Sunday, December 11, 2016

Blog CCXVII (217): What is Your Purpose?

Several of the recent posts have focused on writing and publishing--the two are different things.  One issue that has not been discussed much is the purpose of the historical writing.  Another way of putting it is: who is your audience?

There are two interesting essays on this topic that I am recommending.  The first is Adam Hochschild's "Do You Need a License to Practice History," which was published in the March/April issue of Historically Speaking.  Hochschild teaches writing in the graduate journalism program at the University of California, Berkeley.  He makes it clear that if you want to write to a larger audience there is basically only way to do it:
If you want a lot of readers to pay attention, you usually have to write narrative history, and to do that you have to bring characters alive. But there is always the temptation to go overboard and imply that Abraham Lincoln single-handedly freed America’s slaves, that Eisenhower alone won World War II, or that it was the wisdom of Washington and Jefferson that created the American nation and has guided us beneficently to the present day.  
As any look back at your high school year book will reveal, there is a downside in chasing popular fads:
The greatest danger in writing history for the general public is a more hidden one: letting popular taste, or publishers’ ideas of popular taste, determine your subject matter. This can bar the door to good writing even more firmly than the conventional image of what a Ph.D. thesis should be. Big publishers can be very small-minded. And writers are dependent on them, because earning a living by writing history outside the academy is extremely difficult.
Hochschild avoids the mistake of arguing that those do not publish large are writing poor books.  In fact, he knows better:
The craft of history inside the academy is immeasurably more rigorous, more accurate, and more thoughtful and wide-ranging than it was a century ago. It is no longer a history merely of presidents and kings, but of ordinary people, of women, of the dispossessed. It makes use of the tools of statistics, sociology, anthropology, and more. Refereed scholarly journals and university presses following the same model have produced an enormous wealth of sophisticated and reliable material that had few equivalents in 1870 or 1880.
With that said, he sees no reason why a historian cannot both be rigorous, analytical and engaging:
There is no reason why most history can’t be written in a way that offers thought-provoking analysis and, at the same time, reaches well beyond an audience of fellow scholars. Plenty of people span both worlds.
The editors of the journal then arranged for responses from 17 scholars, including H. W. Brands, John Demos, Joseph J. Ellis, John Ferling, John Lukacs, and Jay Winik. Since Historically Speaking has gone out of business, it is a bit tricky in getting electronic copies of this entire exchange, and I will recommend that if any of your are interested in looking at the full record, you obtain a copy through your library.

Two years later, Gordon Wood, the Alva O. Way University Professor Emeritus at Brown University, wrote "In Defense of Academic History Writing," which was published in the April 2010 issue of Perspectives on History.  Wood, who won both a Pulitzer and Bancroft Prize, knows something about writing but his essay is exactly what its title suggests.  He first begins by dismissing certain critiques:
Academic historians have not forgotten how to tell a story. Instead, most of them have purposefully chosen not to tell stories; that is, they have chosen not to write narrative history. Narrative history is a particular kind of history-writing whose popularity comes from the fact that it resembles a story.
He also notes that many of these scholars are not trying to tell stories that will have wide appeal:
So advising academic historians that they have to write more stimulating prose if they want to enlarge their readership misses the point. It is not heavy and difficult prose that limits their readers; it is rather the subjects they choose to write about and their conception of their readership as fellow historians engaged in an accumulative science. 
Both Hochschild and Wood have important points that are worth considering.  Hochschild is right in that many more historians could probably go popular without hurting their scholarship.  But Wood is correct when he says that much scholarship does not lend itself to a three-part story arc no matter how dramatic.  In the end, it is up to the author to know the reason they are investing all the time and effort into the project.   

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