Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Popular history is right under our noses

Last week's announcement that Charlotte Gray's The Massey Murder  had been shortlisted for the Taylor Award is another indication that great stories that can be both popular, entertaining and innovative, are right there for Canadian historians to take.

Although it's hard to believe, I first learned of the story about the Massey murder in a book published almost two decades ago, Carolyn Strange's Toronto's Girl Problem. I still love that book for the way it gets right up under the weird sexual and gender ideas of turn-of-the-century Toronto. One of the reasons it's such a fun book is that the worried conservative critics of working women and their moral pitfalls were, essentially, right. The very small moves towards some limited freedom (and Strange shows just how limited it was) for girls working in factories really would amount to the kinds of things that the critics feared. Dating as a form of prostitution. Or that's how the average late nineteenth century society lady would now see what most parents would pass off as the typical dating habits of those in their late teens onward.

It's just that very few, these days, particularly care. Or not in the same way. We now are more interested in harm, disease, psychological costs, fulfilment, etc. And the old fashioned moralists are in a smaller group, or focused on younger kids.

But that gets us back to Charlotte Gray's book and its overlap with Strange's Toronto's Girl Problem. For both books tell the same story about one young working woman who took things right to the edge, killing the man who might (or might not) have been a sexual danger to her.

Gray's genius is simply to plunk out from right under the grasp of all the academic historians a story that had great potential, and then tell it in the right way.


  1. This is interesting, Chris. It made me think about the relationship between academic history and popular history and the ways we tell stories. Charlotte Gray couldn't have written her book without Carolyn Strange's work (plus other scholarly histories of Toronto) and presumably the more popular renditions of the Angelina Napolitano story were helped by Franca Iacovetta's and Karen Dubinsky's piece. The "right way" to tell stories is presumably to make them compelling but as you know, what's compelling is driven by audience and institutional structures, esp. research structures/cultures at universities. (Girl Problem was Carolyn's dissertation.) Although I think there is a place for scholarly history, I also think that those of us who write it can make it more compelling - and hence accessible. We need to become better writers, and to find a way to make the complexities we find so interesting as captivating for a more general audience as they are for us. I know you take writing seriously so I am not telling you anything you don't already know or try to do. It has always struck me that Charlotte Gray says (emphatically) that she is NOT an historian - that she is a writer. The two don't have to be mutually exclusive, and I take that as a challenge (in a good way) to write better but not to abandon the purposes of scholarly history. I haven't met that challenge yet, but...

  2. Thanks for the comments Tina. As I'm just about to send out a book proposal to agents, I'm personally hoping that the two don't have to be mutually exclusive!

  3. Hi Chris,

    A big part of the difference between academic and popular history lies with the publisher, not the writer. The lengthy process of editing and publishing a peer-reviewed book with a university press invariably forces historians to format their work in a particular academic style and format that limit the potential to attract a popular audience and gain media attention. It's not just the footnotes but also the requirement to spend so much time in the text discussing the historiography and positioning oneself theoretically and methodologically. This weighs down the prose and boxes the author into branding her/himself as a particular type of historian.

    Equally important, no matter how much care an academic historian puts into her/his writing -- and, truth be told, most professors care deeply about their writing style -- peer-reviewed books published by a university press are never going to get the type of press attention and crucial placement in commercial book-stores that other types of books get. Academic books may appear here and there at Chapters, but they are rarely featured prominently, and only a few copies will be available at any given time (if the historian is lucky). There are always exceptions, of course, but I cannot remember the last time I saw an academic book on a display table at Chapters. University presses, which are non-profit, simply don't have the resources to compete with commercial presses at that level.

    The interesting part of this is that, in the US, prominent American historians often publish with commercial presses rather than university presses. As far as I know, books published by Knopf, Vintage, and similar houses don't go through the peer review process that academic presses follow. Yet high-profile books like Maya Jasanoff's recent _Liberty's Exiles_ don't seem to get taken less seriously among American historians because they are not published by a university press, and they still get reviewed in scholarly journals.

    I think that academic historians working in Canada are much less willing to take such books seriously. We tend to divide our assessments rather sharply between academic and popular, with not much terrain in between. Tenure and promotion committees place relatively little weight on books that are not peer reviewed, so it's hard for junior or mid-career academic historians to justify going with a commercial press. I would like to see a bigger intellectual space open up between scholarly and popular history in Canada -- blogs like yours are certainly helping -- but things are not much different now from what they were when Carolyn published _Toronto's Girl Problem_. If memory serves, that was 20 years ago.


  4. Great comments Jerry. There's a good deal involved - the presses, the peer-review process, the career pressure in universities themselves. My sense is that the last point you raise might be most important - this idea that books aimed at a more popular audience just don't count. It's not the same in the US or Britain where there is a larger market. Then again, my sense is that some of the books aimed at the larger market, like Jasanoff's, are still pretty damn scholarly. They still convey big ideas. Even Tom Holland who is a very popular historian of the ancient world writes pretty dense, fascinating books. It's not at all like Pierre Berton. Though, there too, McKillop shows nicely in his biography of Berton that he did a good deal more research than the professors at the time gave him credit for. It was as much about historiographical emphasis that they didn't like him - that and the great metaphors. If we range beyond 'shedding a new light' or 'opening a door' on or 'seeing things against the grain', then we're troublemakers! But I digress...