Don't stand off - reach out over the coffee table

August 3, 2007

Dominic Sandbrook bemoans the prejudice facing academics who want to write for a wider audience

Six years ago, as a nervous young lecturer at a big provincial university, I went to inform my head of department about my publication plans. When I told him that I had signed a contract with a trade publisher for a multi-volume history of postwar Britain, he raised his eyebrows in wry disbelief. "What sort of book would this be?" he asked. "A research monograph?" "Not exactly," I replied weakly. "A textbook?" "No," I muttered sheepishly, "the kind of book that the public might read." "Ah!" he said, nodding in recognition, "a coffee table book. Well, we might prefer you to do a couple of really good, serious articles instead."

Suffused with the arrogance of youth, I ignored his advice and never got round to the serious articles. I doubt I ever will now, because three years ago I decided to resign my post to write full-time. But the dilemma that faced me will still be familiar to many academics who love teaching, and yet yearn to reach a wider audience than the tiny handful of specialists who subscribe to most learned journals. After all, half a century ago it was perfectly possible for a young humanities lecturer, following in the footsteps of A. J. P. Taylor or F. R. Leavis, to imagine writing for both specialist and lay readers. Today, it is barely possible, and in the current climate it is hard to imagine it becoming any easier. As a result, serious non-fiction written by trained scholars for the educated public is in greater danger than at any time in living memory.

The classic fallacy is to imagine this as a dilemma between dull but worthy scholarship, and glib but distinctly lucrative popularisation. In fact, scholars have always played to two different audiences, and "popular" does not necessarily mean "bad". In history, for example, such stellar figures as Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson and Maurice Keen all published successful books that appealed to a wider public. And although impenetrable continental theory confined some scholars to a jargon-spouting ghetto, those days are largely gone. Sticking with the example of history, plenty of eminent academic figures have succeeded in recent years at writing for a wider audience, from Niall Ferguson to Ian Kershaw.

It is revealing, however, that most historians who have reached a popular audience are based at Oxford or Cambridge or in the US, or are otherwise shielded from the demented pressures of the research assessment exercise. Younger scholars, or those based at less confident institutions, have far fewer opportunities to try their hand at popular writing. Instead of being encouraged to reach out to a broader public, they are endlessly harassed by research co-ordinators demanding that they jump through ever narrower and more pointless hoops.

One friend of mine spends her time filling in mock-RAE forms, compiling meaningless five-year plans and listening to senior colleagues badgering her to apply for preposterous grants. The scholars who thrive in her institution are those who have in effect published the same footling article under seven different titles; or historians of medicine, coddled by cash, and all apparently writing the same thing; or the time-serving masters at winning and spending taxpayers' money.

If she suggested ripping up the forms and spending the next couple of years on a book for Faber & Faber, her departmental research co-ordinator would probably have a stroke.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with producing academic articles that only a few people will read. Such pieces are often the building blocks on which future scholars will depend: my own work, for example, would be immeasurably poorer without the insights of more patient and meticulous scholars who have gone before me. But there is something badly wrong with the attitude that stigmatises popular writing as "coffee-table books", a label that presumably encompasses everyone from Gibbon to Kershaw. And there is surely something profoundly wrong with an academic climate that increasingly abandons the high street bookshelves to William Hague and Daisy Goodwin, or the airwaves to Tony Robinson and Griff Rhys Jones.

Look at any university website, and you see the usual blather about reaching out to the community, engaging local people and so on. But contemporary academic culture, obsessed with the false idols of the RAE panel, has shown itself indifferent to one community that really does matter: ordinary book buyers, whose appetite for education and instruction deserves better. Nobody wants academe to dumb down. But reaching out would be nice.

Dominic Sandbrook was a lecturer in history at Sheffield University until 2004, and is now a freelance writer, columnist and member of Oxford University's history faculty.

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