Mega-advance is not for me, thanks

October 28, 2005

Many academics dream of winning a big-money contract to write for the general reader. But, as Anthea Lipsett discovers, not everyone wants to be the next Simon Schama

The phone call is one that most academics dream of receiving - a leading publisher asking whether he or she would like to write a book aimed at the general reader. Many would find the prospect of emulating Simon Schama and Stephen Hawking more than tempting. Yet a few select scholars resolutely resist the overture of the publisher who identifies them as being particularly well qualified to write a bestseller with appeal that stretches beyond the academy.

Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University, is wary of the sort of popular book that treats readers as idiots. Among the approaches that she has turned down was one to write about sex in the ancient world. What she objected to was not the subject matter but the fact that the proposal paid no attention to the problems of researching the ancient world, the issues and paradoxes involved. "That's really letting the public down and is the end of academic life as we know it," she says.

Beard's friends mock her for turning down "mega-advances", but she says she feels "queasy" about the dishonesty of a popular book that would not reflect the true weight of academic scholarship. She has nothing against writing for the non-specialist reader and has done so with volumes on the Parthenon and the Colosseum. "I like treating them (readers) as thinking human beings, trying to explain what I do and what's interesting about it,"

she says. But so far she feels that no popular book has tackled the challenge of explaining how academics go about reconstructing the classical world.

"Some publishers want a narrative, which is actually quite hard with ancient history," Beard says. "They think readers don't want problems but I think they can get more involved. People do not need to have ideas dumbed down. You can remove a lot of the silly ancient history jargon and still talk intelligently to an intelligent audience rather than simply give it what you think it wants."

Patrick Walsh, director of literary agents Conville & Walsh, is always on the lookout for academics who can write for the intelligent lay audience and has courted Beard. "If she came to us with her opus on grand themes, she would make a fortune," he says. "I love her but I respect her decision not to."

Walsh believes that for most scholars there are two stumbling blocks that could prevent them from writing a popular book. One is whether an academic has the vim not to care what other academics might think. The other is simply whether they can write. He notes that not every brilliant academic is capable of interesting general readers.

And not every academic understands what a popular book requires in terms of content, says Simon Winder, publishing director of Penguin. He says he knew one leading academic who could not grasp what was needed to appeal to the people walking into Waterstone's. "And we are interested only in people walking into Waterstone's," he says.

Nevertheless, Winder feels that, on the whole, academic popular writing has never been in such rude health. The creep of bibliographies and endnotes into such volumes has helped, as have the increased fees involved. Winder also speculates that some academics, beleaguered with administrative work, see writing books as a way out.

John Morrill, professor of British and Irish history at Cambridge University, has made forays into the world of journalism but he remains reticent about writing a popular book. In 1992 he did a mocked-up edition of The Times from 1642, some 35,000 words in length. "After that, one of the most commercially minded publishers was keen for me to write a popular history of the Civil War," he recalls. "I did toy with it then but the challenges were making it obvious and accessible. That didn't excite me."

Morrill attributes his reticence to being bound up in a career concentrated on research, teaching and academic management and not being materialistic.

"There was this fantastic amount of cash in the late 1990s after Schama's success and I was offered quite a lot of money," he says. "But at the time I was 'vice-everything' and didn't have time."

Like Beard, Morrill has no problem engaging with a non-academic audience: he has talked to schoolchildren, local history groups and designed and presented Radio 4 documentaries. "I have never had the right set of circumstances to take on the challenge of something popular," he says. "I write the things that I enjoy writing and I like answering my own questions. The ideal person (to write for) was my father-in-law, who was a civil servant and read history books on the train on his way to work. If I could write for him, then I thought that was a pretty large market."

He did, though, have a bad experience as special adviser to a Panorama -style television programme set on the day of the execution of Charles I. "It was done really well," he says. "Then at the last minute the commissioning editor said we had to have a cheeky chappy to present it."

The result left a sour taste in Morrill's mouth. "I've always worried that if I wrote a book, something similar might happen," he admits.

A similar fear of oversimplification also holds back Philip Anderson, the Nobel prizewinning emeritus professor of physics at Princeton University.

"I wrote about half of a personal history of superconductivity but it got bogged down and the subject changed," he says. "I loved telling the stories but they had no point without some of the science. I am much too concerned with the science, I think - I had to explain why this or that was really subtle or important. I don't have the popular touch, to put it bluntly. You have to be utterly shameless about oversimplification, like Hawking."

Anderson goes on to reflect: "A popular book would take decades. I don't have decades left and still have ideas about science."

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