Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015
Liz Covart has a post on her blog called “How to Write for Your Readers,” which is effectively a post about “How to Write for Readers Beyond Your Colleagues and their Students.” She points out that journalists are very effective at writing history books that people actually buy and read. They’re eating our lunches!
History books written by journalists tend to be more popular than those written by professionally-trained historians because journalists write them to reveal history in a way that readers want to discover more about it.
In contrast, professionally-trained historians tend to write books that emphasize argument. Historians present the main topic of their book in a way that supports the case they are trying to make. Our books tend to be more about argument than story.
To encourage historians to think about story first, she reports on an interview with Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor and author of two historical books that landed on the New York Times bestseller list, she shares his very good advice for effective storytelling. His advice–quite good, actually–boils down to these three points: Find a fascinating story focused on human actors, make sure there are plenty of sources to help you tell it, and finally, write the story for a broad audience and rewrite agressively. I especially like his advice about reading your drafts out loud to identify writing and syntax problems, and to help you cut out the parts that just aren’t working. (Read Liz’s discussion of his advice–it’s more thorough than this brief summary.)
This is all good advice, but I think the issue of journalists who write books that people buy versus historians who write books for other historians is oversimplified, and ignores the question of resources, platforms, and marketing that work to the advantage of the journalists who write a history book or two. Commercial publishers want to publish books not to help obscure writers make a name for themselves; they want to publish books by people who are already well-known because they think (rightly!) that a journalist with a prominent perch at a national newspaper or (better yet) who regularly appear on television will help them sell more books. Continue reading
End of the cog railway on Pike’s Peak in Colorado
I’m in the last six weeks of completing my second book (and third monograph!) and the end of my last research trip to Québec, so it’s the end of the line for me. As much as I’ve been itching to get this book done, it’s a little sad now to think of not returning to Québec. It’s too bad, because I’ve got the condo situation sussed out, my favorite épiceries and boulangeries figured out, the vagaries of seventeenth and eighteenth-century French navigated, and now this information will become irrelevant to anyone (including me) in the next few years. Isn’t it always the case that just as we get good at something, it’s time to wrap it up and move along?
I guess the only way to avoid this feeling is never to finish a project, which is just a bridge too far for me. I take pride on being the kind of historian who can get stuff done, get it out, and move along. I’m a perfectionist, but I also recognize that there is such a thing as the best book I can write right now. I just can’t nibble a project to death.
All this week, I’ve had two alternating thoughts as I’ve reviewed some of the archival material I’ve taken notes on already, as well as a few new items: first, omigod, how did I miss this the first time around??? and next, OK, this helps you and merely adds a few choice details to the story you’re already telling. Still, don’t most of us wonder how many wonderful, awful stories we’ve missed? Continue reading
First we have the Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England (University of Pennsylvania, 2007) collection. I love these little figures, a gift from my husband. They represent a captive Anglo-American family (man, woman, and girl child) with two warriors. So much fun to pose on my bookshelves! Continue reading
Ding a ling a ling!
Ask not for whom the dinner bell tolls! I’m on a tight deadline to crank out an essay before the bell rings, so here are a few long reads to keep you busy while I’m out roping up some historiographical longhorns. I don’t know why, but all of these links seem to be about good actors struggling to cope with their mixed feelings about the bad behavior of others. Bookmark this post the next time someone tells you that “secular humanists” and “liberal relativists” refuse to deal with the problem of evil in the world, willya?
- Clemson Communications Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika writes at the NPR Code Switch blog about “The Cost of White Comfort,” and nails a sneaking suspicion I’ve had about the (mostly white) chorus of hosannas about the forgiveness shown by the families of the black victims of last week’s terrible massacre in Charleston: “I couldn’t shake a paralyzing feeling: When black people and white people clasped hands in the arena that night, the comfort wouldn’t be evenly distributed. The healing wouldn’t flow both ways.” White Americans just love it when we’re let off the hook, don’t we? We’re the kings and queens of the fantasy that history doesn’t matter.
- Writer Andrew Chee dishes on his time in the early 1990s working as a cater-waiter for William F. and Pat Buckley: “The tuxedo and the starched white shirt—and the fact that each assignment was at a different, often exclusive, place—all made me feel a little like James Bond. Sometimes my fellow waiters and I called it the Gay Peace Corps for how we could come into places, clean them up, make them fabulous, throw a party, and leave. And I liked that when I went home, I didn’t think about the work at all.” But would his recent past as an ACT-UP activist get him kicked out of the famously anti-gay Bill’s household? Or would it get him an invitation to skinny dip with Bill at the end of the evening? (Because “that’s how they used to swim at Yale, after all.”) Really! For you younger people, this essay really captures a slice of gay, urban life in the 1990s, before and just after the invention of protease inhibitors while rendered HIV a condition people could live with instead of just die from. I was an urban straight at the time, but Chee and I are the same age and his recollections really jibe with my memories of the time.
Tom Bredehoft has another post up at Chancery Hill Books about the ways in which not teaching at an R-1 fundamentally shaped his career as a scholar in fruitful ways. In brief, he writes that building his career at a regional comprehensive university and then adjuncting for a few years at another university made him a more creative and more theoretically inclined scholar than he ever thought he would be as a medieval Old English literature expert:
Between the University of Northern Colorado and West Virginia University, I regularly offered classes in composition, in the English language, in British Literature surveys, and in both contemporary comics and science fiction and fantasy. Only occasionally, in comparison, did I teach courses in Medieval Literature, which was my nominal specialty as a scholar.
But all that teaching—and the reading and thinking it involved—in areas outside of my primary area of specialization, I am starting to think, is actually what helped me to start thinking more usefully about questions that span all of English letters. For me the study of Old English meter and the study of modern graphic narratives grew to be connected somehow. At one level, I ascribed both interests to my recognition that I was a formalist by inclination. At another level, though, it was the kind of question—just what does link Old English verse to comics?—that could only be answered by looking at the truly big picture. In a sense, I needed to become a theorist to understand the question itself, much less begin to answer it. I couldn’t rely on other theorists’ thinking, or build upon it: the questions I was trying to answer were my own.
As much as the breadth of my teaching helped me both to discover some of these questions and to begin to answer them, it is certainly true, too, that my work in selling books has affected the range of things I attend to in my scholarly work: I know much more about the bibliographic details and publication history of works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from having bought and sold and collected them than I do from having taught them, no matter how often. And both topics make an appearance in my 2014 academic book, The Visible Text.
Perhaps my experience cannot be generalized; I’d be among the first to acknowledge that the way I’ve gone about things in my career may not be for everyone. But it seems odd to me to realize that if I’d had a conventional faculty job at a true research-oriented university, there might have been a far greater match between my scholarly focus and the classes I taught. But the consequence of that greater degree of matching is that I might never have had the tools and experience of books and texts to write a book that considers literature and material textuality from the eighth century to the present. Certainly, as a research faculty member at a research university, I’d have been encouraged (actively or passively) to have a narrower, more defined focus, and the teaching part of my work would have involved fewer courses and fewer sections of them. Part of me thinks that it may well be the case that my work as a teaching faculty member and bookseller might have prepared me to address new theoretical questions better than any other aspect of my training and career.
It’s been too long, friends! What can I say, except that my last six weeks on sabbatical are chock-full of visitors, travel, and reunions, which have left me little time to live in the virtual world. I’m back online now, though, and have an idee or two to share.
First, I should say that I’m a great believer in the power of personal narrative. When I was younger, letter- and journal writing helped me make sense of the trials and errors of youth. When I was older, blogging at Historiann.com served the same purpose as I wrote about some of my early professional challenges and created a space in which others could find a supportive audience and share strategies for dealing with abusive colleagues and the insanely competitive academic job market.
Around the same time, I started writing a biography of a woman in my period of study, so clearly I’m committed to individual narratives as both a storytelling device and as pedagogy: we learn so much from reading about other lives. They can offer us encouragement, cautionary tales, and perhaps most importantly, help us imagine other lives and different ways of living. There is a real creativity crisis among us professors who want to offer our students ideas for career alternatives to academia (alt-ac) or post-academia (post-ac) careers. Professors are the worst people to ask, because we took the conservative path and remained in academia! But we can seek out stories that may give us and our students new ideas for alternative ways of making a living and living a satisfying life. (Because trust me: academia is not necessarily a path to either goal, let alone both!)
An old friend of mine who used to live in my hometown of Potterville, Colorado, the distinguished medieval English literature scholar Thomas Bredehoft, has started blogging about his decision to leave a tenured full professorship and his new life as an entrepreneur. Tom was a full professor who took a position off the tenure track as a spousal accommodation, when his wife took a tenure-track position at a university in another part of the country. After teaching off the tenure track for five years, he left traditional academia in 2012 to pursue his own alt-ac business in the rare book and antique trade. As he continues with his academic writing, Tom wants to use his blog to consider the academic, alt-ac, and post-ac worlds, from the perspective of someone who has spent most of a career thinking about books and poetry. Continue reading
Nathaniel Wheelwright (1721-66), by John Singleton Copley, ca. 1760, from Portraits in the Massachusetts Historical Society (1988)
I’ve been pulling together the images I’d like to include in my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright. My publisher is very generous and is permitting me to include up to twenty of them (!)–and because Esther moves around so much (especially for a girl and a woman) and crosses so many cultural, religious, and linguistic borders, I’ll really need twenty illustrations to give readers a sense of the material culture of all of her different worlds and families.
The Massachusetts Historical Society owns a crude oil portrait on paper of Esther Wheelwright’s nephew, Nathaniel, by John Singleton Copley. Nathaniel becomes a diplomat on behalf of Massachusetts and goes to Montreal and Quebec in 1752-53 to attempt to effect the return of some New England child captives being held by Native allies of the French. In the course of this trip, he meets twice with his aunt, and gives us one of the only personality sketches of her that we have. I’ve been considering including this portrait in my book, but I’ve decided not to. Continue reading