Models are a productive way into thinking about the writing of history.
When I was first studying history, I rushed through as much reading as I could, reasoning – not without cause – that if I could just cram as many different ideas through my eyes, the topics would start to make sense. One thing I rarely thought about back then, and which I don’t think undergraduate or even postgraduate teaching and training often explicitly analyses is models for writing, or genres, or formats, or whatever we choose to call them.
As a postgraduate, I remember hearing other students talking knowingly about why a paper they had given/heard would lend itself to being a good article for a specific journal, or a good chapter for an edited collection. I realized I had never really thought about the commonalities between the articles that appear in any journal, or how there are models for writing a chapter for an edited collection. I mean basic things, such as how to structure a piece of writing and what kind of voice to use.
I suspect this experience is not unusual, and that many of my colleagues learned these conventions on the job, too. You read a few introductions to edited collections, you get the idea. The editors are going to tell you what the topic is and why it’s important now, and I bet you £100 they are then going to note that the contributors do not agree about this topic and that the chapters that follow pursue different approaches and examples. And then they will summarise the chapters.
I really value edited collections as part of a broad academic publishing ecology. As a historian who remains interested in how we apply cross-cultural abstractions to specific examples, it’s hard to imagine a better way to encourage scholarship on concepts such as the body, storytelling in the law, or empty spaces.
Formulaicism is not sterility.
Perhaps you are thinking introductions to edited collections are low-hanging fruit. There’s some truth in that. But the point is much broader: there are lots of – in my opinion, too rarely articulated – standardised ways of writing history. Mark Hailwood, for instance, has written about the classic social history method of starting with a story. In fact, that’s such a well-known way to structure a social history article, that once you’ve seen it, you start to wonder if it always works.
In my own recent writing, I have often started pieces with anecdotes like this, only to find the story and the argument part ways. The – let’s face it – ‘academic’ things I have to say about research topics are connected to stories, but those narratives have a way of being both more and less than the argument makes them. Who among us has never felt that the final version of a piece has deformed the stories it departed from, twisting the words of the dead to suit our intellectual satisfaction in the present?
I wanted to try a different model in something I wrote recently, which has just been published open access here. Rather than starting with an anecdote, I wanted to write something that was more essayistic. What I mean is that the piece starts with questions, provocations, and a big set of abstract concerns around what ‘doubts’ are and why they might matter.
From the very start, I put myself in the text, wondering aloud with the reader in a similar way to how I have written on this blog for coming up on ten years.
Structurally, the article presents a set of claims about ‘doubts’ before it presents any substantial amount of historical evidence. I wanted to sketch out the possible boundaries of a theoretical problem before showing how it applied to the example I was interested in.
But this is just an example of another model of historical writing.
I learned this model from the style of Lyndal Roper’s Oedipus and the Devil, which lays its own speculations, dissatisfactions and thinking out for the reader, pulling at the strings of a series of topics in early modern history. I learned it from the thoughtful ‘I’ of Carolyn Steedman’s writing, and the confident abstractions of Michel de Certeau and Michel Foucault’s neologisms: ‘heterologies’, ‘archaeologies’ and the rest. Among the most widely-read and cited journal articles by/for historians, many try to establish terms, pin down abstractions, such as the Atlantic, or gender.
Discussions of writing for academic audiences and popular audiences have a depressing tendency to run in circles. As new voices join the conversation, it is unsurprising that they return to foundational questions of what historical writing does and how. One thing that I often think when this happens is that historians do not always do justice to the richness of the writing traditions we already draw upon. There are so many models of historical writing that many practicing historians would recognise, yet which remain, in a sense, unnamed. We all know what a ‘review article’ is, or a ‘book article’ (the one where the author teases their book project, giving some of the key arguments and importance and drawing attention to it).
But what about, for instance, the documentary history book, by which I mean that tradition of publishing a (set of) primary source(s), cut through by the historian’s analysis? I am thinking of Certeau’s Possession at Loudon, and several of Foucault’s books (Herculine Barbin, Pierre Rivière) but also recent examples such as Arlette Farge’s La Révolte de Mme Montjean or Emma Rothschild’s An Infinite History. More than just scholarly editions of texts, it seems to me that these are a specific genre in themselves. Not just micro histories, but documentaries employing many of the same techniques of television, film, and theatre documentary.
I’d like to see historians continue to name and explain our own writing models and having more conversations about the ones we use and refine.