Sep 30, 2008

The Historian as Storyteller

After reading this article by Justine Ferrari, we can better appreciate what the oldies are doing in recounting the past. I can't agree more with historian Peter Cochrane.

I have always enjoyed history as a narrative. In my school days, I invested my time and energy in the history of China, not as an academic subject, but something I pursued in my spare time. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I corrected my teacher publicly in class about her slip in recounting a Chinese historical narrative. She was from the PRC while I'm from Singapore.

I built up a small collection of materials related to my interest. In those days when Internet was in its infancy, I visited the libraries to build up my collection. If time permits, I may consider deviating from the usual stuff and blog about my interest in Chinese history. But I have yet to explore many places in Singapore and unravel their mysteries, so I'm not sure when that will happen.

Here, I present my snippet summary of the article.


Historians Neglecting Storyteller Role

HISTORY has been "dulled down" by focusing exclusively on analysing evidence and argument, with historians neglecting their role as storytellers.

Award-winning historian Peter Cochrane is urging his colleagues to look to the narrative techniques of literature to recreate the past in a vivid and lively way.

Cochrane, an inaugural winner of the Prime Minister's Prize for Australian History, said historians should be able to cross freely into the territory of novelists and poets to use their techniques of plot, character, and imagination.

"We spend a great deal of our time on the intricacies of analysis, evidence evaluation and argument while we tend to neglect the literary side of history writing," he says in a speech prepared for this week's Australian History Teachers Association annual conference in Brisbane.

"This, I think, is an old, ingrained prejudice. Historians tend to see themselves as social scientists, as scholars whose job it is to 'write up' or report on their findings, rather than as writers whose job it is to create or imagine the past, to captivate an audience.

"We should be crossing boundaries and borrowing what we can from fiction, or at least from fiction writers ... in terms of structuring and vivifying a story."


While historians could not empathise like fiction writers, Cochrane said they could infer or extrapolate from records in an imaginative approach that brought the characters and story to life. Without a historical imagination, Cochrane said, history was not much more than a retranscribing of records.

"History has to be vivid, creative, imaginative; it has to squeeze every ounce of historical juice out of the record and then leave it to the reader and other historians to say if you went too far," he said.


Narrative skills were needed to bring history alive: devising a plot, composing a paragraph, choosing a metaphor and evoking the character of the protagonist are all fundamental to the skills of history, all require historical imagination. "The history profession, with some exceptions, has been wary of biographical or character-driven narrative mode because it might be the 'first step into the Hades of commercialisation and dumbing down," he says.

"Narrative movement, along with character and human drama, is essential to the historian's duty to ensure the story's not a bore.



Adelin said...

No wonder your previous entry was so full of feelings to not make it a boring one!


I type the word verification till ... %$%!#!@$

Icemoon said...

I try to do something new every entry. In the previous entry, the train became my object of desire and I bring not flowers but a camera to meet her. In an upcoming entry, I will write a letter to an old friend. =)

Victor said...

That explains why your Kanchanaburi story started with a lad tossing and turning in bed. Nice narrative.

Talking about that, is the "2nd look" coming for that story?

Icemoon said...

Yes Victor, the second shot pictures and mission are coming. Glad to say, that mission was more successful than some of the local ones. I even had a ghostly picture taken of that bridge .. lol

Anonymous said...

No wonder you are so knowledgeable about Chinese history. Anyway you can try visiting

I quite like the way 易中天 talks about China's history. He analyses it and bring in modern context. However, his context is more related to present day China.

So far more to do with 3 Kingdom period. Most are from his 百家讲坛's lectures.

Icemoon said...

Thanks for the link, K^3. Seems like most people of our generation got acquainted with RTK through the game. Maybe can blog about the game one of these days, haha.

Anonymous said...

haha. But I never play RTK before. 2nd shot RTK seems interesting sia