While I claim to be a writer, my writing scope is really quite constrained, non fiction with an analytical and predominantly historical focus. I try to write with clarity, I try to be interesting, but my writing is still constrained by its form and purpose. I have also experimented with different forms with varying success including poetry (disastrous), short stories (just okay) and memoir (reasonable) as a way of varying my writing style. Because I lecture as well as write, the two forms are very different, I have acquired a certain facility in oral presentation.
I was reminded of all this listening to the ABC Radio National film critic Jason Di Rosso interviewing Italian-American film maker Jonas Carpignano with a special focus on his latest film A Chiara. It was a good interview, but two things interested me in particular.
The first was the way that Carpignano's three feature films all centred on different stories set in a single Calabrian town, Gioia Tauro. This is now Jonas's home town. In filming, he had to work in a way that would tell a story while being respectful of the local community. This required a degree of trust. I face something of the same problem, compounded by the fact that while Carpignano's films are fiction, my writing often deals with living people or their families.
The second was the discussion on film craft, the way in which Jonas's apparently free-flowing semi-documentary style concealed careful attention to detail in a structured approach designed to achieve his filmic objectives. In writing terms, I think of this as the creation of texture, the provision of the detail necessary to create a story.
In writing, in film, in plays, in art, indeed in all forms of performance, there is an interaction between the work and the audience. This is not a simple process.
Consider a play. The playwright has an idea as to the story and the way it should be presented, but once completed it is out of the writer's hands. It will be interpreted by producer and cast in ways that may diverge from the author's intent. Then it will be interpreted again by the audience. Here there are in fact three works, the play as written, the play as presented and the play as interpreted by members of the audience.
I sometimes call myself a public historian. By this I mean partly that I write from outside the academy, more that I am seeking to interest and involve a broader audience in the topics I select. Over the hundreds of columns that I have written, I am (if you like) trying to sell both history and the topics I am interested in. I regard my writing as successful it it gives my readers new insights, if it leads them to further reading or, perhaps most importantly, if it leads them to challenge me.
Writing in this way I rarely use footnotes or identify sources, although in most cases I can if asked. This habit of mine appals some academic historians. They regard it as a professional breach. To some, the purists, the only genuine history is that based exclusively on primary sources.
I really challenge this last view. I am fortunate to have a reasonable library including many older texts, most now consigned to the dustbin in our current digital age where only the most recent or most popular are regarded as worthy of retention. Just because a book is older or in some way now old-fashioned does not prevent it offering insights in general or as an artefact of its time.
I follow a somewhat different approach when writing as a professional historian, I am now seeking to advance knowledge of a particular topic. I still wish to interest, to explain, but I am now bound by the canons of history as a discipline. Here long ago I absorbed the simple message that knowledge is only knowledge if it is potentially refutable. If it cannot be refuted, at least in theory, it's more a matter of faith and belief. This means that I must present my evidence in ways that allow my evidence and arguments to be checked and challenged.
Looking back over my own writing, the type of issues referenced in this note have been a constant preoccupation of mine. Here are a few examples:
- Tuesday, January 22, 2008 History and the changing meaning of words
- Wednesday, January 23, 2008 The changing meaning of words and the historian's craft
- Thursday, January 24, 2008 Selection, perception and bias in the historian's craft
- Thursday, April 07, 2011 Problems with literature & locale