The Art of Apparent Artlessness

There is an unspoken ideal among many academic historians when it comes to style. A good way to think of this is as ‘the art of apparent artlessness’.

Wilhelm Roscher used this phrase to discuss the way Thucydides wins over his readers unawares, subtly seducing their thinking, without making his argument explicit.[1] This style of argument by subterfuge still has its champions. How many graduate students have asked for guidance on writing and been told that the essential thing is to get the facts straight, and keep the writing even straighter?

It may seem paradoxical, but such an attitude to writing brings historians very close to fiction writers. Good stories, John Yorke has suggested, ‘are the product of the writer’s argument with reality’.[2] Novels, films, or plays imply a message about how the world is, and perhaps how it should be. But to spell this message out is to ruin it. Even to sit down with a message in mind is suspect: ‘themes emerge’.[3]

Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a good example, not least since her non-fiction account self-consciously imitates the form of the detective novel. It reads quickly. I remember sitting down to have a look at it, and standing a few hours later having rushed through most of the book. Narrative dominates, and it is only towards the end that I formed a full sense of an emerging argument. Like any detective novel, this argument offers a surprising solution to the puzzle of the crime, and like a detective novel, all of the clues are laid out from the start. In this reading of the book, Summerscale’s ‘theme’ is not the history of the emergence of the modern detective, which she explicitly addresses, so much as the tensions at the heart of family life, the narrative core of the book, rather than the contextual exposition.


But the art of apparent artlessness is not just about making arguments by stealth.

There are other ways to think about the work that goes into effortlessness. I think of the clarity Eric Hobsbawm’s prose when he describes bandits as:

peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped, and supported. This relation between the ordinary peasant and the rebel, outlaw and robber is what makes social banditry interesting and significant.[4]

This is a style which relies on simple tools, such as enumeratio (‘as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation’, ‘admired, helped, and supported’. Or think about his sentence rhythm, from the first long sentence to the shorter declarative statement of the importance of banditry. Throughout the book, Hobsbawm uses active verbs, and relegates hesitation and disagreements to his footnotes. The argument sweeps along almost without distraction.

In this book, Hobsbawm writes with the confidence and clarity of a historian laying out how things really are.

Which is not to say that he is right. From the point of view of the techniques of writing, what is interesting is how his style presents itself as obvious.


Practice

  1. Read a history book you have enjoyed for ‘theme’. NZ Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre or Jill Lepore’s New York Burning are interesting places to start.
    1. The explicit argument of non-fiction books may not be the same as the emergent ‘theme’.
  2. How would you characterize ‘simplicity’ or ‘clarity’ in a historian’s writing style?
    1. Experiment with rewriting a piece in a style that feels simple and clear.


[1] My thanks to Neville Morley for passing on this idea, which he suggested on Twitter. Read more here: https://thesphinxblog.com/2015/03/11/criticism-as-conspiracy-theory/

[2] John Yorke, Into the Woods, p.194.

[3] Yorke, p.194.

[4] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, p.13.

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