Creative History: a dangerous undertaking

Speakers: Alison Twells, Matt Houlbrook, Helen Rogers

Chair: TBC

The Modern British Studies @ Birmingham Working Paper No. 1 argues that the task of developing new national narratives of modern Britain is made particularly pressing by a popular history that is ‘dominated by a growing number of entertaining, evocative, yet deeply problematic accounts of social, cultural and political change.’ At the same time as countering these narratives, the paper argues that ‘everything we do must take place in a way that encourages constructive interaction between public history and the academy.’ This panel explores the problematic nature of this relationship. How does a discipline which continues to eschew the evocative and the entertaining engage constructively with history outside of the academy?

As academic historians, we write for an audience of specialists; fellow academics who are engaged with specific historiographical debates in our field. This style allows us to tackle questions with rigour and complexity. However, this approach is not inviting for the non-academic reader. Members of the wider public who are interested in, even passionate about, history go elsewhere, principally to public history sites and to memoir, biography and fiction. They want something more than to be told; they want to experience, to feel. For those of us who work in the broad field of ‘history from below’, there are additional difficuties. Is it possible to create a broader and more democratic community of historians which is able to engage creatively and respectfully with the richness of history beyond the academy? This panel asks: what are the options for the academic historian who wishes to communicate beyond the the academy? Is it possible to combine rigour with a concern for audience? Is accessibility enough, or do we need to change how we write, to rethink the elements that currently constitute academic practice? Is it possible to successfully present research in different genres; for analysis and interpretation to be conveyed through other means, principally through narrative and story telling?

Paper 1 Abstract: ‘The reader wants to be intrigued’: imagination, interpretation and history from and for below.

Dr Alison Twells, Sheffield Hallam University

When I inherited a suitcase of diaries and letters from my great aunt in 2009 and began to unravel an absorbing story about romance and deception during WW2, I was quite certain that alongside academic explorations of the significance of the ordinary pocket diary, I wanted to write a book that both worked for me as a historian but which my aunt would recognise as her story. I felt uneasy about narrative history, particularly the many texts that seem to do little more than present research without footnotes and cumbersome historiography. Eventually, despite professional anxieties about both family history and ‘storytelling’, I signed up for a Life-writing module on the MA Writing at SHU. The outcome, Socks for the Boys!, combines the WW2 narrative, as derived from the diaries and letters, with an exploration of the process of uncovering the story. Along the way, I reflect upon the benefits of showing rather than telling, the power of images over analysis, the desire of the reader to not be told, and the conflict between literary aesthetics and historical truth.

This paper explores issues raised by being an academic historian moving between genres where questions of audience are uppermost. In particular, I focus on a meeting with a women’s book club who read my manuscript in its entirety. Mostly retired, they came from a range of backgrounds and careers, and read (critically) a range of literary fiction, historical fiction, history, memoirs and diaries (including published Mass Observation diaries). I explore the significance for historians of the readers’ simultaneous desire for truth and intrigue. The paper also addresses wider questions concerning techniques borrowed from fiction, life writing and public history and asks what they can bring to our practice and to the development of a wider, more inclusive, community of historians.

Paper 2 Abstract: Tucked away in the shadows: Storytelling as history

Dr Matt Houlbrook, University of Birmingham

‘Analysis does not always declare itself as such. It can find expression in allegory and be tucked away in the shadows of significant narrative detail.’ (Fraser MacDonald, ‘The Ruins of Erskine Beveridge’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39 (4) 2014, 2-3.)

This is a paper that does nothing more than tell stories. Fragments of the lives of the confidence trickster, crime writer, and royal biographer sometimes known as Netley Lucas (1903-40) appear as melodrama, romantic fiction, screenplay, or gossip. Telling stories about a prolific storyteller is, perhaps, my way of exploring Alan Munslow’s injunction that history is a ‘form of narrative making — a fictive undertaking’ with its own disciplinary conventions. Time becomes autobiography through the narratives inscribed through a soft lead pencil; the past becomes history through stories we tell, and decisions we make about how to order those stories; history is an ‘authorial act.’ Drawing attention to the process of my own storytelling, I show you the acts I have undertaken, and those moments when interpretation and speculation elide; I acknowledge the limits of my arguments, and the creative expediencies on which they rest. Like Lucas, I try out different ways of telling stories. Unlike Lucas, I do so to explore how other kinds of narrative nonfiction might convey meaning and interpretation, entertain or intrigue. Moving between voices, I leave frayed edges that invite you to scrutinize the expediences of writing history, and the uncertainties of our knowledge of the past. In moving between the familiar tropes of academic history and different forms of storytelling, my aim is to trouble the “apparent coherence and ultimate ‘given-ness’” of much historical writing, to think critically about how the discipline of history works, and how it might be made differently.

Paper 3 Abstract: Writing Aloud: Blogging and Creative History

Dr Helen Rogers, Liverpool John Moores University

It is often said blogging is a good way of ‘thinking aloud’ but, while growing numbers of historians are turning to the blogosphere to share work-in-progress, there has been little consideration of how the medium might shape – even transform – the way we write history, in conventional and online formats. In my paper I reflect on how my writing began to evolve through blogging and how, unexpectedly, it is encouraging me to engage more imaginatively and creatively with narrative as both story-telling and analytical device. My blog, Conviction: stories from a nineteenth-century prison, began as an attempt to find a narrative style and framework for a book based on fragmentary evidence of multiple lives. Surprisingly, the visual, short, serial format of blogging opened up story-telling as a technique for interweaving, contextualizing and analyzing myriad lives. In the paper I identify the strategies I devised and consider what these share with, and where they depart from, those used by creative fiction writers. In doing so, I will ask whether the differences between historians who write creative non-fiction and writers of historical fiction have to do with our approaches to invention and imagination.

 

 

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