Will sellers sell out to celebrity?

February 10, 2006

Academic books for the general reader may become a thing of the past if the power of book retailers grows, says Maria Misra

I was immensely pleased to see that Rana Mitter won The Times Higher 's Young Academic Author of the Year award. Rana's book A Bitter Revolution is a very deserving winner - a powerful piece of academic synthesis written stylishly and accessibly for a general audience. Books of this kind often miss out on awards. They tend to fall between the stools of popular non-fiction prizes and those awarded for monographic research within the profession.

Works of synthesis of this kind are in danger of being undervalued as the humanities increasingly embrace the science model for evaluating research and writing. Books such as this tend to be seen as textbooks; and in the sciences, where the article is king, they are not accorded the status of bona fide research. In the humanities, a false analogy seems to be emerging between the laboratory and the archive: real research, it is argued, is driven by primary research and published in article form.

Certainly primary research is important. But history and the humanities more generally have always been about more than just scholarship. They are about interpretation and synthesis. From time to time, the mountains of monographs and acres of articles need to be surveyed, judged and distilled into new paradigms. That is often how a subject moves forward. While there are sometimes eureka moments in the archives, they have to be contextualised for their true significance to be appreciated.

I have to declare a personal interest in defending synthetic history. The book I am writing is an attempt to offer the general reader an account of modern India that is academically respectable, original in interpretation and entertaining to read. It has taken a long time and has generated much psychic discomfort. This book will inevitably attract the rigorous attentions of not only skeptical peers but also acid-penned journalists; I am steeling myself for the brickbats.

The history of modern India is also, of course, of great interest to Indians. The book will have to weigh into politically charged debates about the successes and failures of democracy; and the even more incendiary subject of the recent rise of radical-right nationalism in the subcontinent.

It may seem odd for someone who has participated in some pretty populist TV programmes to fret about the reception of a book aimed at the general reader. But books are far less ephemeral than TV shows and tend to lurk on library shelves to be read and jeered at by generations of students long after one's last TV embarrassment has been forgotten.

Nevertheless, I think it is important that synthetic historical texts aimed at a broader audience continue to be published. For perhaps the real danger for the synthetic general text comes not from the "scientisation" of the humanities but from the consolidation of commercial book retailing. The attempted takeover of Ottaker's by HMV does not bode well. Publishers are beginning to resemble small farm suppliers in terms of their relationship with these new bookseller-supermarkets.

If this concentration of market power continues, it will increasingly be book retailers, not publishers, who decide what gets commissioned and published. This is likely to tip the balance in popular history publishing further towards celebrity-penned biographies of historical celebrities and away from serious but accessible studies of - just to take a random example - the new global superpowers.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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