By Richard Trembath
Cassius: Did Cicero say anything?
Casca: Aye, he spoke Greek.
Cassius: To what effect?
Casca: Nay, an I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you I’ the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another, and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.[i]
In February 2010 the late Stuart Macintyre wrote in the Australian Book Review that it was ‘a commonplace that historians do not know how to write, except to each other in ways that put other readers to sleep’. After this bald statement comes:
The first advice to the author of any newly minted dissertation preparing a book proposal is to eliminate all reference to the thesis. [ii]
This blunt criticism of his colleagues’ work comes from Macintyre’s review of the excellent work by Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath, How to Write History That People Want to Read. The book should be a compulsory purchase for any person about to commence postgraduate historical study and with ambitions of future publication. There is little evidence though that such a happy state of affairs is about to occur, especially within the academy. What follows is my abbreviated take on what I have called ‘the obligation to communicate.’ It is a small offering in comparison to Curthoys and McGrath and is based on my experience within the university system and I think the overall message is significant. As the title of my article suggests, I am arguing for the importance, the crucial importance, of ‘the reader’ in the historical writing process. In A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens describes Scrooge as being as close to his first ghostly visitor as the author was to his reader – ‘I am standing in the spirit at your elbow’. It’s not a bad place for an historian, whether budding or venerable, to imagine themselves to be.[iii]
Like many others I have spent much time editing other’s work, whether professionally or as a friend or colleague, peer reviewing, assessing postgraduate theses and reviewing published historical articles or books. I have observed that on frequent occasions the author’s deep research and significant themes have been marred by circumlocution, jargon, lack of clarity and, overall, a failure to be kind to a wider audience. If I were being harsh, I would suggest that they are writing to a coterie rather than an audience.
Do others believe like me that there is a one size fits all thesis model existing within the humanities and social sciences in Australian universities? There is the Introduction, that is to be expected, then there is a literature review with its inevitable account of what one’s predecessors failed to discuss or interpreted incorrectly, and how this particular issue, person, group or segment has been ignored by earlier historians. In the substantive portion of their thesis, postgraduate students are asked to state the case, state it again when closing out chapters, and, in the conclusion, send their overall argument one last time around the track. On several occasions I have raised the issue of the structural similarity of postgraduate theses and the adverse effects this has on readability and development of an individual style. I cannot say that I received much support. One popular response was to say that ‘the thesis was but a first step in a career, an extended learning exercise. Refinements could come later.’ Such an approach produces what I call the muffin effect. Consider the oversized muffins you get in cafés. They always seem to me a protracted exercise in ingesting a face washer. Whenever you think you are finished, there is a lot of it left.
Now consider the importance of the refereed journal article, that essential means to accruing points for promotion and grants. Very good articles stand out blatantly. Many others do not. In Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), which is still the funniest novel written about university historians, our hero, Jim Dixon, is baulked by something he is reading.
[He notes] the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what?
In 2023 Jim Dixon might be more bothered by the jargon in many articles. To be fair, here, history is less an offender than other disciplines such as cultural or media studies, social anthropology, literary theory, and second-generation post-modernism. History has not been ridiculed as was cultural studies in 1996 when American mathematician Alan Sokal wrote a hoax article arguing for the social basis of quantum gravity and had it accepted by Social Text. Unlike some French social theorists, historians have eschewed borrowing mathematical and physics concepts and distorting them so badly they snap. Yet, the ‘-ism problem’ has affected Australian history since I was a student. During my first bout of postgraduate studies in the late 1970s psycho-history was voguish with psychoanalysis enjoying an Indian summer of its now extinct influence. By the early eighties ‘hermeneutics’ had been borrowed from Heidegger and others, and ‘phenomenology’ from Husserl. In 1994 Keith Windschuttle published The Killing of History, bemoaning the influence of post-modernism in undermining the discipline’s claims to objectivity and truth finding. (It was far more popular with the book buying public than the works it debunked.) I am not endorsing Windschuttle’s opinions on most subjects, nor am I arguing that hermeneutics and phenomenology do not offer useful perspectives and models for historians. But theory must be digested fully by the historian. It should not simply provide a fancy pants superstructure, designed to impress a tiny group of like-minded academics. We need meaning rather than display – a mixture then of Humpty and Alice:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”[iv]
Ernest Hemingway argued for the value of Four Rules for Writing Well which dated back to his time as a reporter on the Kansas City Star in 1917. These are:
- Use Short Sentences
- Use Short First Paragraphs
- Use Vigorous English
- Be Positive, Not Negative
In fact, though sometimes attributed to Hemingway, these principles were not his own creation, but were supplied by his bosses on the Kansas City newspaper. I would subscribe to the last three, with strong reservations about over-doing short, staccato sentences. But in an article endorsing the above rules the International Association of Business Communicators, advised that:
Your job as a writer – or editor – is to make life easy for your audience. Forcing the reader to navigate through a bunch of long, complex sentences is like forcing him/her to hack through the jungle with a machete.[v]
And that is a useful text, to place on the wall, I think.
An imaginary reader has been waving their hand in the air trying to attract my attention. Some genres of history demand specialist language, they argue. And, of course, they would be correct. I shall provide just one example – economic history. This genre can make the non-mathematically inclined adopt the fetal position, and many of its products are directed at a specialist audience. Yet technical language is mandatory here. Take ‘standard deviation’, a statistical evergreen, which is defined as the square root of the sum of the squares of the differences divided by the number of elements in the group of data one is considering. Sounds nasty perhaps, but unlike some terms used on the cultural studies fringe of history this meaning is precise and exclusive. It does not spray the English language around like an indiscriminate shotgun, nor is it a nomadic neologism or a borrowing from an inappropriate lexicon.
Finally, there is the uncertain writer, the one whose grammar is patchy, whose sense of structure is dubious, and who is averse to the chore of editing. Here, I am proceeding cautiously for these are not ubiquitous problems, just common enough to be irritating. Some late-stage manuscripts are not actually late-stage, or anywhere near it in terms of editing, glitches and so forth. Consequently, friendly readers can end up, if not as co-authors, then very close to it, almost qualifying for a mention on the front cover. Some postgraduates have not properly edited the penultimate draft of their theses, perhaps expecting their supervisors to perform this crucial task. Worse are those postgraduates who submit the ‘completed’ product, still replete with glitches, omissions and infelicities, expecting that there will be two stages of the assessment process. In the first stage the external markers will indicate the corrections to be made before the thesis finally earns its author a gown and a silly hat.
People from one era have been mourning the passing of largely mythical golden ages since antiquity. In those glorious days, things were better all round, and standards were maintained. Whippersnappers knew what the subjunctive was or at least pretended they did. I am not a great believer in golden ages, though I am damn certain this is not one for Australian higher education. And though in this piece I might have sounded like the old bore reproving the present, I believe there is one significant reason for ensuring that Australian historians communicate to as wide an audience as possible, and that is to counter the slurry of lies, distortions and opportunistic politics which currently distorts Australian public life. And isn’t that the aim of Australian Policy and History?
[i] Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2.
[ii]Australian Book Review, February 2010, no. 318.
[iii] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol & Other Christmas Books, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, p. 28. A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843.
[iv] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Chapter VI.
[v]International Association of Business Communicators, Chicago, Hemingway’s 4 Rules for Writing Well.