J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Market for Originality in History

Last month, Brooks Simpson at Civil Warriors wrote:

Over the last decade or so I’ve pondered whether readers of historical works as a rule value originality and fresh thinking. . . . do more occasional readers – the folks who claim to be avid readers (and in some cases claim to be actual historians) based on a rather meager menu of reading – really care? I’m not so sure.
To which Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory replied:
I will go further and suggest that most consumers of Civil War histories care little for originality because they do not understand the concept as it is understood at the ground-level. . . . it comes down to training in analytical thinking, critical review of primary sources, as well as a strong background in historiography. . . . Let’s face it, somewhere around 80-90% of the literature in our field is unoriginal and usually involves a simple rehashing of what has already been said.
Which made me consider if the same applies to Revolutionary-era history.

I come from a background in book publishing rather than grad school, which gives me a different slant on the question. I think most regular readers of history want new knowledge. Publishers send most history books into the marketplace with the promise that they tell an unknown or forgotten story, use little-known sources, or upend dominant ideas. Even readers who think “revisionism” is a conspiracy to undermine the nation rather than an essential element of studying the past seem to gravitate toward books that promise something new and different. I’ve come to expect books’ marketing copy to play up the originality of their ones. (I drafted enough book jackets myself.)

But that doesn’t mean most books actually deliver on that promise. And, as Levin stated, most general readers don’t have the background to judge original thinking or research. But then I’m not familiar with the latest innovations in insurance, or geotechnical engineering, or knitting, or many other fields where I have no experience. (Often historians themselves are in the same boat as laypeople when it comes to books on periods they haven’t studied; specialization has its costs.)

I agree with Simpson and Levin that many U.S. history books, particularly in military history, retell familiar stories in familiar ways, despite readers’ interest in new knowledge. I see several intertwining reasons. The market for American history, probably like the market for any nation’s own history, includes “heritage” readers—folks who want the past to make us feel good about ourselves. And that limits the topics and conclusions they’ll support with their dollars.

I suspect that some history fans read many books on a topic in the same way other readers enjoy mystery novels or other genre literature: to have a somewhat new experience within a familiar frame. A mystery that doesn’t include a dead body, a detective, or a solution would be disappointing, and so would a history of the Revolution that doesn’t make a big deal of Trenton or Saratoga.

In addition, I think a good narrative has its own appeal, and some historical events or types of events lend themselves to a traditional story structure better than others. In a battle, the stakes are high, the action is relatively quick, and there are clear winners and losers. In sum, a battle makes a good story, and as a result military history appeals to story-seeking readers more than, say, economic development over several generations. That increases the market for books that describe a battle from start to finish instead of arguing for a new interpretation of documents.

And that brings us to the question of what originality means. Levin went on to say:
Sometimes we get the old uncovering of a long lost skirmish that somehow rises to the level of decisive moment in a campaign or perhaps even the war. In other cases we read that x's actions did or did not lead to victory or defeat. While some of these studies may give us something to think about it does not necessarily rise to the level of originality. Most of these books involve little or no creativity in the interpretation of sources.
I think that’s true, but it’s also worth examining whether “creativity in the interpretation of sources” is the only yardstick of original historiography. Or is that simply the yardstick that academia privileges? (Or prefers, if you prefer.)

I’ve come to think the measure of originality for historical writing is whether it prompts readers to think in new ways about the past. As I remarked above, not all readers really want to do that. But for those who are up for it (or ambushed by it), the historian’s innovations within the field may be less important than that effect.

An analogy to science and engineering might fit here. Scientists seek discoveries for the sake of discovery. Engineers, in seeking practical solutions to problems, apply scientific discoveries where needed. Some of those applications are quite creative, but they don’t involve scientific discovery. Applying the insights of other historians to a familiar period or event may not involve much conceptual creativity, but it can still produce interesting, ground-breaking work for readers.

Another form of originality separate from the interpretation of sources lies in how authors present historical information. Even within a traditional narrative approach, there are many ways to narrate the same events, and some of those ways can prompt readers to look at the past differently—perhaps when they least expect it.

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