Keith Harris: "Entertaining Stories and History Are Not Necessarily The Same Thing"

What makes good history?   Should journalists be writing history?  Keith Harris explores these questions at his blog. aptly named “Keith Harris History.”  Here is a taste:

I suggest that not all best-selling journalists – even Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists – are created equal, at least when it comes to writing history. While the American public thirsts for a good historical tale, many would-be historians fall short in their efforts to rise to the occasion. The well-read, and might I add informed public, certainly get the entertainment they desire. What they often do not get is engaging history – but rather, shallow reports of historical events. So let’s not be confused here. Entertaining stories and history are not necessarily the same thing. Though first-rate journalists may have a flair for the written word, I am not convinced that they stand up to the rigors of academic research. And I do not want to sound snotty – but much of their work fails to match the standards set in academia. Some just write bad history well – and that is a damn shame.
Case in point. I recently read journalist Dick Lehr’s book on the controversial film, The Birth of a Nation. The book was not without virtues.  The writing was vivid, punchy, and yes, entertaining. But the history didn’t cut it for me. Lehr’s book was full of pretty obvious historical errors. His analysis was one dimensional and the book lacked depth and insight (spoiler alert: the film is racist…and black people didn’t like that).  I can only surmise that this is because the man is not a trained historian – so I forgive his shortcomings. And let’s be honest – if I tried to be a journalist, I would most likely blow it. So I will stick to doing what I know how to do – and keep writing history.
On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed journalist Rick Atkinson’s WWII Liberation Trilogy. This series was exhaustively researched and beautifully written. And yes, it too was entertaining. So I guess you never know. Like in any profession (even academia…) some are just better than others.
Harris also has some good things to say about historians and social media in this post.  Check out his very informative blog.

10 thoughts on “Keith Harris: "Entertaining Stories and History Are Not Necessarily The Same Thing"

  1. Austin Arnold said…

    For me, I find it exhausting and distasteful for trained academic historians to be in this us-against-them mode when speaking of amateur historians.

    Which brings to mind Richard Rorty's musings on 'professional' philosophers:

    …what is it that professional philosophers actually do? After a series of relatively hilarious examples, Rorty answers this question very bluntly : “we may conclude, then, that [what] professional philosophers do, by and large, [is] talk to teach other.” Philosopher write articles, attend conferences, and basically point out mistakes and oversights in the positions of other philosophers. Because of this strange fact, and because of the strange position of philosophy vis-à-vis culture, people are inclined to treat philosophy with “a mixture of reverence, perplexity and distrust.”

    http://philforum.berkeley.edu/blog/2011/06/05/what-do-professional-philosophers-do-thoughts-on-richard-rortys-philosopher-as-expert/

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  2. Journalists aren't always good historians. And academics are sometimes bad writers. During my three semesters of grad work in history I could sense my own prose stiffening and cramping–both because of the amount of mediocre academic writing I was reading and because of the jargony expectations but into academic work.

    Most people–myself included–will take a not-at-all-groundbreaking book that's well-written over a dry, drab, and expertly researched tome.

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  3. Thank you gentlemen for the response. And, Keith, my intention was not to point any fingers at you specifically, but to bring the issue to the forefront.

    John, if and when you do address this question, here's my thought: what would you tell your students earning a B.A. in history if they wanted to become historians, but didn't necessarily want to become trained professionally in a graduate program? You have many blog posts about “what can you do with a history major,” and I dare say a BA in history can write books just like his or her peers who may have advanced degrees.

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  4. Thanks for posting this John and many thanks for your kind words regarding my blog. In response to Austin's comment – I agree that the us-vs-them approach is not especially productive. I hope I did not come across as one of those academics who travel that road. Actually, I am quite enthused when it comes to the success of non-academic historians. It suggests to me, quite loudly, that the public has a thirst for history, and that's a good thing. I just think that some should approach their research, methodology, and analysis with a little more rigor. You certainly don't have to be academically trained to be a historian – but a little extra effort wouldn't hurt…and I think academics have a lot to offer. On the other hand, academics could learn something from those not professionally trained. After all, they are reaching an enormous audience – they must be doing something right.

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  5. Yes, John, academics are aware and frustrated of the publishing success of their non-academic “historian” peers. But, my question for you is: what do you say to this? For me, I find it exhausting and distasteful for trained academic historians to be in this us-against-them mode when speaking of amateur historians. I ask that you write a blog post about this question. Which is, does one have to be academically trained to be considered a “historian?”

    Thanks in advance,
    Austin Arnold

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