Narrative Tension


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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24 Responses

  1. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Narrative tension is why academic historians get frustrated at popular historians. The Great Person Theory of History isn’t really popular with academic historians of any political persuasion. For most people its the drama of history that makes it exciting. A lot of the public might not necessarily agree with the Great Person Theory of history, they might not even know what it is but they like it dramatic. Thats why the most popular histories tend to be about heroic or villainous individuals, big important events like war battles unusually exciting eras and places rather than the smaller topics considered important by academic historians.Report

    • Avatar El Muneco in reply to LeeEsq says:

      That’s one reason why I like James Burke’s take on history of science and technology so much. He does create a kind of narrative, but the main character in the narrative is the science. We watch the events that will come to shape the narrative, but the people involved – even the Edisons and Galileos – never take over.

      And he manages to bring off conveying that there’s no preordained destination for the narrative, no overarching plan. Everyone plays their roles with just the information available to them, and does what seems appropriate at the time. The story of us is only one of a myriad of possible stories, and that makes the intricacy and sweep all the more beautiful for it.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Oh, I found this to be true when I taught a course on Napoleon. There weren’t a ton of recent academic monographs on the topic and the ones I could find the students hated.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Napoleon’s a guy you can make a pretty plausible Great Man argument for. He pretty well transformed Europe, for better or for worse: organized civil service, Civil Code of laws, public education, removal of internal tariff barriers, elected municipal government, modern ideas of the nation-state (and of nationalism), abolition of serfdom. The territory of the Holy Roman Empire went from a basically feudal system of government to having the mechanisms of a modern state over the course of a decade.

        You’re the history prof, so please correct me if I’m wrong.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:


      The Great Person Theory of History isn’t really popular with academic historians of any political persuasion.

      I was all set to get in a huff and disagree, but as I examine my own assumptions, those of most* academic historians I know, and the assumptions present in most* of the monographs and other professional historical works I’ve read so far, I have a hard time finding any counter-examples.

      *”Most” here is more of a courtesy and a catchall. I don’t recall finding any examples, but it’s quite possible I’m mis-remembering.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        There might be some academic historians who are still interested in the Great Person Theory but most academic historians from the Baby Boom generation or after will have a distaste for it.Report

      • It is hard to think of examples. Honestly, most academics find greatness pretty foreign personally and professionally! So, they tend not to write about great men.

        That said, what I do in the book is more common: writing about a minor and forgotten person who just happened to be there. It’s not so much a book about Hemingway as about what it must have been like to be a lesser writer whose close friend became very successful as a writer while he remained on earth. That’s probably easier to relate to!Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Is there some sort of grand finale you can hint at?

    People love it when you do the whole “shave and a haircut” knock three or four times before culminating in “TWO BITS!”Report

  3. Avatar Kim says:

    Rejection letters work differently in the magazine business (at least from my friend the editor’s perspective, which was science fiction). They were as caustic as you seem to crave (in part to bolster an author’s flagging enthusiasm with rage at the editor, rather than despair at how horrid his writing is) — but most stories worth a rejection letter got published.

    With books, it’s a different story — there’s little incentive to invest in authors, and reading and editing a book takes a lot longer than a short story.Report

  4. I seems to me that simply by considering the project at the very outset, you engaged beginning, middle and end. The beginning, that first glimpse of the idea, now the middle, and the end the book itself. As you point out that is artificial in that it elevates the project, the book, to an organizing principle. But how else do we get anything done? The self may be an illusion, but it’s a useful one.

    So it’s not a question of if, but how much.

    I wonder how much these issues relate to the life of your great great grandfather. Or, are you your GGGF’s son? I’m guessing you feel some kind of connection – why else do this? So of course it’s Freudian and then perhaps Oedipal in the best sense of the word.

    Oedipus Rex concludes with this:

    So while we wait to see that final day,
    we cannot call a mortal being happy
    before he’s passed beyond life free from pain.

    I hope this is helpful in some episodic, contingent way. Best of luck.Report

    • The weird thing is I read his letters and his articles and he actually sounds like one of my family members. I recognize the weird sense of humor and the way he describes people, even though he was dead for about 25 years when I was born. My thought is that I get my sense of humor from my father and he might have gotten it from his grandfather, although I have to say that my grandfather was one of the least amusing people I’ve ever met.Report