On Writerly Historians

I’ve been reading a work of American history for the last few weeks, and it’s making me crazy. I really think history took a wrong turn when its practitioners decided to opt for narrative over analysis. Not because that’s a methodologically unsound choice—it’s not—but because most of the people who’ve made it are just not up to the job. You’ve got these self-styled writerly historians, writing stories that are larded with “the telling detail” that doesn’t tell you anything at all. It’s just page after page of chazerai. Guys, if you’re going to be a Writer, take this lesson from a guy who knew a thing or two about writing:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

Update (April 25)

On Facebook, Josh Mason made a good observation: “The problem isn’t so much that most historians aren’t Balzac, as that they’ve chosen a form that you need to be Balzac to pull off.” Is that too much to ask?


  1. Matthew April 25, 2014 at 12:08 am | #

    Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book on T.R. And Taft?

  2. Gaurav Khanna April 25, 2014 at 12:09 am | #

    That was short and to the point 🙂

  3. Jake April 25, 2014 at 12:10 am | #

    So setting the scene has no meaning?

  4. Jim Brash April 25, 2014 at 12:27 am | #

    History books have nothing to do with analysis these days. Its about innuendo, gossip, unsubstantiated shit that’s paraded around as truth. Its sometimes about being a love letter to a departed person, era, or group of circumstances. But its always about making that bestsellers list. And being that historians want to make money too, their work resembles prose. There’s a lot more filler nowadays

  5. Roquentin April 25, 2014 at 12:42 am | #

    When I want to read literary history I tend towards works actually written in that particular era and place, fictional or otherwise. Even works which are entirely fabricated can say more about the sensibilities of the time than a scholarly historical text from today. In spite of that, historical fiction shouldn’t be written dismissed Shakespeare had his historical plays and Flaubert had Salammbo, just to name a couple of examples.

  6. Joanna Bujes April 25, 2014 at 1:16 am | #

    I think I know what Corey is getting. It haunts fiction as well as history books: writerliness. Falling in love with your own self. Look Ma, no hands. Except the hands are all too visible. Everybody should read Thucydides. Many times.

    I myself fell in love with history when I picked up Huizinga’s “The Waning of the Middle Ages” at the age of eleven. On the very first page, he says something like “Nobody can appreciate the warmth of a fire who has not lived through a north European winter…..” or something like that. I was hooked.

    But the writerly chazerai Corey brings up is something else entirely. Self-conscious detail that is spread about like cookie crumbs for the reviewer. Ugh.

  7. Rachel Hope Cleves April 25, 2014 at 4:47 am | #

    Interesting post. As a historian who has strained to write well (not saying I’ve succeeded), I’ve given a lot of thought to the particular problem of trying to craft a compelling narrative while obeying disciplinary dictates to pile on the evidence.

    Yes, narrative tension is crafted as much from what’s left out as from what’s included. History as a discipline, however, instructs practitioners to always back up claims with multiple examples where one might suffice to illustrate, and to never leave the ambiguities in an argument unexplored.

    I’m not sure that the over-stuffed quality of so much historical prose is the consequence of the desire to be writerly, so much as the imperative to prove the point. At least as far as peer-reviewed writing goes, the more you leave off the page the less likely you are to get your words in print.

  8. Claire Potter April 25, 2014 at 6:39 am | #

    Are you sure y’all are reading the right historians? It’s true that there is a big push to expand our audience, and no one learns to write in graduate school, so many learn to rely on trickery in their attempts to pull readers in because hey haven’t got the craft yet. But — Ned Blackhawks, Jill Lepore, Mary Beth Norton, Ari Kelman, Jim Goodman, David Greenberg, Judy Wu, Walter Johnson, Deborah Gray White, Simon Schama, Anthony Grafton, Drew Faust, Susan Ware — this is just a start.

  9. Greg Grandin April 25, 2014 at 6:48 am | #

    I just tried to googlebook Lukacs’ The Historical Novel, to reference its argument that narrative, if done right, can better capture the totality of social relations. But when I clicked on the link, this is what I got: http://books.google.com/books?id=j0HsJ6G25coC&printsec=frontcover&dq=the+historical+novel+lukacs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=5ztaU8rpJIbisATU2YCQCQ&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=the%20historical%20novel%20lukacs&f=false

  10. Michael Kazin April 25, 2014 at 10:05 am | #

    I don’t know which historians Corey has been reading — but, since Herodotus,we have been writing narratives that are also analytical. In fact, that’s pretty much what being a historian means! Of course, a few do one better than the other, and only the best manage to combine the talents of a good story-teller with brilliant and (mostly) original ideas.- Michael Kazin

  11. jonnybutter April 25, 2014 at 10:25 am | #

    since Herodotus,we have been writing narratives that are also analytical

    I read Corey’s ‘narrative over analysis’ as meaning not that there is no mixture, but that the two are out of balance. Don’t know that that’s what he meant, but do know the kind of history he and Josh are talking about and see the problem as one of balance – the narrative and the analysis need to motivate each other. Otherwise the purportedly-telling-but-not-really detail (e.g.) is just cheap and distracting.

  12. Linnaeus April 25, 2014 at 5:04 pm | #

    This is interesting, because my sense, at least in my subfield of history (and a few others) is quite the opposite: narrative tends to be sacrificed too much by historians. You still need to tell a decent story. That’s the firmament, if you will, of the discipline. Perhaps historians are a little more comfortable with the ambiguities that one uncovers when trying to make sense of the past, in contast with more theory-driven fields where it all needs to fit.

  13. bcampisi April 27, 2014 at 9:35 am | #

    Honestly, I’ll take the most flowery, overblown historian to the standard bone-dry political scientist any day.

  14. Michael April 28, 2014 at 3:47 pm | #


    If you want to a read work of history that combines stunning character study and narrative brilliance with the kind of sharp analysis that comes from having an uncanny command of the facts, read Theodore Mommsen’s “History of Rome”–a work far superior to “Decline and Fall” but largely left obscured by in the Anglosphere beneath Gibbon’s shadow. However, Dr. William Purdie Dickson completed a translation of the tome in the mid-19th century. Mommsen is probably the greatest historian of the modern period, and “History of Rome” deeply influenced my understanding of American history (and political reality generally). For instance, Mommsen helped me see how the crisis of the Civl War and Reconstruction was one involving the following tension: should former slaves became citizens or métoikoi (resident aliens)? Ultimately, the Jim Crow regime transformed freedmen and women into the latter, and though the successes of the Civil Rights Movement made them de jure citizens, in fact they continue to be treated as métoikoi.


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