History as Literature

In February 2007 an article in The Guardian newspaper described the novelist Martin Amis as Britain’s ‘greatest living author’. This provoked howls of protest from some quarters and a debate followed as to who was Britain’s ‘greatest’ if not Amis. Suggestions flooded in, critics and commentators from all walks of life were interviewed. Some declared that you cannot decide upon greatness until twenty years after a writer’s death. Others responded that the debate was just trivial, harmless fun, although it might actually do some good if it encouraged people to read some of the books whose authors were championed. One thing was clear, however. Only novelists were eligible. A few critics dared to suggest that poets and playwrights should also be considered but historians were not even mentioned.

Perhaps the foregoing will not surprise readers. If so, this lack of surprise only reflects and amplifies the point I wish to make. We have become so familiar with great literature and historical writing being separate entities that it hardly seems odd any more. These days history is history and literature is literature, and attempts to blur the distinction between the two tend to meet with scepticism at best, especially from academic reviewers. It no longer surprises us that relatively few people name a historical title as their favourite book. When Waterstones compiled a list of the greatest books of the twentieth century in 1997, not one history title made the top one hundred. The list included the autobiographical Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain and Wild Swans by Juan Chang; it included several history-fiction titles (e.g. I Claudius, All Quiet on the Western Front, Perfume) and several non-fiction titles (e.g. The Selfish Gene, Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course, A Brief History of Time) but no works of actual non-fiction history. In this light it is hardly surprising that those wondering who might be the nation’s greatest living writer ignored historians altogether.

You might put this neglect down to the exaggerated importance associated with popularity. You could excuse historians on the grounds that history, like philosophy, is simply a harder pill to swallow, and thus is less popular and less frequently voted for in polls. History’s influence is felt in other ways, you might say. Then how come a worthy list such as the 'hundred most influential books since 1945', published by the TLS in 1995, includes only one history book to appear since 1971 (Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers). Moreover, when you look at the criteria which commentators in The Guardian used to assess literary greatness, you have to wonder why historians are ignored. The poet laureate suggested that the factors qualifying a writer as ‘great’ are ‘philosophical depth, quality of writing, range, ability to move between registers and the power to influence other writers and the age in which we live’. Why should historians not achieve these goals? A.S. Byatt claimed that great writing ‘should make you rethink the world’; the critic Natasha Walter likewise stated that the key was to ‘illuminate the world, even a small patch of it’. Does history not do this? What about Eamon Duffy’s Hawthornden Prize-winning The Voices of Morebath? Only two of the seventeen commentators interviewed – one a theatre critic and the other a bookseller – suggested that the greatest living writer might not actually be a novelist, but instead they named biographers, not historians. The implication is that modern historians on the whole do not demonstrate the qualities expected in great writers. Or, if they do, then not to the same extent and not as consistently as novelists. In short, you cannot help but conclude that historical writing has come to be seen as functional and, in literary terms, second-rate.

How has this happened? After all, if you look in a book of quotations you will find it peppered with the aphorisms of historians like Burke and Macaulay. Where are their successors? Historians today largely avoid trying to describe human experience, preferring to concentrate on the task in hand: the specifics of historiography, analysis and debate. Why? Do historians of a high intellectual calibre feel it beneath them to expand on the philosophical implications of how mankind lived, behaved and died in the past? Has the Research Assessment Exercise in UK universities focused historical energy so intensely on a narrow vision of research ‘product’ that it has killed the inspiration which lured people to study history in the first place? Have the competitive demands of history as an academic discipline raised the bar of scholarship so high that it is now too rarefied to be meaningful to the public?

There are many reasons why a break has emerged between history and literature. At least two of the above ring wholly true to me, and all three could be defended. But another important reason is the gradual erosion of the creative aspect of historical writing. Or, to be specific, the perceived absence of creativity in history. The contemporary general perception of history is that it analyses and interprets a series of historical facts, and is therefore an act of assemblage, not creativity. In this sense, a historian is like a machine: you feed the facts in at the top end and you get the history out at the bottom, processed into a comprehensible argument or narrative. I was shocked to realise this in February 2006, during the Da Vinci Code trial. The then deputy-editor of The Bookseller, Joel Rickett (now the editor), spoke for many when he stated in an interview that Baigent and Leigh were ‘in a sense... admitting their work has elements of fiction to it. If it was pure history, how could they copyright history? When historians discover something they can’t copyright it.’ (The Guardian, 26 Feb., 2006). Regardless of the ingenuity and the literary skill necessary to tell the story of a remote period with conviction, sensitivity to the characters, and enthusiasm for their passions - it is clear that history is considered to be non-creative by definition, and historians are presented as analysts, not creators, and certainly not creative artists.

There will be many academics who agree with this. Why should they do more than try to educate their students to assimilate data and present their arguments to an ever-more rigorous standard? As far as education itself goes, there is no reason why they should. But for society as a whole, history is about more than education. It is about sympathy with the past, about the range of human experiences and ultimately about life itself. It is about creativity: the way I see the past, and can inspire others with stories from the past. Such broad understandings are wholly outside the scope of the modern academic’s profession. Nevertheless, in recent years academics have increasingly assumed the exclusive responsibility and privilege of judging public understandings of the past.

Hence the split between history and literature. Academics are required to operate within a strict intellectual framework which is fundamentally orientated around education and specific research outcomes, their bread-and-butter work. Those writers who use history creatively to explore passion, ambition, fear and suffering are outside this scholarly world (and largely excluded from it). Scholars often undermine these writers of history-as-literature, acting as a historical police force, with powers of criticism, if not arrest. But the scholars themselves rarely have the latitude and skills necessary to write history for society at large. And so it does not get written, or it is written only by those who do not particularly care for scholarly precision and sophisticated methodologies. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, you cannot be both a great historian and a great writer.

Does it matter, though, that historians are unable to act in both an intellectual and a literary capacity? We have plenty of historians who can take centre-stage: become famous and represent history’s interests on the boards, committees and commissions which collectively curate and illustrate our heritage. Through the medium of television, several leading historians are able to command large audiences while retaining respect for their scholarly writing. But there is still that professional glass ceiling preventing historians from reaching the heights of what is recognisable as literature. The question is thus whether it matters that the tradition of writing of history-as-literature, espoused by writers such as Lord Macaulay, G.M. Trevelyan, A.L. Rowse, A.J.P Taylor, C.V. Wedgwood and Sir Stephen Runciman, has come to an end. Things pass; great traditions are not always maintained. It is probably true that the sum of human knowledge will increase more rapidly if historians concentrate on producing scholarly research and not rich, multi-layered monographs with sparkling prose and a deep insight into the human condition. But I for one cannot help but wonder, when I see how much research is churned through the academic press each year, to what purpose is all this knowledge being produced if we do not gain a little wisdom at the same time?

You might blame elitist scholars of the 1960s, such as Geoffrey Elton, for driving great wedges into the cracks between professional and popular history. Alternatively you might blame the Research Assessment Exercise for introducing the culture of research at the expense of meaningful writing, for the sake of assessing departmental research revenue. But whoever you blame, everyone is losing out. With a shrinking readership for many academic history books, the academic monograph itself is now under threat, being too narrow in focus, too expensive and altogether financially unsustainable. The textbook similarly has become a niche product, written for undergraduates attuned to scholarly debates with little or no regard for the general reader. It too is losing out to the Internet. As for popular history, it is constantly derided and belittled by academics. Only historical biography and military history are obvious exceptions to this rule, being forms through which a writer can still produce history-as-literature while at the same time pushing back the frontiers of historical scholarship. It is worth noting that two writers of the Whitbread Biography Prize in recent years have been academics writing about historical figures: Diarmaid MacCulloch (for Thomas Cranmer: a Life) and John Guy (for My Heart is my Own: the Life of Mary Queen of Scots). It is possible that other historical monographs will move back in the same direction to capture the same markets, combining scholarship, insight and writing that transcends academic functionality. If not, then there is a danger that academic history in the future will be little more than a poorly paid day-job. Then our finest scholars will be like composers writing operas and symphonies which, despite their magnificent attention to detail and unquestionable erudition, are read only by their students and never performed in public.

Ian Mortimer
28 March 2007



Homepage > Notes and Essays > History as Literature