Recently on Twitter, Maureen Ogle suggested that we historians have ‘ceded the field’ of writing history for a mainstream audience. Journalists, novelists, and others, have filled the gap. I don’t entirely disagree, but I’m not sure I’d characterise it as ‘ceding’. Many historians just don’t have the access to the popular media and trade publishers that established journalists do.
Vida’s study of the under-representation of women in many literary venues—and the editorial responses to it—show that editors might not be consciously trying to keep women out, but they tend to stick with the (male) writers they already know. The same situation is probably true for academics trying to break into the mainstream market. If Harpers wants to run a historically themed piece, they’re likely to give that assignment to a writer they already work with, not start looking for an academic. Indeed, an academic is probably the last person they’d ask. Far from serving as a qualification to get one’s foot in the door, I’ve found that having a PhD in the subject area makes magazine editors very wary. One admitted as much to me, saying academics tend to be bad writers. I do want to engage a popular audience, I’m trying very hard to do so. So it’s not a case of my ceding anything, but not having the platform.
But are we, the experts, the best at communicating our knowledge of the past? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. William Cronon (President of the American Historical Association), rekindled the debate on whether academic writing is too dull to appeal to a wide audience, which prompted a range of replies, including that not everyone in academe wants to appeal to popular readers.
I tweeted recently about trying to peel the sticky resin of academese from my writing. Writing a PhD and various other academic works has made my writing worse than it was before. Mark Twain may have said that ‘Education is the path from cocky ignorance to miserable certainty’, but a PhD program is the path to miserable uncertainty. We use the passive voice, we equivocate, we acknowledge multiple interpretations of the the events of the past. Partly this is to pre-emptively fend off critiques from fellow academics, who will nail us for not addressing various sub-issues and tangential debates. We lack confidence. There’s an acquired style in academe, and I acquired it.
This confidence is partly why journalists and other non-academics can produce more readable, arresting, historical texts. Dan Snow (who has not passed through the confidence-eradication process of graduate school) has a Twitter account, Dan’s History Fact, in which he posts various nuggets of historical information, frequently incorrect. He’s been called out on this many times, but doesn’t seem to care. I mention this because any academic historian would have curled up dead from embarrassment at having posted so many things as historic ‘facts’ that were urban legends or just plain wrong. But why should Snow care? He still has a large number of followers.
I’m struggling right now to regain some confidence and authority in my writing. I received comments on a recent piece which could be summed up as ‘be less dull’. I have to remember how to write as myself, not as the platonic academic ideal. ■
Katrina Gulliver is a cultural historian and the author of Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender and Global Modernity Between the Wars, which looks at what it meant to be a ‘modern woman’ in the interwar period.
Residing in beautiful Munich, you can usually find her on Twitter @katrinagulliver.