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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
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.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

    £14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

    £13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies