Gender, history, and best-sellers

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a so-called “Founding Father” in possession of a good fortune must be in want of the twentieth biography written by a man in this century!

Why do I say this? I was alerted to this interesting fact sheet via Marla Miller on Twitter yesterday.  Go ahead and click it–I’ll wait.

Yes, that’s right:  of the top 23 best-selling history titles in 2014, (13 hardcover, 10 in paper), two were written by women, and twenty-one by men.  Here’s the reply I sent to Marla.  Here’s an excerpt from the draft of the book I just finished:

     . . . . The subjects of most biographies in any national history are men.  They are also overwhelmingly about men who lived in the modern world, and they reflect our contemporary preoccupation with modern history themes:  politics, economics, warfare, the nation-state, and so on.[i]  These biographies are also invested in a particularly modern kind of subjectivity, that of the heroic individual who bends history to his will.  He’s a man of singular genius, one whose fortunes aren’t made by his family, community, or the times in which he lived.

American biography, and especially early American biography, offers no exception to this rule.  Historians of the earliest decades of U.S. history have churned out biographies of the so-called “Founding Fathers” for audiences whose admiration for these men knows no limits.  This vision of biography is literally inescapable:  every day as I walk to my office in the Huntington Library to finish writing this book, I must walk the entire length of a larger-than-lifesize, hallway-length display on the life and career of George Washington, the man the exhibit calls “America’s greatest leader.”  It takes thirty of my brisk, purposeful strides to traverse the length of this tribute to Washington.  Traditional biographies like these commemorate only some kinds of power and politics, and avoid the rest.  The focus of these books is on both personal and national greatness, not the patriarchal, slaveholding world that permitted these privileged white men to rise to the top of their colonial society long before independence from Great Britain was ever imagined.  Stories about the sagacity, virtue, and political genius of our so-called “Founding Fathers” sell like hotcakes.  Stories that focus on the cruelty and exploitation of the many by the few in colonial North America might receive respectful reviews in academic journals, but they don’t move product.

[i]               Bonnie G. Smith, The Gender of History:  Men, Women, and Historical Practice (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1998; 2004); Judith Bennett, History Matters:  Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).  See also Joan Scott, “Back to the Future,” a review of History Matters in History and Theory 47:2 (2008), 279-84.

As we learned last month, being a man while teaching is something for women to consider as well.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go reserve as my new domain name.  While I’m away, please leave your peer reviews in the comments below.

21 thoughts on “Gender, history, and best-sellers

  1. I saw a teaser for the list, so hadn’t looked. So glad that those great scholars, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck have each contributed 2 books to the list. What’s also interesting is that several of the books have been out for some time. And that I’d heard of very few. Even books we think of as crossover books (Lepore’s Book of Ages) aren’t there…


  2. There is an additional factor that may be relevant for at least some of these titles. Authors Kilmeade, O’Reiley and Beck are not historians, they are part of the Fox News, etc., right-wing noisemaking machine. The Jack E. Levin book has a preface by his son (and frequent co-author) Mark, also prominent in conservative politics, media and think-tanks. Perhaps another author or two on that list are part of the same cohort.

    Of course, anyone can write a book on any topic, if the spirit moves them. That’s not the issue. What’s more to the point, is that the “sales” figures for these books often reflect the combined marketing push of TV and radio outlets like Fox, Limbaugh, Beck and similar, not an insignificant marketing “plus” in itself.

    Also, sales figures of such books, by conservative authors about stereotypically conservative/patriotic (and, not surprisingly, male) topics are often further inflated by bulk-purchase of titles by conservative organizations, which then distribute the books (for free or reduced cost) to their membership. Win-Win for everyone. Except honest historians and readers interested in a wider look at the diverse (and often ignored) threads of the historical tapestry.

    Here’s very informative older link from DailyKos explaining how this works:

    and another from the DailyBeast with a more recent example:

    Sorry for the long web addresses. I couldn’t figure out how to embed them.


  3. In fairness, I think this list should have been labeled “2014 Bestsellers in History-Like Substances.” O’Reilly and Beck could make bestsellers out of phonebooks because of their legions of true believers.

    But nothing by Jill Lepore? No Book of Ages or Wonder Woman?


  4. Reed–your comment got held back b/c of the linky goodness, so I apologize. But you, Susan, and undine make excellent points about the ways in which the system is rigged.

    What I left out of my Tweet advertising this post, in which I wondered if history writers and readers would ever change, is the role of publishers in all of this. Of course, publishers love to publish bullcrap by O’Reilly, Beck, and Kilmeade et al because of their built-in free marketing platform! Not to mention the absorption of much of the costs of publication by outfits like the ones described in the links Reed provides.

    Unless and until Lepore can get a regular guest gig like Doris KG on This Week or Meet the Press, or a show of her own (???), then she’s doomed to the back of the list with the rest of us. A superstar among academic historians, but if she doesn’t sell more than 25K books, more like the rest of us schmucks than the Big Boyz.


  5. Also, Lepore will want to knock off writing books about women, which she has done for the first time with these last two books (about Jane Franklin Mecom and WW). That’s a sure way to sell less than 30K books!!!

    Theresa and Stacy: I’d like to hear about strategy, but I’m so despondent that I don’t know if anything will help. Maybe we need to re-read Germane de Stael and popular historians like that from 200 years ago? Women fiction and non-fiction writers were totes the best-sellers of the 19th century, but I’m not sure we can imitate their successes given the ways in which readers, technology, and money have changed the politics of publication and publicity. We have to work with the publishers and publishing environment (even if we self-publish) we have, not the one we necessarily want or would prefer.

    And Lance: cheers to you! My book should be out in 2016, barring a major meltdown in peer review/production or personal crisis on my part.


  6. I don’t know how it would become a metric, and it would be of no interest to the masters of capitalism, but there should also be a list of the books “most *finished*.” My sense is that a lot of those Founders door-stoppers are much admired amid the wrapping around the Christmas tree, dutifully carried to the mythical “bedside table,” and snored next to until the next one comes along (even by the demographic for whom the phrase “Ooooh, this one would be perfect for him!!” comes to mind). They ought to plant an iris-reading chip in the back of each volume that sends a message (stripped of personal identifying information, of course) to some database in the Library of Congress when the same set of eyeballs has been detected moving down every page. That would run those Fox guys out of the discussion, for what it’s worth.

    The long hallway to the back offices at the *old* Huntington building (not that I got up there that often) was lined with black and white photographs of legendary Historiandrews who also dotted the group pictures taken at council meetings at the Institute and other such power occasions, good rumpled gray suits, wry gazes into the deep background. I don’t know that they churned out that much Founders’ chic, but anyway.


  7. ann, thanks for bringing this to our attention. Sitting here texting from the aha conference in nyc, I see a major disconnect between academic and popular history. Our students, who are often immersed in popular history, seem to desire the patriotic, feel-good mythologizing of the founders. I now include lepore’s point about the tea party and historical fundamentalism in my lecture on the American Revolution and rakove’s critique of originalism in my U.S. constitution lecture. Our students love individuals, but struggle with larger structures and the decline of the history major in universities doesn’t help. Oh well… We try…


  8. Hmm. Time to reconsider my second project. Maybe I need to write a biography of a founding father… too bad I specialized in the history of East Central Europe. Although there is a dearth of women’s biography in the field. So that might be kind of fun.


  9. @Matt_L: What strange weakness is this? Do you think Rush worried that a major in football didn’t equip him to write history? O’Reilly, I’ll bet, didn’t even crack his old undergrad texts from 1970 before printing out his prose. This stuff is like skiing. Don’t over-think it!



  10. I want to offer some optimism, but even among the current crop of grad students there is impatience with women’s history and discussions of patriarchy. In my dept’s. welcome to history grad school class, they read Bennett’s History Matters, and a significant number of the students found it outdated, shrill(!), and irrelevant to the more “important” themes of globalism, state building, and race. While the profs teaching the class did call them out on their sexist assumptions, and not all students felt this way, it isn’t clear the students felt different about these issues after the class. Sigh!


  11. right you are quixote! Ignorance is never an impediment to shooting your mouth off! its probably an asset! I better get to work on my Jefferson biography then… anything else is just procrastination…


    Matt_L, world famous presidential historian


  12. “they read Bennett’s History Matters, and a significant number of the students found it outdated, shrill(!), and irrelevant to the more “important” themes of globalism, state building, and race.

    There are always much more important issues than social justice for women, aren’t there? Feminism is always already irrelevant.

    This is what **always** happens to women and feminism. We’re lectured generation after generation that feminism’s goals have always already been accomplished, and that there are so many much more pressing issues! So we should once again just shut the fuck up!

    I hope their professors pointed this out–that this was exactly the response in 1789, 1823, 1848, 1873, 1891, 1914, 1932, 1947, 1962, 1978, 1994, und so weiter. Even women’s historians don’t fully appreciate how little has changed and how we keep hearing the same scripts recited.


  13. RE: this is what always happens to women and feminism…

    When I give my lectures on socialism in nineteenth century Europe I always discuss how, in principle, the Socialist parties endorsed feminism and the women’s vote. I also point out how important women activists were to the socialist and labor movements. But those same parties generally forgot about those promises once they achieved universal male suffrage.

    I also tell the students that the SPD tried to make some amends in this department after WWI with their work on the Wiemar Constitution, and they worked hard to win womens votes at election time and with some policies. The SFIO, however, were a bunch of bastards. They were convinced that all women would vote the way their priest told them to, so French women had to wait until the Fourth Republic to vote.

    The commies were in some ways even worse, as per your previous Pussy Riot post. Women got to vote, but I can only name one prominent woman in a post WWII communist government, Ana Pauker who served as Foreign Minister in Stalinist Romania. In the Bolshevik government Krupskaya was shunted off into family and education. Kollontai only rated an ambassadorship.


  14. You’re right, Matt–the last two posts bend towards each other, don’t they?

    The thing with women and feminism is that every generation has a very strong interest in believing that feminism is always already unnecessary. Your students will likely look at all of those instances you cite in eastern European history in the way that biblical fundamentalists see their own history: well of course THEY were wrong, but now we’ve got it all figured out! Now everything is perfect for women.

    And (straight) women as much as men have a strong interest in believing in our present enlightenment and perfection, because we don’t want to have to keep pointing out the injustices and fighting and being told to shut up already. We don’t want to be the shrill, outdated, man-hating bitches all those other generations of feminists were. We love men!!! We really do!!! And of course, men don’t want to reckon with their unearned privilege, so we labor under the same delusions.


  15. And it’s not only about book authorship or subjects. Have you counted how often “American Experience” (so-called) on public television has female subjects rather than male?


  16. Pingback: Moving beyond Heroic Geniuses | Darin Hayton

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