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.

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
i100

Other places that have held independence referendums
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
news

Sport
footballThe latest scores and Twitter updates from tonight’s games, featuring Bayern Munich vs Man City and Chelsea vs Schalke
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur
film

It scooped up an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards when it was first remade in 1959

News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Arts and Entertainment
Maxine Peake plays Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange
theatreReview: Maxine Peake brings emotional ferocity to Shakespeare's starring part
Extras
10 best table lamps
indybest
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    IT Project Manager (technical, applications, infrastructure)

    £55000 - £60000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: IT Proj...

    English Teacher (Bristol and South Gloucestershire)

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Bristol: English teachers for day to day cover,...

    Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Year 6 Teacher RequiredThis teaching...

    SharePoint Administrator - Bishop's Stortford / Stansted

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SharePoint Administrator - Bishop's ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week