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Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Further thoughts on historians vs popular marketplace

I like this article by Paula Michaels a lot, because she makes the significant point that
the path of popular history is closed to most historians because of the very subjects of their investigation. No amount of finesse with the written word would have put my first book, on the history of medicine and public health in Soviet Kazakhstan, on the shelves of Dymock’s. The publishing of popular history is driven not by how scholars write, but by what readers are willing to buy.
Speaking from my own experience, if I'd wanted to top the Amazon rankings in C20th biography, I wouldn't have written about a radical and penurious social activist who, towards the end of her life, saw the battles she had fought for continuing but not yet won. I'd have chosen some glamorous aristo or already well-known literary or artistic figure, or at the very least someone who had affairs with men of note or can be posited to be 'the original' for some literary character. However, that wasn't the research I wanted to do or the book I wanted to write.  Finding oneself gripped by a particular individual or group of individuals, rather than scanning the bestseller lists to see what's going well, drives a lot of people to create biography.

If one is thinking beyond the individual and about broader thematic topics, again, the bestselling areas are (at a guess) war, historical crimes especially involving horrible murders, and royalty. I don't deny that there are people doing work that is both popular and academically respectable on all of those topics, but those are not the only subjects of historical investigation and they don't light every historian's fire. I daresay, properly pitched, and given a sexy title like Subterranean Passions, Muck, and Brass a book on C19th municipal sewage reform might catch the public eye, given a few well-placed reviews and possibly interviews with the author (though one sometimes cynically thinks that being young and conventionally attractive is a significant asset for the latter).

Similar points are made in this powerful essay by Ludmilla Jordanova about heroic narratives in the history of science and the tensions that perhaps particularly affects museums between creating 'accessible ties with the fields they represent, while drawing on scholarship that is rooted in critical distance, in scepticism, even cynicism.'

We want to get our work across, but how far do we want it to be at the expense of complexity and nuance?

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