The Lure of the Limelight: Given the state of academic life today, we should not be surprised that scholars seek stardom
Too many young historians are quitting academia for the fool’s gold of trade publishing. That’s the view of Sir Keith Thomas, chairman of the Wolfson History Prize, who denounced the brain drain in May. He identified a worrying ‘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’.
We all know of whom he speaks: those beautiful historians who graduate from PhD to Penguin to BBC with indecent haste. The academics that get left behind, says Thomas, enter into a ‘parasitic relationship’ with the stars of the field. While the university lecturers do all the primary research, the trade press historians lift it as secondary evidence and scoop all the cash. Over time the nuanced work of the academic becomes undervalued and overlooked, locked up in the library of some ivory tower. Meanwhile the trade press authors mature into recyclers of tired cliches.
Thomas has identified a real problem, but he’s only half right about the source. On the one hand the lure of fame and money is great. On the other hand any person with eyes can see that it’s a myth. Figures suggest that trade press advances for history books have fallen considerably compared with what they were ten years ago. An author can only produce one book every two years (if it is any good) and what the publishers offer in return isn’t enough to feed, clothe and house someone during that time. In many regards academia - with its guaranteed income, long holidays and respectability - ought to be a much better deal.