Books editor’s blog: scholarly territoriality

Matthew Reisz considers academic protectionism

April 18, 2019
Bookshop
Source: Alamy

Most of the books covered in this magazine are written by academics and reviewed by academics. And that is obviously how it should be. Just a few times a year, however, I ask an academic to review a book in their broad area of expertise aimed at a general readership.

On one recent occasion, the author of such a book was upset and irritated by a review that he thought was inaccurate and missed the point of what he was trying to do. We published his letter about it at the time and I don’t want to return to the specific case. But he wrote to me again this week about the interesting wider issue, namely the sometimes fraught relationship between academics and other writers who venture into their field.

“In my 30 years of writing for general audiences”, he told me, “I have found that professional academics are in some cases offended by what they see as an intrusion into their personal territory and react in a way that seeks to rationalise their objections, but without appreciating their essentially emotional response.” One “came up to [my] publisher at a book fair and said to him that he shouldn’t commission books from people like me, and specifying me, and instead should only publish books written by professional academics such as himself”. Another “used her personal influence to have my books excluded” from a number of bookshops.

Fortunately, his publishers backed him up in both cases. One of them has also recently approached him to write a book on a topic they thought they already had covered, but unfortunately their first option was “commissioned 14 years ago from a well-established American professor who hasn’t delivered a single word”. Some of these issues are also discussed in a blog published earlier this year by Heather McCallum, managing director and publisher at Yale University Press. Although they obviously feature heavyweight scholarly titles on their list, they also publish a good deal of what she calls “robust narrative non-fiction”. For academics attempting the genre, this “will often involve dropping a lot of the academic scaffolding, such as qualifications within the text, very scholarly referencing, extensive footnotes, theoretical background and much else. Then, you need to think a lot about chapter openings, chapter endings, how the whole book starts and ends (how you draw the reader in, how you reach a compelling ending or conclusion), controlling a strong argument”. In the case of biographies, she goes on, she “always encourag[es] authors to have a clear opinion about their subject. The crucial question is, having read and understood all of the sources and scholarship, having devoted your life or a big chunk of it to understanding it, what do you think about it?”.

Many academics, of course, are very successful at such styles of writing. Some may resist it, for perfectly good reasons, and others simply lack the skills for it. But there is surely a place for popular crossover books written by people who are not cutting-edge scholars, and legitimate room for irritation at academics whose attitude is “Intruder, keep out!”

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Please keep off my grass: scholarly territoriality

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