Just how bad is the state of popular Civil War writing?

Pretty bad, according to Dimitri Rotov:

The mass-market nonfiction reader is a kind of crackhead in search of fiction-quality narratives. The “kick” in nonfiction that reads better than a novel is that “it’s like, real man.”

We need sociologists to study these people. Instead we get Civil War authors who serve their segment of this market with elaborately contrived master narratives, books gushing with “novelistic” anecdotes ripped out of their natural context (of diaries and letters), and stripped down “stories” featuring “characters” who amuse and entertain. The crackhouse that is Civil War history has its corner in the larger slum of nonfiction publishing, with suburbanites cruising through to score their stuff on the way to the beach. Party on dudes.

I always enjoy reading Rotov’s thoughts on historiography, even though I have a great deal of respect for some of the authors he often singles out for criticism. Regardless of questions over which specific books are bad and which aren’t, he’s got a point here.  There is undeniably a lot of shallow, superficial tripe getting cranked out in the name of popularized Civil War history.

Next time you have a minute, browse through some reader reviews of popular historical books at Amazon.com and note how many customers gush over works that made them feel like they were reading a novel, or caught them up in the story, or made them forget that they were reading a history book, and so on.  If you can’t enjoy a history book unless you forget that it is, in fact, a history book, then why exactly did you buy it and start reading it in the first place?

Apparently we’ve become so addicted to diversion that we have to treat ourselves like kids, absorbing little nuggets of information surreptitiously in the same way that a toddler will eat vitamins only when Mom slips them into some chocolate pudding.  In this case, though, it’s ourselves we’re trying to fool: “It was so entertaining, I forgot I was reading a history book!”  When thou readest history, let not thy left brain know what thy right brain doeth.

Indeed, when we compare the number of shallow and commercially driven Civil War books to the number of genuinely original studies, the results might look a little dismaying.  The widespread interest in the war means that lots of commercially driven junk gets published because there are people who are willing to buy it.  You don’t get this level of commercial interest when it comes to, say, the Progressive Era or seventeenth-century English colonies, where more analytic or academic books are the norm, simply because there isn’t as much of a market for popular books in those fields.

Still, I think it’s easy to overstate the problem.  Leave aside for a moment the ratio of mediocre Civil War books to very good Civil War books.  Instead, compare the number of solid Civil War books getting published to the number of solid books being published in other historical fields of study, and I think the former discipline comes out looking pretty robust.

In fact, as someone whose special interests lie mainly in earlier periods of history, I don’t think Civil War readers know how comparatively well off they are. I’ve lamented before how surprising the lacunae in early American historiography can be; we have major historical actors without modern biographies, fundamental questions unanswered, and critical events unexamined.  You may not be entirely pleased with the available literature on a given Civil War topic, but chances are there is at least a literature in place, so that the student or scholar has some sort of foundation on which to build.

In any case, if you dislike commercialized historical writing, the best remedy is to avoid buying it.  Publishers will keep cranking out infotainment as long as there’s a market for it.

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Filed under Civil War, Historiography

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