Aussie scholar says historians are neglecting storyteller role

Historians in the News

HISTORY has been "dulled down" by focusing exclusively on analysing evidence and argument, with historians neglecting their role as storytellers.

Award-winning historian Peter Cochrane is urging his colleagues to look to the narrative techniques of literature to recreate the past in a vivid and lively way.

Cochrane, an inaugural winner of the Prime Minister's Prize for Australian History, said historians should be able to cross freely into the territory of novelists and poets to use their techniques of plot, character, and imagination.

"We spend a great deal of our time on the intricacies of analysis, evidence evaluation and argument while we tend to neglect the literary side of history writing," he says in a speech prepared for this week's Australian History Teachers Association annual conference in Brisbane.

"This, I think, is an old, ingrained prejudice. Historians tend to see themselves as social scientists, as scholars whose job it is to 'write up' or report on their findings, rather than as writers whose job it is to create or imagine the past, to captivate anaudience.

"We should be crossing boundaries and borrowing what we can from fiction, or at least from fiction writers ... in terms of structuring and vivifying a story."

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Herbert Barger - 5/21/2009

Historians should write what they consider history in a truthful and WELL researched manner. Some recent historians writing books on the Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study are completely "out on a limb", YET they win fancy book awards.Is it familiarity with the subject or the book judges that are misleading the public? If interested in truthful and detailed inside reporting on this controversy please click on: and

Please watch for a hard hitting behind the scenes book, "In Defense of Thomas Jefferson, The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal." The book is due out June 9, 2009.

Herb Barger
Jefferson Family Historian
Founder, The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society

Gregory Canellis - 10/1/2008

There has always been a fine line between good historical analysis and exciting story-telling. Here in the USA, my pet peeve are journalists who think they are historians. They have at their disposal the best editing teams money can buy. The result, exciting narrative with less than standard historical methods. Some academic historians, however, tend to lean the other way: good historical methods coupled with dull writing. What historians must remember is their responsibility to teach history through good story telling, and stop concentrating so much on writing for their fellow historians.