Why we write

I spent 28 years of my life dreaming about writing a book. It’s something that not many people ever manage, let alone many 28 year olds. Unless you’re Justin Bieber, in which case someone writes your autobiography for you when you’re 16. But – thankfully – I’m not Justin Beiber.

Having written my first book, naturally I’ve been thinking about the future. When you dream about something for so long, and finally achieve it, what do you do next? Well, the obvious answer is write more books. But on a more philosophical level, the whole experience has got me thinking about why exactly we write.

As far as I can see, there are seven reasons to write:

  • To make money. Or, at least, cover your costs
  • To inform, educate, and entertain
  • To boost your CV
  • To write a wrong, or clear up a mystery
  • To argue, persuade or convince
  • To massage your ego
  • To win yourself brownie points with other academics

Of course, some authors are motivated by any combination of the above.

Unless you are in the fortunate situation of not having to worry about money – ie, you work for an institution and writing comes as part of the job, or you are simply minted – basic economics mean that you have to at least cover your costs. Unless you write the next Birdsong, you’re not going to make a fortune from writing history. Of course, it’s no good writing something that nobody wants to read, whether it is too niche, too boring, or simply, crap. No publisher will touch a book that doesn’t have the prospect of selling well. Which can be a double edged sword – some authors, clearly, end up writing books that sell, but don’t have much historical merit.

I must admit, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ would not win me any academic awards. I doubt it would even do very well as a PhD thesis. But, after being on sale for a month it has probably sold more copies than many of my erstwhile lecturers ever will with of some of their books. And I think that’s a very important point – historians tend to write just for each other. No wonder much popular history ends up being rubbish – gifted historians tend to concentrate too much on academic journals, that only academics read. Is anything you write in a journal article really likely to change the world? Is it going to convince a 15 year old to choose a career as a historian? No, I don’t think so either. I know of more than one critically acclaimed history book that has actually sold pitifully few numbers. Whatever you write, or how important you think it is, if no-one reads it, what difference does it make?

I guess its similar to music. The Bay City Rollers sold more records in the 70’s than anyone else, but did they have any effect on music? Not really. Black Sabbath didn’t sell many records in the 70’s, but their musical legacy inspired a whole genre. There are probably hundreds of bands out there who are cult heroes to many geeky musos – you know, the arty types – who didn’t sell any records, hardly anyone heard of them at the time, and no-one can remember them now.

Historically, I guess I’m trying to plot a course somewhere between Bay City Rollers and Black Sabbath territory – credible, but appealing to normal people. I want people to actually be able to read it, but then I think it is very important to have things like a bibliography, and endnotes, so your work stands up to scrutiny and is useful to people.

I’m trying to think of a way of concluding this post, that makes sense. But having realised that I have basically described myself as a historical cross between the Bay City Rollers and Black Sabbath, I think I will simply leave it there.

Any other historians have any thoughts on the subject?

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “Why we write

  1. x

    Gosh where to start so late…….

    The main trouble with “history” as in history taught at a tertiary level is that it is too politicised. And for politicised please read too left wing when societies as a whole tend to be conservative. For left wing I mean high politics left wing. And for conservative I mean resistant to change. In that for a society to be distinct certain values, structures and traditions have to be upheld for a certain period for that society to come into being. Paradoxically those values, structures, and traditions don’t have to be real only perceived as real to become concrete. There is too much interpretation (and dare I say supposition) and not enough observation. Too much seeking the unique perspective, however tenuous or indeed abstract, in fields that are well beaten all in the cause of keeping funding or keeping on the publishing treadmill which is I suppose the same thing or as you say historians writing for historians……..

  2. Pingback: The Problems of Writing Academic History « Thoughts on Military History

    • James Daly

      Hi Ross, thanks for the debate! It’s nice to see I’ve sparked off some thought. I guess when I mention academia I was thinking more of some or the more obscure ‘niche’ history fields out there. Military history in academia actually has a pretty good record, I think, of ‘crossover’ into society at large.

  3. Dave

    Gosh, thanks X, now I’ve seen the light and I will write more history that proves that society is right to resist change, that observes the reality of imaginary things, and that doesn’t say anything new. Can you possibly be serious? That’s a recipe for a return to the 12th century.

    • x

      Good for you. I hope you get as many firsts as I did for my history scribblings.

      What is wrong with the 12th century? Many of the Medievalists I know would have you burned at the stake for disrespecting their era of study.

  4. Pingback: The Problems of Writing Academic History « Birmingham "On War"

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