Issue 200 special: “History books will need to be objects of desire”

To mark our 200th issue, our reviews editor Matt Elton asked four leading authors how they think history publishing has changed in the 16 years since BBC History Magazine was launched, and whether there's a future for books on the past...

David Reynolds, Professor of international history at Christ’s College, Cambridge. (Photo by Alamy)

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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The panel

Andrew Roberts: A student of modern history at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge, Roberts worked as an investment banker before embarking on a career as a historian, lecturer and journalist. His books include The Storm of War (2009) and Napoleon the Great (2014, both Allen Lane). He has also presented a number of high-profile television series on a range of historical subjects.

LONDON, UK: Author and historian, Andrew Roberts, photographed in his house in London Photo by Sebastian Meyer (Photo by Sebastian Meyer/Corbis via Getty Images)
Andrew Roberts. (Photo by Sebastian Meyer/Corbis via Getty Images)

Tom Holland: After graduating from Queens’ College, Cambridge with a double first in English, Holland began his literary career writing historical fiction. His non-fiction books include Herodotus: The Histories – A New Translation (Penguin Classics, 2013) and Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar (Little, Brown, 2015). He is a regular presenter of the BBC Radio 4 series Making History.

Author Tom Holland
Tom Holland. (Photo by Helen Atkinson)

Suzannah Lipscomb: Educated at Lincoln College and Balliol College, University of Oxford, Lipscomb is head of history at the New College of the Humanities. She is a prolific broadcaster, with recent TV documentaries including Henry VIII and his Six Wives. Her books include A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England (Ebury, 2012) and The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII (Head of Zeus, 2015).

Writer & Historian Suzannah Lipscomb speaks during the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival at Diggi Palace in Jaipur , Rajasthan , India on 21st Jan, 2017.(Photo By Vishal Bhatnagar/NurPhoto via Getty Images) (Photo by Vishal Bhatnagar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Suzannah Lipscomb. (Photo By Vishal Bhatnagar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

David Reynolds: Professor of international history at Christ’s College, Cambridge, Reynolds won the Wolfson History Prize in 2004 for his book In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (Allen Lane). His subsequent books include The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (Simon and Schuster, 2013), a subject about which he also presented a BBC series.

David Reynolds, Professor of international history at Christ’s College, Cambridge. (Photo by Alamy)
David Reynolds. (Photo by Alamy)

What trends have shaped history books over the past 16 years?

Andrew Roberts: There are some very positive things. There is much more women’s history and black history, for instance, and a much more diverse set of books is being published overall. But, at the same time, it strikes me that there are fewer books on large, overarching themes. It seems that if people are writing about a specific subject they seem to be choosing slightly smaller subjects than in the 1980s and 90s, when there were plenty of new books being written on an entire decade or an entire war. More and more it’s about people writing about smaller and smaller themes.

David Reynolds: There are challenges to writing about bigger themes, and it’s sometimes more attractive to write a micro-history. On the other hand, there are still big books coming out. I recently read Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton (Allen Lane, 2014), which is a sweeping account of how cotton production and manufacture developed. It’s global in scope and leaves you with huge questions – but that’s often what an important book does. It encourages people to pull it apart, and that’s perhaps the greatest testimony to a book that has a real influence.

Tom Holland: An area that I’m sure will be a topic of considerable study was flagged up by Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis: War, Climate and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale University Press, 2013), which explores the idea that crises around the globe in that period were the result of climactic change. It seems to me to be an absolutely archetypally 21st-century book, and obviously climate is going to be a topic that is not going to go away.

Just earlier this year there was a paper published which argued that climactic crisis had hit in the sixth and early seventh centuries AD with a major impact on the fortunes of the Roman and Persian empires and ultimately the rise of Islam. I suspect this will be a field of increasing interest: not just climate change but the concept of globalisation. When you live in a globalised world, it becomes easier to write panoramic histories that establish links across it.

What challenges does history, and history writing, face in 2016?

Suzannah Lipscomb: We now have good academic historians writing books that are accessible to a wider audience, not just for themselves, which hasn’t always been the case. That’s good, and to be encouraged.

My concern is that there is still quite a lot of dross being published as history – an increasing amount, I’d say. I’m glad that academics and great historians are tackling that by writing for a general audience, because there’s no other way of checking the quality of a lot of this material.

AR: The other thing that’s happened since 2000 is the great rise of self-published books, many of which should not be published because they are not good enough. So few of them are of any quality and yet they do, I’m sure, impinge on the sales of much better books that have been properly edited.

SL: It seems to me that all of us are committed to the idea of writing for a general audience, but also that those books should not show any decline in scholarship.

TH: I think that there’s a case for saying that, if you’re writing for a general audience, it’s almost more incumbent on you to make sure you get your facts absolutely right and that you’re abreast with the most recent scholarly thinking, because for many people it will be the only taste that they have of that period.

DR: Another serious problem is the fact that student book lists are now very present-centred. If something doesn’t come up on an online list of titles to buy, people just aren’t interested. There are some classics of earlier periods that are just being overlooked.

AR: An important aspect that we should discuss is television. The BBC is now putting out much less history on TV than it was between 2000 and 2014. I’d like whoever has made that decision to think again, because people love history on TV. It’s not as if there should be a decade in which you focus on a particular subject such as gardening or food, for instance, before letting history have its time again. It would be a worry if this trend does carry on, not just for our careers but also for people enjoying history and therefore buying history books as a result of watching television shows.

DR: The appetite for history, both in terms of books and television, reflects the growth of the university sector since the 1970s and the number of people who have come through with a history education. Most of them will not then do any more specialist history, but they have an appetite for it and some critical sense of how history is written. That encourages them to read history books, watch TV programmes and so on. There is a big market and, as Andrew says, there has been a precipitous decline in history programming in the past couple of years.

A problem in the writing of academic history, meanwhile, is the Research Excellence Framework. This is a method of assessing higher education research that means that things have to be done in six-year chunks – which militates against big projects that take 10 years and are really important. I think it’s an unfortunate aspect of what is in origin a reasonable request – that there should be some accountability of public money, which I have no problem with – but

I do feel that it’s gone too far in bureaucratic culture. It has an inimical effect on the production of history books, too, because most of us are lone scholars and big projects take time – sometimes longer than six years.

Looking back at the past 16 years, what books stand out for you as being particularly interesting or important?

SL: For my period, the Tudors, a really key book was GW Bernard’s The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church (Yale, 2005). It suggested that historian GR Elton hadn’t got it quite right by saying that the reformation was all Thomas Cromwell’s doing, and actually that Henry VIII was behind it. The massive tome Bernard came up with has been important even as a jumping-off point for discussion. And, the year before that, Eric Ives – who often saw things from a different perspective from Bernard – wrote The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004), a biography that isn’t going to be surpassed for some time, no matter how many people try.

Equally important in terms of scholarship on the reformation are Eamon Duffy’s books, particularly The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (Yale, 2003). This is a look at the reformation in the parishes through church-wardens’ accounts, and the extent to which there was reluctance to remove the paraphernalia of late medieval Catholicism.

Outside of my direct area, I’ve been really struck by Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guides, which have been extremely helpful for getting a popular audience into the past, and Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (Penguin, 2012), which is a very good read on the history of sexuality and morality.

DR: A book that had enormous impact is Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (Allen Lane, 2010), which was commissioned by the BBC while MacGregor was in charge of the British Museum.

You can measure a book’s success by the number of imitators it has, and you can now go into any airport bookshop and see many examples of the idea that you can sum everything up in a few vignettes. In the hands of an author such as MacGregor

I think it’s an idea that can work very well, but in the hands of a second-rate imitator the result can be really crass.

Closer to my own area, Christopher Clark’s superb The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane, 2012) had a great impact, but not always in ways that the author expected. I don’t think Clark anticipated that the phrase ‘sleepwalkers’, which is never fully explained, would be an image that everyone latched on to as the way to understand 1914. It also illustrates a larger current of historiography about 1914: books about Germany’s role, usually by non-Germans, that shift the blame towards the Balkans and Russia.

That’s had a huge effect in Germany because, in a sense, it has exorcised the idea that the country was responsible for two world wars because of an essentially militaristic strain in its history. That book and several others have ignited debate in Germany, not least because the right and left wing of its historical profession are very politically polarised. Clark’s is an example of a great book that’s had a huge effect but in ways that the author didn’t entirely calculate.

AR: On the subject of the end of the First World War, Margaret MacMillan’s Peacemakers: Six Months that Changed the World (John Murray, 2001) is another key book.

On a smaller scale, Anne Somerset’s The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV (St Martin’s Press, 2004) is a perhaps overlooked book that is nonetheless important. What

I think it did brilliantly was to take the period’s gossip and rumour seriously: the ballads and jokes that some historians might have disregarded because they seem like throwaway lines, but do still mean something below the surface.

Lisa Jardine’s book on 1688, Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory (HarperCollins, 2008), is interesting in suggesting that it was a Dutch invasion rather than the British inviting them over.

It was highly argumentative and ultimately I didn’t agree with it, but boy, was it a great read for sheer sustained, intelligent, polemical discussion. Jardine’s death last year was a tremendous and terrible loss to the trade.

TH: The book I read that most revolutionised my understanding of European history was Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce AD 300-900 by Michael McCormick (Cambridge, 2002), who is a specialist in late antiquity. It’s about how Europe in the Dark Ages – if we’re allowed to call it that – emerged from the economic despond inflicted by the collapse of the Roman empire in the west, thanks to the trading in slaves to the much richer Muslim powers of north Africa and Sicily. McCormick argues that this then provided the flow of gold that enabled Europe to take off in the early to high Middle Ages. I found it absolutely jaw-dropping.

On the topic of Islam, the great historiographical development over the past 30 years – which has really started quickening over the past decade – is the application of methodologies to the origins of Islam and the emergence of the caliphate that people would not think twice about applying to any other ancient civilisation. In that context, Stephen J Shoemaker’s The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) seems to me to stand out. Shoemaker’s background is in the critical study of the Bible, and he applies those methodologies to the early stories about Muhammad. For all kinds of obvious reasons, this is simultaneously the most sensitive and the most thrilling area of historical research right now.

If we were to meet up in another 16 years’ time, how different would the world of history publishing be?

TH: I’ll answer that question by looking backwards. Up until 1989, there was a sense that the history that mattered began with the French Revolution, and that what mattered was the Russian Revolution, the experience of fascism and the division of the world into rival power blocs, and that the Cold War had served in a sense to put earlier periods of history and their ability to affect the present into a deep freeze.

What happened with the end of the Cold War was that all kinds of ancient identities and hatred began to emerge out of the permafrost. And what you see now, 27 years on, is history emerging from all kinds of different places. Who would have thought, back in 1989, that possibly the most significant period for understanding current geopolitics would be the seventh and eighth centuries in the Middle East?

Looking at Britain, Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707 – 1837 (Yale, 1992) served to flag up the firestorm of debate about British identity that has indeed engulfed us. I’m guessing, over the next 15 years, crises will blow up – both in Britain and the broader world – with roots in periods of history we can’t yet predict. We will find that all kinds of books are, in the US historian Barbara Tuchman’s phrase, “distant mirrors” of the present.

AR: I gave a speech at a school earlier today, and one of the questions I was asked was: if the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes at a University of Oxford college goes on to its logical conclusion, will we be pulling down statues of Winston Churchill the racist? And I thought, yes, possibly. If, in 100 years’ time, racism becomes the key distinguishing factor for good versus evil in society, then maybe even though Churchill was instrumental in destroying a far worse – and exterminationist – racism, nonetheless his racism may make it impossible to present him as a positive figure. So it strikes me that, because we can’t predict what the future is going to hold, we should continue to write the best history that we possibly can and to let the future take care of itself.

SL: I would like to see more integration. I would hope, for instance, that there won’t be such a thing as ‘women’s history’, but that the perspectives of women, people from ethnic minority groups, and so on, will be more integrated into the mainstream. The other thing is that books are going to become more beautiful in order to confront the digital threat. They will need to be desirable objects as much as anything.

DR: So you are confident about the continued existence of the ‘book’, then?

SL: Yes, very much so – but only as objects of desire in their own right.

AR: Do you think that we’ll get to the point where history books will have links to extra material you can click and interact with?

TH: Publishers are having all kinds of discussions, but not for a fair while yet.

SL: Dan Snow makes a strong case for how digital apps can be used in an exciting way by layering video footage, maps, tables and so on. I don’t think that kind of thing will supplant books, but I think that it will increasingly happen alongside them.

What advice would you give people who want to start writing history?

AR: Don’t go into history writing for money! Do it for love and no other reason.

TH: Write about what you’re interested in. Don’t second-guess the market.

SL: The best writing comes from reading lots, so just read lots, both inside and outside the period that you’re interested in. Get as broad a vision as possible.

DR: I’m lucky: I’m doing something that’s about the only job in the world that I could do, and I love doing it. I’ve also gained a lot from the chance to do television and radio, because it really forces you to be clear on what you’re trying to say, and say it in a succinct, non-condescending, jargon-free manner. There’s a huge appetite for history – and people want to hear about it if you communicate it in the right kind of way.

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Hear more from this debate on our podcast by clicking here. Tom, Suzannah and David will also be speaking at BBC History Magazine’s History Weekends this autumn.