A career in several volumes

February 26, 1999

A book a year? No sweat. Harriet Swain talks to Jeremy Black, the prolific historian who prefers Freddie Mercury to Queen Victoria.

This autumn, Jeremy Black, professor of history at the University of Exeter, will celebrate what he calls his 30th birthday - the arrival of his 30th single-authored book. It is a bit of a joke, he explains: since hardly any other historians are as prolific as him, "it will annoy them like hell". In fact, Black is responsible for even more than 30 volumes, having edited or co-edited 11 textbooks and co-authored another one. "A lot of academics spend time running for Parliament or growing marrows," he says. "My hobby is writing."

He tries to write for about six hours a day and produces about a quarter of a million words a year. He expects to complete at least one book annually, usually more. His latest monograph, From Louis XIV to Napoleon , was finished in time to keep up his research assessment exercise output, allowing him a bit of a pause before he needs to start his next RAE-targeted work. He is filling the gap by acting as series editor for a number of publishers, writing a textbook for sixth-formers and advising the Royal Mail on a set of 48 stamps about Britain over the past millennium.

To make time for writing, he has a number of labour-saving techniques. He tries to limit attendance at administrative meetings to those which are "outcome-orientated"; he only writes exactly the number of words commissioned ("so many academics spend half their time cutting their words down"); and he lectures without notes, a skill he picked up as a leading light in his school debating society. "The trouble is," he says, "it means I always tend to see both sides of an argument."

He recalls how, leaving Cambridge with a starred first in history, he went for a job with the Bank of England and was asked whether he knew anything about economics. He said he did not, but as a historian he knew enough to know that the key to economics was caution. His interviewers found it refreshing not to receive a spiel on what they ought to do about interest rates.

Ask Black why he embarked on a particular project and he usually says: because I was asked. Why did he start writing textbooks? - because someone asked him. Why did he start writing about warfare? - because someone suggested a book. But once started on a subject his interest often grows. Hence his fascination with maps, explained in his books Maps and Politics and Maps and History .

The interesting part of writing textbooks, for him, is that he learns about subjects that otherwise might pass him by. "I like writing and I like reaching out to a wider audience. A lot of other people want to get an interpretation across. I write partly to educate myself." But he also clearly wants to educate others. At the age of 11, he was already lecturing to his classmates on the Crusades and then marking their essays; and he was a school-teacher between A levels and university. Today his enthusiasm for history comes across immediately.

He thinks one of the most important duties of a textbook, particularly in history, is to invite scepticism: "I try to convey a sense of doubt". One must avoid, too, simply repeating what has already been written. He therefore tries not to read other textbooks, preferring to consult local and regional history journals and apply a "pointillistic" approach. He tells his students it is always better to read one chapter of 11 books than 11 chapters of one book.

If a textbook is good, he says, you are happy to see your students - and not embarrassed to see your colleagues - reading it. Ideally, it should also be an advertisement for the rest of the series. But the split between textbooks and other academic work should not be too distinct. "When writing a monograph you should be thinking at every step how to make it interesting to a wider group." On the other hand, there must be some rigour when writing a textbook: "One shouldn't suspend one's critical faculties. I think it's far harder to write a textbook than a monograph."

The actual writing is always a two-stage process. First, he writes down what he wants to say. Then, he colours it in with facts and examples, usually doubling the length of his draft. A lover of facts, which he rattles out, along with ideas, so loudly that he appears to drive away the couple eating at the next-door table, Black admits it is sometimes difficult to know what to leave out. Reviews refer to his "encyclopedic knowledge" and "gift for clarity", but he has also been criticised for "drum-beaten dates" and "listing more wars to the page than any comparable account".

What he is determined to avoid is any narrowly political, Eurocentric view of history, particularly because the students likely to read his books now come from such a range of backgrounds. With more undergraduates over 21, and students taking history courses alongside chemistry or environmental studies, he says textbooks have to appeal to readers with very different levels of knowledge. And anyway, as a series editor he must keep his ears open to academic developments in all English-speaking countries.

Up-to-date knowledge of publishing is important too. Black frets about the increased price of paper, the fact that publishers' backlists are not selling so well, and that bookshops tend to order books on request rather than keep them in stock. And he feels that publishers' editorial decisions have too much influence on academia, because of the RAE.

As a series editor, he tries to commission not only someone working in the field but also to avoid professional textbook writers and those who have not completed any original research within the previous five years. This goal is getting harder to achieve. "The RAE process is very hostile to textbooks, which means some individuals refuse to write them. A lot are written by people who aren't at the cutting edge."

The cutting edge is undoubtedly where Black is, despite his prolific writing of textbooks. For he can never be one of those historians who believes in dwelling in the past. His choice of millennium stamps has sparked controversy by leaving out Queen Victoria, Elizabeth I, Gladstone and Dickens and including the late pop-star Freddie Mercury and the footballer Bobby Moore. This does not bother Black, who says: "If you spend all your time looking over your shoulder for the remarks of other people you tend to have less energy to get on with new projects."


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