• December 20, 2014

Historians Get Advice on Writing for the Readers of Today

Michael Pollan is a widely read and influential writer about food in America. On Thursday night, speaking at the annual conference of the American Historical Association, he put a blunt question to academic historians:

"Why do people like me who use your work end up selling more books than you do?"

Mr. Pollan, a journalism professor and author of best sellers like The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, pointed out that works of history often end up on best-seller lists. But much of the time those best sellers are not written by professional historians. And when it comes to important questions about how things came to be the way they are, he said, historians have ceded territory to other disciplines, like behavioral economics and social psychology.

Mr. Pollan had a prime slot at the conference's opening-night plenary session, speaking on a panel called "The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age." He was there to offer insight on getting historical scholarship into the public conversation. But his advice had little to do with technology. Write in a human voice, he encouraged. Embrace storytelling techniques like scene-setting, suspense, and personification. Pose questions of current interest, and answer them.

"We need that now as a society more than ever before," he said. "We live in this fog of presentness. Every politician would have us forget what they said yesterday."

He added, "At a time where the information available to us is so rich and so chaotic, those who can provide the satisfactions of passing it all through that narrow aperture of a story are more prized than ever."

Other speakers at the session focused largely on the technological forces reshaping the history profession. Researching, writing, communicating, archiving—all those are changing because of new digital tools that are "as radical and revolutionary in their potential impact on the culture as Gutenberg's invention of movable type in the middle of the 15th century," said William Cronon, president of the association.

Yet today's historical monographs resemble those written 100 years ago, speakers said. They're still narrated in an omniscient, third-person voice that was largely invented in the 19th century. And the profession is built to sustain the present model.

That tension was at the heart of the discussion Thursday night on a panel drawn from history, publishing, and journalism. Among the questions discussed: Are fewer people now capable of reading historical monographs? How should historians use blogs, Facebook, and Twitter? How should they change the way classes are taught and scholarship is produced?

"It seems clear that we would want to take advantage of the major social change of our time, which is the creation of an instantaneous global network of free information exchange," said Edward L. Ayers, a digital-history pioneer who is now president of the University of Richmond. "But the profession is not built to encourage or even permit it. And so, we think about reaching large audiences; we need to be thinking about, How do we reimagine scholarship so that it takes advantage of these tools?"

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