Monday musings on Australian literature: The Conversation’s Writing History

This is the post I planned for last week, when Jessica White hijacked me. Like that post, this one too was inspired by another person, this time my historian brother who sent me a link to an article in a new series by The Conversation called Writing History. This series aims to “examine the links, problems and dynamics of writing, recording and recreating history, whether in fiction or non-fiction”. A topic, as regular readers here will know, of interest to me.

I’m not sure how many articles are planned for the series, but here are the five that have been published to date:

I haven’t read them all yet, but I have read the first two, and dipped into another. In the first one, Nelson and de Matos explain that the series draws from essays that were published in a special issue of TEXT, an open-access academic journal. The issue is titled Fictional Histories and Historical Fictions, and its aim is to “get beyond … the often acrimonious exchanges between writers and historians that have been such a characteristic of the History Wars of the last ten years, with its boundary-riding rhetoric.”

The secret River cover

Now, if you are an Australian interested in this subject, you won’t be surprised to hear that both articles I’ve read refer to the conflict between historians and novelists inspired by Kate Grenville’s award-winning, best-selling novel The secret river – or, to be honest, by comments Grenville made about history in relation to her novel. Nelson and de Matos write that the question of who should interpret and write about the past and how the past should be taught or written about has been around for centuries but it was “made palpable” in the tussle over The secret river.

Nelson and de Matos discuss the accessibility of history – and the fact that historians can write accessible history, as proved by writers like Clare Wright in her award-winning The forgotten rebels of Eureka (my review). And they talk about the politicisation of history, referring to comments by politicians like Christopher Pyne bemoaning “the ostensible disappearance of western civilisation from the curriculum” and John Howard’s critiquing of “the black armband view of history”. While political interference is not a good thing, they suggest that in a sense, all history – in its relationship to debates about democracy, identity and social justice – is public history. It makes it even more critical, then, doesn’t it, that we understand what we are talking about and the grounds upon which we are doing it.

In the second article, Tom Griffiths tackles the intertwining of fiction and history. He argues that it was Eleanor Dark, a novelist, who confronted the complacent imperial view of history in Australia’s sesquicentenary, a view that ignored the place of “Aborigines, convicts and women”. She led the way in rethinking our history. Paradoxically, the poet Judith Wright, a few decades later, wrote a history, Cry for the dead, which “gave a secure scholarly foundation to the political campaign of the Aboriginal Treaty committee”. His point is that both writers chose the form that best suited their needs at the time. “Like Eleanor Dark”, he writes, “Judith Wright carefully set about becoming a historian”.

By 1990s, the idea of “frontier conflict” was an accepted part of our historiography but there was a conservative backlash which tried to discredit research by arguing detail such as the number of people who died “as if it decided the ethics of the issue”. It was into this “moral vacuum”, Griffiths writes, that books like Inga Clendinnen’s history Dancing with strangers (2003) and Kate Grenville’s novel The secret river (2005) appeared.

Unfortunately, Grenville’s comments on the value of fiction to history –

The voice of debate might stimulate the brain, the dry voice of ‘facts’ might make us comfortable, even relaxed. It takes the voice of fiction to get the feet walking in a new direction.

– got her involved in the wrong debates, in discussions about history and fiction rather than the topic she wanted, frontier violence. Griffiths suggested this occurred partly because of the timing, because the conservatives were interested, at that time, in debating the “precise, grounded, evidenced truths of history”. To debate on that ground you needed “time, place and specificity”. Grenville, in other words, “found herself at the centre of a debate that goes to the heart of the discipline of history”. I like this explanation. It explains for me some of the reactions to Grenville that never completely made sense, it explains why historians I admired came out so strongly against Grenville, whose story seemed to make a valid contribution to the discussion.

Griffiths concludes that history and fiction are “a tag team” in the study of the past, “sometimes taking turns, sometimes working in tandem”. “History doesn’t own the truth”, he writes, “and fiction doesn’t own the imagination”. We need to understand the distinctions and how they play out, but we shouldn’t see this discussion as “defending territory”.

I look forward to reading the other articles. But for now, I’ll close on a quote my brother also sent me last week. It’s from Jose Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey (2008):

… that is how it’s set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost. It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.

And so the discussion continues …

24 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: The Conversation’s Writing History

  1. What a brilliant piece, WG. A cousin – June WHITTAKER – wrote a brilliant trilogy of books on our common ancestor. Within the family there were (indeed no doubt are) conflicting versions of the story – and from without as well – despite/because of the documentary evidence. Things I have read and re-read and researched myself suddenly take on other meaning in the light of a change of perspective or emphasis or insight. I was in the National Portrait gallery three years ago. There was a portrait of Billy BLUE painted in the year of his death in Sydney Town – 1834. On loan from the NSW Public Library – the legend alongside stated that there was some confusion re his place of birth: He always said his place of birth was New York – but all documentary evidence showed Jamaica. In the September of that year my wife and I were in New York – landing at JFK Airport – in the district of – you guessed it – Jamaica. Cassandra PYBUS has written movingly and illuminatingly on Billy BLUE in essays and as a major chapter in one of her books. (This is a personal reflection, WG – slightly off the general thrust of your essay – but to get to Kate Grenville and The Secret River – this was the route that the ancestor took to bring his Windsor-produce to Sydney town – down the Nepean/ Hawkesbury and around back into Port Jackson. Kate Grenville’s novel gave me much understanding of how that important river/road came to be – at the expense of the Indigenous peoples. I’ve since stood by Solomon WISEMAN’s grave.)

    • Haha, Jim, love the Jamaica story … Traps for young players eh? I guess you’ve missed The secret river miniseries that has just aired. They did a good job with the book I think.

  2. Jamaica does not always, therefore, signify the West Indies! (As we of the British colonial connection usually understand it!)

  3. Oooh how fascinating this series sounds just on the basis of what you’ve read so far. I had no idea Grenville’s novel was so controversial – I bought it this year though haven’t yet read it. Now I shall look at it with a different perspective

    • Thanks Karen. Yes it, and her comments in particular, created quite a storm in historical and literary circles, but that was pretty irrelevant to general readers. You probably won’t have time, but her follow-up book about writing it, Searching for The secret river, is an excellent read.

  4. Thanks for the links to these articles – I’m looking forward to reading them – and your excellent summary of the debates. I wrote about The Secret River for the exegesis that accompanied my PhD novel The Heaven I Swallowed. I found the response to Grenville’s book fascinating – having done a lot of reading of historical texts for my own writing (and for a postcolonial honours thesis) I was amazed at how “controversial” the novel was considered. Personally, I found it quite unconvincing and much prefer Inga Clendinnen’s work. I also found Searching for The Secret River frustrating – she doesn’t actually reference one single historical text in this book and admits to visiting Alice Springs to “watch” Aboriginal people (without their permission!) All in all, I thought there were many issues around this book, particularly around her portrayal of indigenous peoples.

    • Thanks Rachel for your perspective. That’s interesting. I really enjoyed Searching for The secret river. I loved her discussion of the research process and of how and why she changed from planning a non-fiction to a fiction work. Interesting point about her not referencing historical texts in that book. I’d have to look at it again, but my off the cuff response would be that this book was more about the process than the content?? I guess it would be frustrating though if you were looking for content?

      I loved Dancing with strangers too. And I love Kim Scott’s That deadman dance. I think they all add to the discussion from a variety of perspectives, but I think one of Grenville’s strengths is that she brought the idea of frontier conflict into a more popular domain than these other writers and I think there’s a lot of value in that.

  5. Yes, I do agree that frontier conflicts – and, especially, the massacre depicted – was a good thing to get into the popular domain, as there are far too many people who don’t know about this history. I can see your point about Grenville writing about process but I guess I see historical texts as very important to a writer’s process and, as the book sets out to give us a step-by-step account of her journey, I thought it un-generous not to provide us with the references she read (not so much because I was looking for content but because it gives credit to the historians).

    • Thanks Rachel … fair enough point, though it wasn’t something that struck me. That said, I usually read author’s notes about their references, it they offer them – both in historical fiction and popular histories. It’s fascinating how much our individual experiences and perspectives affect our perceptions about what we read. I wonder what she would say if asked.

  6. Another nice, and apposite, quote from The Elephant’s Journey:

    ‘The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a motorway, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Sometimes scorpions crawl out or centipedes, fat white caterpillars or ripe chrysalises, but it’s not impossible that, at least once, an elephant might appear. . .’

    • Hmm, where did the reply I wrote to this go? I remember writing it. Maybe it’s under a stone with an elephant and one day they will both appear together. This does sound like a book I’d enjoy.

  7. Fascinating articles and a great discussion about them! In many ways that there is even tension seems silly to me, but I can also understand from the historian’s perspective, their desire for their work to be respected and for people to understand that history is more than just names and dates. I wonder if there will ever be a peace between novelists and historians?

    • Probably not completely, Stefanie. Perhaps the best we can ask for is an uneasy truce? And maybe that’s good? Maybe it keeps everyone honest if we aren’t all complacent?

  8. Does a work of historical fiction need references? I haven’t read this novel – mainly because I get too distressed about those aspects of our past which highlight the crassness and cruelty of our ancestors’ acts. (There is enough horror going on today without describing the past – I know! I know! We need to remember!) I did read and appreciate ‘Sarah Thornhill’, the sequel to the River, even though it refers to the dreadful massacre.

    • Good question LL. No, I don’t think it needs references at all, though I’m always interested if the author provides some information about his/her sources.

      If you’re referring to Rachel’s comment, I think she’s talking about Grenville’s book about writing it called Searching for The secret river.

      • EP Thompson’s Making Of the English Working Class is certainly a magnificent work both of social history and literature in its attempt to rescue so many voices from the enormous condescension of posterity.

        • Thanks Ian … the best histories are literature aren’t they? I really don’t know this author at all. (I do remember reading David Thomson’s Europe since Napoleon a long time ago! Does that count? I have no idea how he is viewed.)

        • I remember that! A very good textbook. EP Thompson can be read even if you are not studying for an exam!

  9. Haha Ian, I feel like you were reading my mind as the time when I really got into David Thomson was when I was supposed to be studying for my exams. I should have been reading over my notes … if EP Thompson is like that then I’d be in.

    • It is difficult to sum up a historian like Thompson in a few sentences. His most famous book – The Making Of the English Working Class published in, I think, 1963 is an enormous exploration of the formation of working class identity through the Industrial Revolution and is very much a book that explores the history of mentalities. The controversy over standards of living in the early 19th century, millenarian beliefs, the influence of Methodism for good or ill …all are explored by a writer steeped in Blake and Shelley. There have certainly been many challenges to Thompson’s ideas (and the world is much less sympathetic to Thompson’s New Left standpoint) but his masterpiece still has an enormous power.

      • Thanks for that Ian … I like the idea of reading an historian steeped in Blake and Shelley. I was just talking to my husband about the Industrial Revolution today. Such an interesting, significant, era.

  10. Hello, I’ve just discovered this fascinating post (only a few months late on a random googling of the history wars). Thanks for the overview and links to articles. It’s a troubling issue. I loved Grenville’s books, also Inga Clendinnen’s. For me, Grenville’s books feel psychologically true. But the ‘truth’ is such a subjective experience, in the present too. (We seen that play out each day on the covers of the Fairfax vs News Corp headlines; depending on your point of view, one of the papers reads like fiction.) The ways historians tease apart the past are reflections of the time they are working in as much as they are interpretations of the past. I do think a reference list of historical texts used by writers of fiction is respectful though. From memory, Geraldine Brooks’s are very comprehensive. Thanks again.

    • Never to late to join the conversation Lucy, so thanks for commenting here. What fun that you found me through random googling of history wars!

      Totally agree with you, as you would expect, re Grenville and Clendinnen. Love your comment that the newspapers read like fiction depending on your point of view. And yes, absolutely, “when” historians are writing, the context within which they are writing, plays a critical role.

      I also agree re novelists listing the books they consulted in an afterword (or some such). It’s not necessary (required), since they are writing fiction, but I do like it. Your point about its being respectful is fairly made.

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