[This four-part series on storytelling and historical narratives is based on a talk given at Vanderbilt University in February 2011.]
Half a century ago, the novelist and physicist C.P. Snow wrote about how these days we live in two cultures, where scientists and humanists seem to have lost the ability to talk to each other. I think today writers and intellectuals live in a different world of two cultures – one that has to do with whether you are writing for your fellow specialists or for a wider audience. There’s almost an assumption that writing is either academically rigorous and directed at fellow scholars or that it’s less careful and directed at a wider audience.
I encounter this assumption in all kinds of strange ways. A number of times I’ve received letters or emails from people who’ve liked a book of mine and have written me to say “how much I enjoyed your novel.” I always bristle, because even though I wish I were capable of being a novelist, I’m not, and I immediately want to write back and say, “Wait a minute! That book had 850 footnotes! Didn’t you see them? I wasn’t making anything up.”
People seem to assume that if they find something readable or lively, it’s likely to be a piece of fiction. Similarly, I think there is sometimes an assumption among scholars that your work will not be taken seriously if it sounds too accessible. I’ll give you a curious example. Years ago, there was the famous Masters and Johnson study of human sexuality. I remember that, in an interview at the time, Masters and Johnson said that they had deliberately written their first book, “Human Sexual Response,” in a cumbersome style so that it would be taken seriously by health professionals.
I’ve never actually read the book, but I looked it up the other day and just copied down a couple of sentences. And boy is it cumbersome! You wouldn’t think people could write about sexuality this way, but they do:
In brief the division of the human male’s or female’s cycle of sexual response into four specific phases admittedly is inadequate for evaluation of finite psychogenic aspects of elevated sexual tensions. However, the establishment of this purely arbitrary design provides anatomic structuring and assures inclusion and correct placement of specifics and physiologic response within the sequential continuum of human response to effective sexual stimulation.
If you know what that means, you’re doing better than I am.
They also wanted their findings to reach a larger audience, so they specifically arranged for somebody to write, with their cooperation, a popularization of these books. It’s ridiculous to me – why can’t you write the same book for both audiences?
Of course, we didn’t always have two cultures of writing this way. For example, someone who also had a good deal to say about human sexuality, Sigmund Freud, wrote in quite a beautiful way that was accessible to people far beyond specialists in the field.
Historians from an earlier time, like Francis Parkman or Henry Adams, expected their work to be read by the general public. When Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote his “History of England,” he said he would only be satisfied if it displaced the latest novel from women’s bedside tables.
How did these two different cultures of writing come into being? I think most of it has to do with the rise of universities and of specialized departments within them. There is, of course, a vast amount of good that happened with all this: Knowledge was advanced; standards of scholarship and research were raised. But aspects of the way all this happened have exacerbated the divide between two cultures of discourse, two cultures of writing.
First of all, when you look at how universities operate, there’s always the question of what gets rewarded. What gets you tenure? What gets you a promotion? It begins, of course, with writing a proper dissertation, and then with scholarly publication in your field. And almost always, in every academic field, the proper object of study is considered to be something, or some aspect of something, that nobody has studied before. Now, that can be all very well, but, on the other hand, why not study something that others have studied or written about before, but write it better? Why not write it for an audience that didn’t know about this subject before?
Furthermore, the kind of writing that is usually most rewarded in the academic world is writing for peer-reviewed scholarly journals and university presses. Again, I think there is a good side to this. I know that when I write history and I’m relying for some material on secondary sources, I tend to trust something that’s in an academic journal more than I would an article that appears elsewhere, because I know it’s been through a careful filtering process.
And I also think that whether they’re in the academic world or not, all writers should, and all really good writers do, get some kind of peer review on their work. They show what they do to other people who really know the subject and get their critique. That’s all fine. But writing for scholarly journals and presses inherently creates a pressure for a kind of writing that is heavily studded with complimentary references to other scholars, because you never know which reviewer the Podunk University Press or the “Journal of Ephemeral Phenomena” is going to send your manuscript to. So you put in references to everybody else who’s had anything to do with the topic you’re writing about, so you’ve got your bases covered.
In the particular field in which I do most of my work – history – there’s another explanation that I came across recently for something that may have exacerbated the divide between writing cultures, advanced by University of Chicago historian Peter Novick. I don’t know enough to know whether this is true, but it’s an interesting thought. He says he believes the divide between the two types of writing in the field of history was exacerbated following the Second World War when the wealth of foundation grants newly available to historians meant that a university historian who wanted to earn extra money on the side could apply for a grant as opposed to trying to earn that money by lecturing to the general public.
I do take encouragement from the fact that there are many people who bridge that gap that gap between writing cultures, and who do so very successfully. They are bilingual, so to speak, producing work that is taken seriously by other scholars and that also is accessible to the general public. I can think of many such people, some from the academic world: the late Stephen Jay Gould, an important paleontologist who also wrote beautifully for a wider audience; historians like Simon Schama, Jill Lepore and Joseph Ellis; a literary critic like James Wood; and Jared Diamond, professor of both geography and physiology at UCLA, whose book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” became a longtime national bestseller.
Then there are people who came from outside the academic world but who are also respected within it: a particular heroine of mine, the late Barbara Tuchman; historians such as Hugh Thomas and Thomas Pakenham; and there are plenty of others one could name.
What does it take to bridge that gap? It doesn’t require a peerage, though both Pakenham and Thomas have one. It doesn’t even require being British, although they, Schama and Wood are British. I think it takes mainly the strong desire to do both things. That is, to be both accurate and careful and deep – if that’s not too pretentious – in what you write, and to reach a wider audience.
And to reach that audience, it’s very important to think long and hard about how to tell the story. Now Paul Kramer suggested that I talk to you about some of my own experiences in trying to do this, in using storytelling techniques in writing history, and I’m going to do so, but I want to stress in advance that none of this is in any way whatever original with me. Most of it goes back thousands of years, back to the ancient Greeks, where playwrights were using these same techniques – Aristotle wrote about them in his “Poetics.”
When I think about the principal storytelling techniques, I begin with what my high school English teacher told me to pay attention to when I read a novel: setting, characters and plot. These are absolutely vital building blocks of storytelling, and they are much too important to leave to the novelists. Any of us who are interested in writing history or nonfiction that reaches beyond specialist readers have to use them as well. The only difference is that we have to play by a different set of rules than novelists do. We’re not allowed to make anything up.
A former editor of Mother Jones magazine, Hochschild has written several historical narratives, including “Bury the Chains” and “King Leopold’s Ghost.” His next book, “To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918,” will be published in May. For more, check out part 2 of Hochschild’s talk, on the importance of setting and scenes in storytelling. Or watch the hour-long video in its entirety.