FROM THE PULPIT
surely the non-academic, nonhistorians who if anything should have worked harder to check Baker’s mangled, distorted quotations (‘I used Wikipedia during the writing of the book,’ Baker told amazon.com, ‘especially to check facts’).
ON15 JUNE the Prime Minister invited a dozen or so historians and their wives to dinner with President Bush at Number Ten, which turned out to be a fun and fascinating occasion, despite the collective noun for historians being ‘a malice’. It might therefore seem perverse to choose this moment to argue that historians are becoming a persecuted minority in British society, but that is what is happening. As a reactionary Tory, I have little time for trade unions, but I’d now like one set up for historians, whose marginal class privileges are being steadily eroded by the assault of amateurism from all sides. Perhaps a regulatory authority – Ofhist – would do the job just as well. For our books are no longer being reviewed by our peers, who usually have important and interesting things to say, but by novelists, newsreaders, actresses and C-list ‘celebs’ who, by and large, do not. Literary prize judges are all too often not other historians, who have a sense of the quality of research necessary to make a good history book, but chefs, weather girls and soap stars. Worst of all, the entire history brand is being contaminated by publishers commissioning history books from people who seem to know next to nothing about any period other than a tiniest slither about the one on which they are writing. This ought to be the paragraph in which I fearlessly name names, ignoring the possibility of making enemies for life by castigating the ignorance, negligence and sheer lack of professionalism of dozens of novelists and amateurs who are presently reviewing, judging and, worst of all, writing history. Partly out of social cowardice – what if I meet them at a party? – but also partly out of career self-preservation motives, I’m not going to do that; after all, my books get reviewed by these people too. But just as I wouldn’t consider trying my hand at being a surgeon for an afternoon, so unqualified people really oughtn’t to muscle in on the history trade. All right, I will be specific for a moment. The American novelist Nicholson Baker, an acknowledged expert in writing about phone sex and masturbation, recently published a book called Human Smokein which he insinuated that Sir Winston Churchill was an oafish, bloodthirsty, sadistic, hypocritical anti-Semite. Quite apart from Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish a work largely based on gobbets of quotation wrenched entirely out of context, often to imply precisely the opposite of what the original quotation implied, what did the reviewers make of it? The proper historians who know Baker’s sources intimately – David Pryce-Jones, William Rubinstein, Noel Malcolm, and so on – laughed it out of court. Yet the non-historians, led by Colm Tóóibíín in The New York Times, broadly welcomed it as a valuable contribution to the sum of human knowledge, when a moment’s research in Baker’s sources would have proved otherwise. Yet it is
Of course, it’s fine when comedian-journalists such as A A Gill write jokey rants against Churchill – his job is to be consistently contrary, after all – but when a 500-page book is published attacking the memory of the greatest Briton of the past millennium, as voted by 456,000 people in 2002, it is incumbent on literary editors to focus proper historical examination on the claims made. When publishers commission books on what seem like historical subjects from celebrities, which then do not do well, the effect is that booksellers conclude that history in general is not selling, with negative knock-on effects on our bookshop prominence, advertising and ultimately advances. When sweet-but-dim pop-singers are appointed to literary prize judging panels, the chances of victory for serious works of history are likewise diminished. There are a few history prizes where the judges are other historians – the Duff Cooper, Longman-History Today, Elizabeth Longford Historical Biography and Wolfson among them – and these tend, unsurprisingly, to be rated more highly than the ones where they are not. The story is told in literary circles of a singer who recently had to drop out of being a judge of a major literary prize because she hadn’t realised that (in her words) she ‘Would actually have to readall those books!’ My only response to that is Hallelujah: if only more utterly unqualified people dropped out, these prizes would be rated as highly as those I mentioned above. Above all, it is up to literary editors to appreciate that when an historian has put three or four (or frequently more) years of his life into a serious work of non-fiction, it is an act of premeditated cruelty to send it to a chicklit author or romcom actress for review. You know who you are. Only a decade ago, the House of Lords had no fewer than seven historians as members; today, with the sad deaths of Conrad Russell, Robert Blake, Alan Bullock, Hugh Dacre and others, there are hardly any. The first requirement of any great national senate ought to be a first-class memory, so the government should boost the number of historians back to its 1990s levels as soon as possible. People like Martin Gilbert, Ian Kershaw, Donald Cameron Watt and Keith Thomas would lend great weight to the deliberations of a parliament that needs the best possible collective recall. They would dignify debates and warn of the pitfalls of the past, just as their parliamentary predecessors have since the days of Macaulay. Compared with the hundreds upon hundreds of ex-civil servants, trade unionists, local government officials and passed-over politicians, would having half a dozen historians there really be such a bad thing?
LITERARY REVIEW July 2008