Monday, November 28, 2011

Blog CII (102): The History Ph.D. as Novelist

Editorial Note: Today's posting is the first part of three essays that represents a return of the "The History Ph.D. as..." series. This essay examines historians who have moved into the world of fiction as novelists.  The article is exceptionally long even by internet standards (roughly 4,000 words), so it will be posted on "In the Service of Clio" in three parts.  Part two appeared in Blog CIII on Wednesday, November 30, 2011 and part three will be out on Friday, December 2, 2011. 

Writing and research abilities are two skills that a historian acquires in the process of getting a Ph.D. Both of these abilities can be transferred to the work of writing fiction. Believe it or not there is a long tradition of historians and other scholars writing novels instead of or in addition to scholarly studies. “English-speaking anthropologists have been writing fiction ever since anthropology began in the late 19th century,” Nancy Schmidt, an anthropologist and head of Harvard's Tozzer Library, remarked.

Historical fiction has also enjoyed recent popularity in the publishing world. Ivan Doig, who earned a Ph.D. in western history from the University of Washington and has published academically, has made more of a name for himself as a novelist, was asked about historical fiction: “I hope it's a great wave I'm caught up in. I don't think of myself as a writer of historical fiction. There are historical laws of gravity in historical fiction; big things are happening in the world, and my characters are affected by those."

Why is historical fiction currently so popular? Saul David, a British military historian and a professor at the University of Buckingham turned novelist, attributes the popularity of historians writing fiction to the success of another British historian, Alison Weir. Already one of the best selling historians in the United Kingdom, Weir’s historical novel, Innocent Traitor (2006), which is about Lady Jane Grey, became a best seller. Despite her Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, Philippa Gregory is an established novelist of the Tudor and Stuart periods. She believes her readers don’t read novels such as The White Queen (2009) “as history.” Instead she believes they consider it a work about “a woman speaking from the urgency of the novel.” According to historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, who has also written a novel Sashenka (2008), “Real stories—whether in pure fiction or historical—have a certain indefinable power; we are endlessly curious about the past and hungry for learning that we hope will illuminate the present.” Journalist turned historian turned novelist Barrett Tillman put it simply when he said, “History drives the story."

Other historians agree with this assessment. “I learned history through historical novels,” Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, the Dwight Stanford Professor at San Diego State University, said. A historian, she is also the author of a novel, Broken Promises (2011) about the U.S. Civil War, Works of fiction are what first got her interested in becoming a historian. David had a similar experience. He was in his early teens “when I read my first Flashman novel and it's no coincidence that most of my history books are about the same Victorian wars."

Why do historians turn to fiction? “Every historian is a romantic,” Stan Carpenter, a history Ph.D. teaching at the U.S. Naval War College as a professor of strategy, remarked. Carpenter is also the author of Resurrection of Antimony (2009), a historical novel set in World War II. “Every historian has thought about living in the time period they studied. Writing novels “allows you to roam in that sphere of our own historical fantasy.” William Martin, the novelist, agrees: “I liked living in those worlds myself.”

There is also a good deal of overlap between historian and novelist. “The greatest historians working today—as has always been the case—are the ones that tell you a story,” Martin explained. He is the reverse of Cobbs Hoffman. He learned history as a work-study student at Harvard, assisting visiting scholars associated with the history department. In addition to being a novelist who has written mystery novels and historical fiction, he wrote the screenplay for the documentary George Washington: The Man Who Wouldn't Be King, which was an episode in the PBS series “The American Experience.” Work on this documentary eventually lead to his novel Citizen Washington. Deborah Harkness, an associate professor of history of science at the University of Southern California, who has also written a novel, A Discovery of Witches (2011), set in contemporary England with witches, vampires, and demons, agrees. “I'm a storyteller,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “And I have really good material to work with: I've been studying magic and the occult since about 1983.”

British historian and novelist Jason Goodwin had a different reaction to fiction. “When I went to Long Kesh [a prison in Northern Ireland where he was incarcerated], I was persuaded to stop reading fiction by a friend who dismissed it all as sort of bourgeois nonsense. For 10 years I didn't go near fiction. I just concentrated on history and politics. When I was finishing my Ph.D., I started to read fiction again. It was like falling in love again. A very intense experience."

There are skeptics, though. The British historian Tristram Hunt, who teaches at Queen Mary, University of London and is a Member of Parliament, told The Times that he had a number of colleagues who had taken up fiction because it sold comparatively well. “There is a dangerous tendency among historians to slide into historical fiction, which must be avoided at all costs,” he said.

Hunt has a point. His worry is one that stems from the concern that many historians had a few years back about literary theorists who argued that history is a construction, that history is nothing more than a story that individuals tell about the past. This idea, although silly when considered in full, attacked the very foundation of history, and its integrity as a discipline. If history is nothing more than another form of fiction, why bother? In 1990 Sir Geoffrey Elton described postmodern literary theory as “the intellectual equivalent of crack.” The following year, historian Gordon Wood warned that historians might soon “put themselves out of business” if they went down this path. In 2005 Donald Kagan, in his Jefferson lecture, “In Defense of History,” warned about the perils of “pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo.” The British historian of early modern Britain, Lawrence Stone dismissed the literary theorists, noting, “The novelist is free to create events. Imagination does play a very important part in the writing of history but there is a reality principle out there."

These concerns are ones that individual historian need to consider when writing historical fiction. Writers, be they historians or novelists, develop something of a name brand. Sara Paretsky, a University of Chicago Ph.D., solved this problem by writing in a venue that has nothing to do with the field of antebellum New England. She has written a series of mystery novels set in contemporary Chicago featuring her main character, V. I. Warshawski.

For most historians turned novelists, this issue appears to be a small one. Cobbs Hoffman rejected the idea of using a pen name when she wrote Broken Promises (2011). She figured that she might “gain some capital” with her readers as a historian. Tillman took the same view. He already had a name from non-fiction books he had written and that was a major asset in selling books.

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