cultural authority on people who earn degrees, engage in scholarly debate, and develop expertise, but that value is under constant assault by the prophets of doom, the vultures who have long been circling the humanities.

This is why I really enjoyed the panel on ‘Creative History’ at #MBS2015.

I should say the speakers made few (no?) claims to be steering public opinion. What Alison Twells, Matt Houlbrook, and Helen Rogers did all do, as I remember it, was talk about ways to make good stories.

There was much talk of ‘imagination’ of what historians do when they come face to face with what they do not know. There was talk of how the research process itself provides a compelling narrative that can interest readers. Do we have to make our analysis explicit, Houlbrook asked? What work can stories themselves do?

For me, there are open questions here.

Closing them off is a sure fire way to ensure that historians deliberately avoid calling their work ‘creative’, since they know the kinds of response this will evoke from colleagues: cynicism about who this ‘public’ historians write for might be, and what their tastes are; legitimate but (I suspect) tangential concerns about social media and participation (for some really good reflections on some of these issues, see Christine Grandy’s post on the MBS blog:

And listening to the surprisingly fierce debate the papers provoked – debate which I thought sometimes risked being ungenerous or unfair – I felt confronted by one thing about ‘creative’ history that stirs up so much passion (there are, of course, others, to do with the disciplinary history and methods, which I haven’t got entirely straight in my own head).

What occurred to me is that experiments with form are always statements about function.

What should history writing be for? Who should it be for? What is the best story I can tell, and who defines that? Me? My readers? Which ones? I don’t want to write in Jon Ronson’s tone about men who stare at goats, but I don’t want to write stories that no-one beyond my specialism will care about.

Whenever historians experiment, introducing different styles, registers, and media into their work, it can feel to colleagues, collaborators, and readers that the very point of history itself is at stake.

I say: good.

The debate should start here, not end.

Let’s just make sure it isn’t all about Barney the Dinosaur.

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