I have been listening to Tolstoy this week at work, Anna Karenina. He is a great writer, and his novels are not short but rather prodigious in their length. And yet I have found none of it superfluous. Everything is a necessary part of what he is doing, at least from my vantage, half-way through Anna Karenina. There are many books I have read which include a wealth of detail superfluously. But Tolstoy includes what he does because it is part of the story. He takes as long as it takes to tell his story so that every episode, each vignette, all of it is done with a clear purpose. He knows how to tell the story, how to put together the parts in the right order; and when he is done, I marvel and I despair.
I think this is not unlike historiography. The historian must seek to tell the story by putting it together correctly and without superfluous details. The difference is that the historian does not have the difficulty of creating the circumstances and situations. The historian must discover them. And while the historian may err in including more than should be included, he also runs the risk of excluding any bit of the circumstances that make up a situation.
Both literature and historiography depend upon the knowledge of people. Exploring their motives and circumstances so that the situation, as it appears to the agent or agents coming together to make the story, is the task of the historian and the writer of good literature. This skill of being able to put together the story in the right way is a high one and requires cultivation. And I think the higher art of the two is that of the man who creates literature. For I think it requires greater abilities for the sub-creation of a story—since so much must be taken into account—than it does to discover a story. Tolstoy, I understand, labored long and hard making sure all his characters had a history and were as real as possible. He was like Tolkien in his concern to have a real world. This world both of them loved, the world of good stories, is the one created by God. Tolstoy and Tolkien help us to take greater joy in our Father’s works. And this is also the work of the historian.