The write and wrong stuff

There's no honourable way to plan a best-seller, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

July 15, 2010

Teachers should honour their precepts. Infringements, especially among those who teach truthfulness, sobriety and chastity, tend to be occasional lapses rather than systematic failures. But I sin constantly against a commandment I give my students: to adjust the way they write to suit the audience they address. I write self-indulgently, appealing to myself, and hope that from time to time some other reader may be interested in the same problems and responsive to the same language. Occasionally, an act of communication or work of art succeeds by accident, without targeting its public, especially if the communicator is a great artist: Michelangelo could ignore his patrons' taste and still command huge fees and universal attention. But the only way to be sure of getting the message across is by aiming it accurately.

For students, the task should be easy. They usually know their readers, who are also their teachers, all too well. My classes rapidly become aware of my exploitable foibles and prejudices. They may not know the external examiners personally, but they know the type: professional academics with intellectual proclivities, who relish bibliographical allusions and lashings of their own argot.

Writers of academic monographs and contributors to arcane journals are similarly privileged: their work may be unreadable to the rest of us, but it is perfectly attuned to its intended readerships. To accuse writers in these genres of using hieratic or esoteric language is as silly as to accuse a Sybil of obscurity. Medium and message are inseparable.

The hardest readers to profile are the elusive or impassive sphinxes whom publishers call "the general public". An increasing source of agony in universities is the demand that academics, who spend most of their lives talking to other academics, shake off their habitual style and language to communicate widely. If they fail, or prefer to stick to the readership they know, they get accused of writing badly.

The charge is routine and relentless. In a recent number of Perspectives on History, the bulletin of the American Historical Association, David McCullough, who writes nominally historical best-sellers in banal journalese, is quoted as denouncing academic historians for incompetence in storytelling. In the latest Literary Review, Dominic Sandbrook, a good historian who has deserted university life for independent authorship, berates a distinguished professor of cultural studies for "humourless cultural studies waffle". It is no sin for a man to labour in his vocation.

We should reject the proposal that academics' books fail in the marketplace because they are badly written: the reverse is true. Bad books succeed in popular esteem, like bad politicians, bad "entertainment" and bad food. Excellence is usually an unnecessary encumbrance. Voters re-elected George W. Bush. Fans' love for Frank Sinatra long outlasted his ability to get close to the right note. Supporters still go to watch England's football team. The world's best-selling book is the Bible, which, whatever its other merits, no one would ever recommend as a model of style. Among the most successful writers of all time in English were Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton, who were unrivalled in their sympathy with their readers but drearily incapable of writing sonorous, powerful or innovative prose. The "general public" is inscrutable partly because it is undiscerning. It likes junk: to eat it, watch it, hear it and elect it.

There is no honourable way to plan a best-seller. An academic work of genius, like Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324 or Natalie Zemon Davis' The Return of Martin Guerre, may buck the trend and take off by accident, just as Michelangelo succeeded in pleasing millions by seeking to please himself. Sometimes public indulgence elevates decent, deserving authors to commercial success without meretricious striving for popularity. At present, academic writers with fluent gifts or infectious topics, such as Niall Ferguson, Christopher Andrew and Antony Beevor, share Amazon's allegedly historical Top 20 with the likes of Bill Bryson, Sun Tzu, Kurt Vonnegut and Barack Obama.

But if you set out to please the public, the best way to do it is probably not by emulating high literary standards, acknowledging the profundity of interesting problems, or even adhering to the truth. One method is to dumb down, filleting everything difficult or demanding out of the text. Another is to offer readers the specious comfort of confirming their cherished myths and nurturing their heroes' reputations.

Another is to unleash vulgar sensationalism, like Erich von Daniken revealing the extra-terrestrial origins of civilisation, or the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, constructing the consequences of fornication by Christ. Another is to imitate celebrity autobiographers and get intellectual prostitutes to do your writing for you. By his own admission, Gavin Menzies, who masked his intellectually inane and wildly misleading output as scholarship, was told by his publishers, "You can't write." They then sought ghost-writing assistance to help bring his best-seller, 1421: The Year China Discovered America, to press.

Not even these expedients, however, can guarantee success. I still advise my students to target their intended readers - but the general public is a barely visible target, an audience that dodges capriciously and defies prediction. We might as well just go on writing for ourselves and such few like minds as there may be out there.

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