Category Archives: Interesting Articles

Hilary Mantel talks about history, facts and fictions

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Hilary Mantel, a novelist rightly famous for twice winning the Man Booker prize with her historical novels about Thomas Cromwell, yesterday gave the first of her three BBC Reith Lectures.

In the first lecture (published here in this weekend’s The Guardian), Mantel explores the complicated relationship between history, fact and fiction.

You should really go and read the whole thing.

Now.

But if you still need prompting, try this excerpt…

Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.

Or this one

The pursuit of the past makes you aware, whether you are novelist or historian, of the dangers of your own fallibility and inbuilt bias. The writer of history is a walking anachronism, a displaced person, using today’s techniques to try to know things about yesterday that yesterday didn’t know itself. He must try to work authentically, hearing the words of the past, but communicating in a language the present understands. The historian, the biographer, the writer of fiction work within different constraints, but in a way that is complementary, not opposite. The novelist’s trade is never just about making things up. The historian’s trade is never simply about stockpiling facts. Even the driest, most data-driven research involves an element of interpretation. Deep research in the archives can be reported in tabular form and lists, by historians talking to each other. But to talk to their public, they use the same devices as all storytellers – selection, elision, artful arrangement.

What are you waiting for? Click here for the whole delicious thing.

Update: I do apologise! It seems I posted the same excerpt twice, instead of two different excerpts. The second one is now different from the first. Doh!

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Why is history still written mainly by men?

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Fantastic article in The Guardian:

Only four female writers appeared in the list of top 50 bestselling history titles in the UK last year. And women are still perceived as more suited to writing about drawing rooms than battlefields. Why? Leading historians and biographers discuss sexism and subject matter.

All the big British names in history and biography have contributed to the piece, and quite a few big names from elsewhere too.  Well worth a look.

And if you are in the longform essay mood, try this review by Janet Malcolm in the New York Review of Books about the latest Ted Hughes biography.  Then read this piece by Bridget Read called ‘Janet Malcolm: Biased, Mean and Brilliant.  Why Our Best Biographer Hates the New Ted Hughes Biography.’

That should keep you going for a while…

Popular history writing remains a male preserve, publishing study finds

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Man readingHere is a fascinating, and depressing, article showing publishing’s overwhelming bias towards male historians and male historical subjects.

Slate magazine studied 614 popular history titles published last year in the US and found a genre dominated by generals, presidents and male authors.

Of those 614 titles, three-quarters were written by men.  Of the published biographies, nearly three-quarters were about men.  Only six percent of male biography authors wrote about women.  Sigh.

Slate argues that the persistence of this imbalance, even among authors writing for presses that publish more academics, “seems to reflect a continuing gender disparity among academic historians.”  I would argue that it also reflects the publishing industry’s views about who buys what.  Publisher Lara Heimert thinks so too.

The conventional wisdom has been that men read more non-fiction and women read more fiction, though as with most conventional wisdom in publishing (and life) I’ve never actually seen a study proving that to be true.

Slate coins a fantastic new term – uncle books – to describe the “tomes that you give an older male relative, to take up residence by his wingback armchair.”  These predictably include naval battles, grand adventures and biographies about ‘great men’.

Our data set revealed some answers about the publishing of popular history that we expected: Authors are largely male, biographical subjects too; “uncle books” make up a third of the total titles published. But the data also raise interesting questions. Is it possible to sell biographies of unfamous people? Why are some historical episodes that fit some of the criteria we outlined above, like the Vietnam War, so absent? And when will World War II ever stop being interesting?

There are glimmers some glimmers of hope.  One of the publishers Slate spoke to provided a useful list of women (presumably US writers) who write popular (presumably US-focussed) histories: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stacy Schiff, Drew Gilpin Faust, Karen Armstrong, and Pauline Maier.  Others listed Jill Lepore, Annette Gordon-Reed, Megan Marshall, Maya Jasanoff, Susan Pedersen, Sara Lipton, Linda Colley, Judith Thurman, Jennifer Homans, Patricia Limerick, and Mary Beth Norton.  I confess I’ve heard of only a few of these women but this list should keep the TBR pile going for a while.

But overall the stats mirror those collected internationally by the VIDA Count Project and here in Australia by the Stella Count.

While a longitudinal analysis of trade history publishing might reveal a swing toward female authorship and diversity of subject matter, and anecdotal evidence points to some improvement, our data for 2015 still look grim. “We have a real problem in publishing, but it’s not just a publishing problem,” Heimert wrote. “What is it about the way we educate our children that channels women toward literature departments and men toward history and politics departments? What are our assumptions—and by ‘our’ I mean publishers, booksellers, book reviewers &c—that lead us to publish history books for Father’s Day and fiction and memoir for Mother’s Day? Are these based on data or merely stereotypes?”

The Guardian builds on the Slate piece with some insights into the UK scene.  Spoiler alert – it’s pretty much the same depressing picture.

In the UK, the skew is just as dramatic. Figures from Nielsen BookScan show that last year, there were just four solo female authors appearing in the top 50 bestselling history titles … in 2014, all top 10 bestselling military history titles in the UK were by men. Two women make the top 10 in general history, Beard and Catherine Bailey, while three make the top 10 in history and political memoirs. The book trade magazine’s preview of 2015 titles in history, politics and war highlights 57 books. Thirteen are by women, with one other having a female co-author.

The Guardian article goes on to explore the bias in interesting ways, looking at why there’s still very much a sense that serious history is written by men – books about war or politics – and that women are more likely to tackle fashion, or biographies of queens or mistresses.  And why are there so few women historians on tv, given the huge boost in sales provided by such exposure?

As usual there are plenty of questions, not so many answers.

The Informed Imagination: Drusilla Modjeska discusses writing The Mountain

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TheMountainAustralian writer Drusilla Modjeska has written an insightful and thought-provoking article in Meanjin about writing her latest book, The Mountain.

I fear the excerpt below might make the article seem like hard work but it’s definitely not.  The piece provides a fascinating glimpse into the decisions, difficulties and responsibilities of writing.

… it was, for me, a kind of liberation to come to understand that fiction stands on different ground from history. There is scope for play along the borderlines, but there is also a ravine, to use Inga Clendinnen’s word for it, or at least a rocky valley, which we should respect. From the point of view of writing, there is, I think, an epistemological necessity for even the most literary of nonfiction writers to act as the lens through which we can trust, or evaluate, or revisit for ourselves the selection, presentation and interpretation of the lives and events put before us. The nonfiction writer might use the techniques of fiction to bring lifeness to her lives and to conjure the paradox of difference. But her pact with the reader, and her subject, returns always to the record, however patchy, however interrupted, from which she works. Fiction makes a different pact. It might contain argument, but it is not an argument; it involves interpretation, but to make it depends not on reference to the sources (important though they might be) but on perspective and patterning, voice and language, metaphor and image.

Have a read and use the comments to let me know what you think.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Sex and writing

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You can probably have sex without writing but it seems (this week at least) that writing without sex* is impossible.

The Daily Beast’s Mark Dery explains in this article how Strunk and White’s famously popular The Elements of Style is in fact a call to reject feminine, or flowery, prose.

“No book is genuinely free from political bias,” George Orwell wrote, in his essay “Why I Write.” “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” The opinion that the canon laws of usage, composition, and style—our unquestioned assumptions about what constitutes “good prose”—have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. Obviously, it’s easier for you to make out my meaning if the pane you’re peering through isn’t some Baroque fantasy in stained glass. But the Anglo-American article of faith that clarity can only be achieved through words of one syllable and sentences fit for a telegram is pure dogma. The Elements of Style is as ideological, in its bow-tied, wire-rimmed way, as any manifesto.

Meanwhile, Catherine Nichols over at Jezebel was tired of receiving rejection slips for her unpublished novel.  So she sent it out under a male name.  No prizes for guessing the depressing result – the responses she was offered as a man were far more encouraging than those she received as a woman.  For the same novel.

Nichols mostly sent the draft with male name to one set of agents, the draft with a female name to a different set.

…but I did overlap a little. One who sent me a form rejection as Catherine not only wanted to read George’s book, but instead of rejecting it asked if he could send it along to a more senior agent.

Nichols’ discussion of the implications of this experiment is thoughtful and thought-provoking.  The Guardian thought it was worth a look too (although the comments are so predictable as to make you weep).

As I’ve mentioned already over at Whispering Gums I think this (relatively) new focus on gender bias is in fact the real Third Wave of feminism. The first wave focused on human rights, the second focused on legal rights and only now do we begin to be publicly aware of the intrinsic and insidious culturally embedded nature of gender bias.

It is particularly telling that even the Arts industries – including publishing of course – are susceptible. Calling out this bias, drawing attention to it, is a good thing. And possibly the only way to address it? The Stella Prize is a clear and positive example.

But I also wonder if we need to move towards blind assessments.  Using orchestras as an example, a switch to blind auditions can explain between 30% and 55% of the increase in the proportion female among new hires.

Some short story competitions require a cover page with contact details but the story itself to be in a separate file without the author’s name.  There’s no reason why job applications – or unpublished novels – can’t be assessed in the same way.  Yes, of course the people doing the assessment would discover the applicant’s gender at interview but at least that first bias hurdle would be removed.  So I’m off to think about how I might implement it in my own workplace…

 

* OK, yes.  I mean gender.  But I bet I caught your attention….

Where does non-fiction end and fiction begin?

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Truth-or-LiesBack in April I drew your attention to a marvelous review by Janet Malcolm of the non-fiction work of Joseph Mitchell.  In the course of the review Malcolm makes the startling revelation that his non-fiction is substantially enhanced by the (recently discovered) fictional additions.

Mitchell’s travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat. His impatience with the annoying, boring bits of actuality, his slashings through the underbrush of unreadable facticity, give his pieces their electric force, are why they’re so much more exciting to read than the work of other nonfiction writers of ambition.

Malcolm’s point also caught the attention of Catherine K Buni, a writer whose articles and essays have been published or anthologized by The Atlantic online, The New York Times, The Rumpus, Soul of the Sky, and The Writer, among others.  Buni’s fascinating essay, ‘Pants on Fire: The Genre That Cannot Be Named‘, has been published on The Millions.

Given everything we know, why do nonfiction writers continue to make stuff up and not tell readers? Given everything we know, why do readers continue to feel betrayed and outraged when nonfiction writers do this?

The essay is worth reading for itself, but it also contains links to a wide range of fascinating books:  some that illustrate her point, others that illuminate it.  I’m a sucker for books about writing and Buni’s list includes:

  • Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations on the Fringes of Nonfiction, Naomi Kimbell
  • You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction, Lee Gutkind
  • A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, Robin Hemley
  • Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, Gish Jen
  • The Lifespan of a Fact, Jim Fingal & John D’Agata

Right, well, that’s my birthday request list right there….