Young historians 'are damaging academia' in their bid for stardom

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Research is being jazzed up too much in the dash for the bestseller lists, says Wolfson judge

Young history academics are too eager to convert their research into books that have only a slim chance of success in an increasingly crowded market, according to the chief judge of a leading history writing prize.

Sir Keith Thomas, the Oxford historian who is chairman of the judging panel for the Wolfson History Prize, applauded the growth of interest which has seen telegenic dons propelled on to the nation's television screens and bookshop shelves, but warned that the dash for the bestseller lists risks undermining the status of academic study.

Two women historians were last night named as this year's winners of the prize, which was founded 40 years ago to reward high-quality history writing that is accessible to the general public. Previous winners include some of Britain's most renowned historians, including Simon Schama, Eric Hobsbawm and Antonia Fraser.

But while the growth in genealogy and an apparently insatiable appetite for works on the grim events of the 20th century, from the Second World War to the Stalinist purges, has made history into one of publishing's star sectors, the profession's guardians are concerned that the pressure to achieve a public profile is damaging for academia.

In the past decade, sales of history books have increased by more than 45 per cent to nearly 5.4 million copies a year – more than double the rate of growth across the publishing industry as a whole, according to the publishing data company, Nielsen BookScan.

Sir Keith, who was a winner of the Wolfson History Prize in its first year, said: "There is a tendency for young historians who have completed their doctoral thesis to, rather than present it in a conventional academic form, immediately hire an agent, cut out the footnotes, jazz it all up a bit and try to produce a historical bestseller from what would have otherwise been a perfectly good academic work. The reality is that only a few of these works succeed commercially." The leading authority on the early-modern era said there was an increasing risk of a "parasitic" relationship between higher-profile historians with a flair for language and a publisher, and less eye-catching academics whose diligent efforts in archives and libraries end up being cited in the books of their more media-savvy colleagues.

"We now read in excess of 150 books a year, and a good number are neither one thing nor the other – they are not popular enough to gain a wide readership but neither are they sufficiently academic to interest many historians."

The list of 85 authors awarded the prize since 1972 would seem to prove the Wolfson judges' concern that their deliberately low-key award should not reward "popularity for popularity's sake" but instead seek out historical gems that command the simultaneous interest of "professional scholars and the intelligent reading public".

Earlier winners include texts that have become cornerstones of idiosyncratic modern historical writing, such as Theodore Zeldin's France 1848-1945, and global best-sellers, such as Stalingrad by Antony Beevor. This year's winners reflect a similar diversity of backgrounds. Susie Harries, who won for her biography of the architecture historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, has co-authored several books with her husband and writes on the arts in the 20th Century.

Professor Alexandra Walsham, who won for her book on the effects of the Reformation on the British landscape, in 2010 became the first woman hold the modern history chair at Cambridge University. Each receives £25,000.

The old school...

Eric Hobsbawm

The doyen of British historians, his avowed Marxism has gone hand in hand with recognition as one of the great analysts of the shaping of the 20th century. The 94-year-old is also a jazz critic.

Richard Overy

Apart from occasional TV and newspaper appearances, Overy largely moves within historical circles. In the 1980s, he was involved in a dispute about the reasons for the Second World War.

Jonathan Sumption

Better recognised as one of the country's most fearsome barristers, Sumption is also a respected medieval historian. His history of the Hundred Years' War is regarded as a masterpiece.

...vs the 'tele-dons'

Dan Snow

The poster boy of a new generation of on-screen historians, Snow started in 2003 with a documentary on the battle of El Alamein co-presented with his journalist father, Peter Snow.

Lucy Worsley

The historian, who dresses in period costume to make the past real, is chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces. She responded to a jibe from historian David Starkey by saying he resembled a "cross owl".

Simon Schama

The epitome of the "tele-don", Schama is a serious academic who has become a household name via studies ranging from the Dutch Golden Age to baseball. He is professor of history at Columbia.

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
weird news... and film it, obviously
Arts & Entertainment
tv
News
Matthew Mcnulty and Jessica Brown Findlay in 'Jamaica Inn'
mediaHundreds complain over dialogue levels in period drama
News
peopleJay Z and Beyoncé to buy £5.5m London townhouse
Voices
voicesMoyes' tragedy is one the Deputy PM understands all too well, says Matthew Norman
Arts & Entertainment
Rocker of ages: Chuck Berry
musicWhy do musicians play into old age?
Arts & Entertainment
With Jo Joyner in 'Trying Again'
tvHe talks to Alice Jones on swapping politics for pillow talk
News
Jilly's jewels: gardener Alan Titchmarsh
peopleCountry Life magazine's list of 'gallant' public figures throws light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Sport
John Terry goes down injured in the 70th minute
sportAtletico Madrid 0 Chelsea 0: Blues can finish the job at Stamford Bridge, but injuries to Terry and Cech are a concern for Mourinho
Student
student
News
<b>Rebecca Adlington</b>
<br />This, the first British swimmer to win two
Olympic gold medals in 100 years, is the eversmiling
face of the athletes who will, we're
confident, make us all proud at London 2012
peopleRebecca Adlington on 'nose surgery'
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Clinical Negligence

    Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence - Oxford An opportunity f...

    Projects Financial Analyst - Global Technology firm

    £55000 - £62000 per annum + outstanding benefits and bonus: Pro-Recruitment Gr...

    Reception Teacher

    £120 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Reception teacher required for an Outs...

    Commercial B2B Pricing Specialist - Global Bids and Tenders

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + excellent company benefits : Pro-Recruitment Group...

    Day In a Page

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

    It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
    Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

    Migrants in Britain a decade on

    They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
    Why musicians play into their old age

    Why musicians play into their old age

    Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
    How can you tell a gentleman?

    How can you tell a gentleman?

    A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire
    Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

    Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

    Celebrate St George’s Day with a nice cup of tea. Now you just need to get the water boiled
    Sam Wallace: Why Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term

    Sam Wallace

    Why Ryan Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term
    Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

    Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

    Having smashed Sergei Bubka's 21-year-old record, the French phenomenon tells Simon Turnbull he can go higher
    Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

    Through the screen

    British Pathé opens its archives
    The man behind the papier mâché mask

    Frank Sidebottom

    The man behind the papier mâché mask
    Chris Marker: Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

    Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

    Chris Marker retrospective is a revelation
    Boston runs again: Thousands take to the streets for marathon as city honours dead and injured of last year's bombing

    Boston runs again

    Thousands of runners take to the streets as city honours dead of last year
    40 years of fostering and still holding the babies (and with no plans to retire)

    40 years of fostering and holding the babies

    In their seventies and still working as specialist foster parents