Monday, 9 April 2012

Extraordinary Canadians, part 2

Thanks to everyone who responded to my post that was ultimately about Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series (though it started out being about Christopher Moore's post on a Hitler biography - funny how that happens).

The replies clarified in my mind what it is that has disturbed me about the series.

Clearly there are some good biographies that people like. From those who commented, Matt Hayday likes the accessible Ricci on Trudeau; for Roderick Benns it is the Beaverbrook and Big Bear bios; L S Fraser likes Big Bear too; and Christopher Moore votes for Saul on Baldwin and Lafontaine.

What made things clear for me was Fraser's comment that the batch of bios of former extraordinary Canadians was being written by a bunch of current Extraordinary Canadians (Joseph Boyden or Douglas Coupland, for example). So we ought to be happy that we are so fortunate in getting such great biographers.

And yet this is the rub. My problem, I now see, isn't necessarily with the series as such, but with the world of contemporary Canadian letters. The choices of biographers are all interesting - get people, mostly fiction writers, who have some interesting connection with the topic. The choices might or might not work.

But why is it that we can't get people to write these biographies who really know about the subject, the kind of person who could actually write the two volume, break your back when carrying it back from the bookstore kind of biography? It's not that I'm keen to always read the 400 page plus books. I like a good slim read as much as the next peson. What I want, though, is to have that little book written by someone who really knows what they're talking about - who isn't chosen just because they are themselves a kind of celebrity.

And here my concern isn't with the editor of the series, it's with academics. Why is it that, for the most part (warning: generalization alert), those who get paid to be experts in a subject (academics) can't and/or won't write genuinely accessible books that people will read?

There are exceptions. The biography of Leacock was written by the historian Margaret Macmillan. Not a Leacock expert of course, but certainly more than capable of the task.

It's nothing against the fiction writers, but where are the academics who want to write to the kind of popular audience that this series will attract? A complex question, with many different kinds of answers. But at least now I know that it was this that bothered me about the series - its context, not necessarily its content.


  1. An excellent reflection! As I'm primarily an educator, I lean towards accessible books that students and those just learning about history can engage in. Although I'm sure the editors at Penguin had academics fact-check and research material, an accessible history from an academic source is an often elusive resource for us teachers.

    You may find some comfort in another exception in the series: Charlotte Gray's biography on Nellie McClung.

  2. Thanks. I'll take a look at Gray on McClung.

  3. Alas, I'd venture that part of the answer to your question is that the academic who wants to write to the popular audience that these books attract is also the academic who is willing to sacrifice steps in the tenure and promotion process, because these works aren't valued by their peers as "academic" contributions. Although accessible writing is one of the issues, the bigger one is the prestige factor of publishing monographs with academic presses (and the jargon that peer evaluators demand in these books).

    We are caught in a bit of a bind. University administrations seemingly love it when their faculty write books with popular appeal that get the university's name in the press, and everyone decries the lack of good textbooks in more specialized areas. But most academics know (or at least believe) that writing either of these types of books instead of a scholarly journal article or monograph will hurt them when it comes time for performance evaluations. And because of hiring practices of recent decades (or rather the long drought of hiring in the 90s), there aren't that many full professors at the top of the salary grid kicking around for whom this disincentive isn't an issue.

  4. Hi Matt - Thanks for taking the time to make the thoughtful comments. This really is a tricky issue and the whole question of what 'counts' in the careers of academics is a big part. I essentially agree with you - and then some.

    My sense is that there are these disincentives for academics who want to write for a broader audience. I also think, though, that for many it has become ingrained as a kind of common sense. That is, the need for discipline is done with, the academics have been trained and indoctrinated. For the most part, life goes on, and questions don't get asked. (I know I'm essentially invoking Foucault and Gramsci here - sorry.)

    But I do, (naively?) think there is room for improvement and movement, and I certainly don't intend to wait until I'm a full professor before I start writing history that is more accessible!