A few years back, a colleague — meaning a fellow academically-trained academic historian working in academia — called me a whore.
Well, maybe not actually called me a whore. He informed me, with just enough of a fake laugh to be able to toss it off as being “in jest,” though it obviously wasn’t, that I had “whored myself.” Presumably for The Muse.
This came up because HarperCollins (or, rather, Smithsonian Books, through HarperCollins) had just published my first book “for the trades” — what some people call “popular history” — and it was a very new thing for my department. This was The Drillmaster of Valley Forge, my biography of the Baron de Steuben, and though it was the first biography of Steuben to appear in print since the late ’30s, and though it was based almost entirely on manuscript sources, it was written as pure, unadulterated, unapologetic narrative, with a minimum (read “none”) of historiography, and with analysis disguised as much as possible with narrative.
The junior faculty member who said this hadn’t published anything more than a couple of articles; Drillmaster was my fifth book. The comment didn’t sting, not really. I had two academic monographs (both on early modern Denmark) under my belt, plus two survey texts (one on early modern Sweden, the other on early modern Denmark, the latter commissioned by Oxford UP UK), and so I had nothing to prove. As I had informed any colleague who was interested enough to ask, I started writing “for the trades” for one reason in particular: that, when I was a kid, I wanted to be Bruce Catton. Historical research was a passion in and of itself, but mainly what I wanted to do was to write literature about history, with the emphasis on “literature,” to make readers feel something about the history they were reading…just as Catton did for me, the very first time I read Mr. Lincoln’s Army. I think that that’s an honorable ambition: to write history that non-specialists want to read, without sacrificing scholarly integrity, without entirely standing on the shoulders of giants as “popular historians” are frequently accused of doing.
I have a foot in each camp, so to speak: I’ve written academic prose, lots of it, for the consumption of academics, and I’ve written “popular” history for a much, much broader audience. There are merits to both; both, I feel, are necessary. Without “narrow” and specialized academic history, popular historians wouldn’t have much material with which to work; without popular history…well, I’ll get around to that.
So the current flurry of “attacks” on academic writing, academic scholarship, and academic history bothers me: recently by Paul Ham, last month in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof. And academics, especially academic historians, have fired back, probably most eloquently in Paula Michaels’ piece today. I applaud the academic rejoinders, and for the most part I agree with them. For the most part. To quote Paula Michaels, “the changing terrain of public engagement allows for a multiplicity of voices and forms of expression.” She’s right. The study of history needs scholars who focus on the smaller issues, the topics that are vital to our understanding of past worlds but may not contain a compelling narrative to attract readers outside the academy, the subjects that aren’t necessarily “sexy” to lay readers. I get that. Hell, I’ve lived it. It’s not fair to lash out at academic historians for doing something that they need to do, something that addresses — ultimately — a larger purpose. Besides, a great deal of “popular history” is carelessly executed in everything but quality of prose.
What bothers me, though, is the notion — expressed in many ways, but again to quote Paula Michaels — that “the publishing of popular history is driven not by how scholars write, but by what readers are willing to buy.” It bothers me on two levels. First of all, because it’s not just popular history that is driven by what readers are willing to buy. Academic publishers are just as guilty of following trends and fads, promoted from within the academy or otherwise. Academic historians are just as limited by what’s fashionable to research/write as popular historians are. Don’t believe me? Just ask anyone who works in a topical field not currently enjoying much airtime in mainstream academic journals, or a geographical field considered “peripheral.”
This is precisely why I stopped working in Scandinavian history. Not because it wasn’t important; it indeed was. I went into Scandinavian history precisely because it was considered peripheral when it clearly wasn’t peripheral, namely in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It wasn’t easy convincing a community of European historians sold on an almost exclusively Anglo-French narrative of history that Denmark — the largest Protestant state in pre-Westphalian Europe — might be worthy of any attention at all, while the profession had infinite room for books on the most trivial aspects of Tudor-Stuart history. It’s just one example, I know, but my point is this: the lay readership demands books about topics they know and are comfortable with. So, too, do academic historians. It’s just that their horizons are a bit less narrow.
There’s another message implicit in the counterattack of my fellow academics, justifiably defending the value and significance of their work, and it too is a message I can’t agree with: that academic historians are ignored by a larger reading public not because their writing isn’t up to snuff, it’s because of the subjects they pursue.
To an extent, this is correct. I’ll admit it. There have been topics I’ve had an eye on, but retreated from when my agent (and I’m not complaining here, mind you; my agent is wonderful, and knows the market much much better than I do) informed me that “no publisher will buy that.” Choice of subject does make a difference. Does that mean that choice of subject is the only thing holding academic historians back from writing popular history? God, no. It doesn’t take a literary scholar to compare the prose of one of the better popular historians and prose extracted from a “typical” academic monograph and find the latter utterly wanting. Editors in the world of trade publishing like academics for what they know, but are skeptical about their ability to write. Sometimes that’s because we, as academic historians, are trained to write turgid, lifeless prose, to drown the reader in historiography as a means of demonstrating that we’re contributing something to a larger debate, to eschew and even scoff at narrative. It’s not easy to break away from that. And not everybody can. It’s not a matter of inclination; not everybody can be an effective writer of effective prose. Probably most of us have colleagues for whom “good writing” means never ever writing passives, beginning a sentence with “And” or “But,” or remembering to include a comma between the penultimate item in a list and the word “and.”
For us, as academic historians, to tell ourselves that “there’s nothing wrong with the way we write — it’s the readers’ fault for not being interested in what we’re writing about!” — that strikes me as possibly dangerous. It does indeed have something to do with the dissonance between what readers want to read and what we want to write about. But that’s not everything. Much academic prose is genuinely horrible; ignoring that, or — worse — blaming it on the pedestrian tastes of our evasive readership, will only serve to perpetuate the worst literary habits encountered in our profession. If anything, academic historians should take a much closer look at what it is that popular historians do right before we dismiss them.
And that leads me back to the “whoring” anecdote. Maybe the critics of academic history are off-base, but it’s not as if academic historians don’t commit the same offense in reverse. I’ve rarely been in a situation where I’ve had to defend my academic monographs to an “outsider,” but hardly a week goes by where I don’t explain/apologize for/defend my trade books to a fellow academic. If university-based historians — us — want larger and different audiences, then perhaps we should take a closer look at those audiences and what draws them to history…and then take a harder look at ourselves.