Writers – one-trick ponies or polymaths?

I have never accepted the notion that authors are supposed to only be expert in whatever their last book happened to be about, as if they are one-trick ponies. The issue was highlighted for me when I fielded a question from a journalist about my science book Living On Shaky Ground. I was known as a historian, so how had I been able to understand the physics?

It's a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really...
It’s a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really…

The reality is that the sciences, physics particularly, have been so much a part of me that the issue never arose – the real question is how somebody who’d started in the sciences became a historian. And when I look at the unprovoked malice with which strangers in New Zealand’s historical academia have welcomed my contribution to their territory, I often wonder myself. But I digress.

In any case, I am, first and foremost, a writer. For me writing is about looking at some of the questions of human reality. That path leads into every aspect of human endeavour.

The supposition that ‘experts’ can only know about the narrow field in which they work follows the Western notion that people are only capable of achievement in one field. This is true of the academy, where it’s embedded to the point that personal validation is usually entwined with status in a narrowly defined topic, such as twentieth century military history. I’ve even seen that used as worth-denial within disciplines – one historian bagging another for being, allegedly, ‘outside’ a very tiny field of alleged speciality.

All this is an outcome of the way that Western intellectual pursuits, particularly, have been compartmentalised. But it’s classic false-premise, because it presupposes that somebody cannot be expert in more than one area; or if they are, their expertise is somehow ‘inferior’ to that of those who limit themselves to a single field or topic.

Actually, I remember a radio interview I did in which the interviewer was wondering how I, having been brought up in New Zealand’s North Island, could possibly know enough about the South Island to write a book about its history – I think he had the notion that ‘history’ was all about collecting funny local stories that you happened to know because you’d been brought up with them. I had to explain that it’s a profession and the research principles apply to any topic, irrespective of where I happened to have been brought up.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.
Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

That’s true for much more than just regional history in New Zealand. The thing is that true writers have to be curious about everything. Writing demands being able to intellectually synthesise, to get an overview of subject.

I think becoming expert in more than one area – and familiar with a very broad swathe of things – offers huge advantages. It is where creativity comes from – big-picture thinking. Too often, especially in specialist academia, studies focus on close detail and miss the wood for the trees.

To my mind, expertise backed by a very wide general understanding is a better sort of expertise, because it is given context. Getting there demands several things. It demands a restless curiosity. It demands an ability to understand more than surface detail and to perceive the shapes and patterns that drive the wider world. It also demands abstraction. So in answer to ‘generalist or expert’, the actual answer, then, is ‘both’. The word for all this, I think, is ‘polymath’. Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


15 thoughts on “Writers – one-trick ponies or polymaths?

  1. I have the feeling I’d enjoy looking through your personal library, Matthew, and I hope you’d find one or two things to enjoy in mine!

    The proper field of writers is the human condition — which means writers probably come as close as anyone to being interested in the broadest possible range of subjects at one time or another in their lives, if only because you never know what will come in useful someday.

    1. Absolutely – and I cordially invite you to browse my bookshelves, if you’re ever over my way in NZ! Eclecticism is definitely an advantage for authors. In this, I suspect, we’re in the shadow of Asimov – I found an interview he did in 1986 with Marilyn Vos Savant discussing the very issue of generalist vs specialist. Slightly grimy sound quality but an intriguing insight:

  2. Ha! I was writing a blog post this morning about how we’re all becoming specialists instead of generalists in everyday life. Things we used to do for ourselves have become so complicated that now we have to employ experts to do them for us. (Cars which used to be simple mechanical objects are now stuffed with sensitive electronics that the layman tampers with at his peril.) Personally I’m much happier knowing a little about a LOT of things than I would be if I had to focus on a narrow field to know that in great detail. Part of understanding is making connections, so a wide field of knowledge is invaluable. The specialists will all be completely stuffed when Sunstrike hits and they don’t know how to survive!

    1. Absolutely. It kicked up in my book on earthquakes too. Back in the 1850s, major quakes weren’t such mondo disasters in part because everybody had all the survival skills needed, as part of everyday life. Today? How many people today can prepare a rabbit or chicken for dinner, from scratch? Or dig a well for water? We just missed a low-level Sunstrike type event last week – a Category 4 solar storm with bulk aurorae. The scenario playing out in your novels isn’t just a possibility – one day, it’s gonna happen! Seriously. And nobody will be properly prepared!

    2. I’ve blogged on that myself quite a few times and have actually called our present age the “Age of Certification” as we’ve become both so specialized in the natures of our employment and so enamored of certification, at least in the US. An example of that is here: http://lexanteinternet.blogspot.com/2014/07/men-women-work-and-careers-work-in-age.html

      It’s a rough age for polymaths for sure. The more a person develops anything in anyone field, the more they’re pigeonholed in it.

  3. “In any case, I am, first and foremost, a writer. For me writing is about looking at some of the questions of human reality.” Agreed! I’ve written two books set during the Civil War and I am no Civil War expert; however, I am human. Therefore, I can connect to those who experienced the Civil War through our shared humanity.

    1. Absolutely. And what I’ve read of your Civil War work underscores that connection – you’ve written some wonderful, intense, human stuff that really drives to the heart of what it meant to be there, in ways that we can feel today. Superb writing.

  4. Really excellent post.

    As I noted in a reply to one of the comments just above, we live in the “age of certification” and as part of that, the concept of a person moving from one field to another or occupying more than one seems downright strange to a lot of people. I’m a full time practicing lawyer and I also run livestock, which I find really baffles people and which is simply beyond the ability for some to grasp (as in “so, the cows are your hobby?, or while working cattle “so. . . you’re the lawyer. . . it must be nice to be out here on a day off. . . “). Looking back at even relatively recent history, however, this view certainly wasn’t always the case, and men at least moved from occupation to occupation without stepping down several rungs to do so and without that seeming to be unnatural.

    With writers, one thing I’ve noticed is the concept that a writer can write a novel and history just seems wildly bizarre to some, although I’ve been attempting to do both. And it’s also the case that, unfortunately, the historical world is subject to a certain degree of “private turf” thought. Being an amateur such as myself, I haven’t really personally run into it, but academic historians have long been fairly hostile to writers who come from outside academia, even though many of those writers have excellent research skills and can write in a more engaging fashion. Some academic writers almost seem to pride themselves on dull writing and unapproachable subjects.

    As a fwiw, I started out in the sciences myself, and then entered the law, a not too uncommon experience around here.

    1. I’ve had similar experience with ‘hobby’ and ‘job’ labels – people don’t seem to grasp that people can do many things! These days I don’t even try to label myself – I use the word ‘writer’, but that’s it. I was trained first in the sciences; I also did formal writing courses (fiction writing), then went on to do history academically, which is where I’ve probably written the most stuff. But I had to do so outside the academy – I’ll publish the story about that one day. My reward from academia for succeeding after they’d excluded me was an absolute explosion of public hatred – pretty much as you point out.

      A friend from the UK academic scene suggested to me it was worse in New Zealand because the field is so small – NZ has the same population as Kentucky and it’s not hard to know all the people in a particular academic ‘territory’. The fact that I was listed at one point as one of the top five military historians in the country – triggering public eruptions of abuse from three of the others (including being sworn at by one of them on radio) – sums it up. I hadn’t actually done much in that field, relative to my depth of interest in other areas, and it was a transient curiosity for me – I was offered a multi-book contract, which I didn’t want to turn down. Yet they still treated me as an intruder that had to be destroyed at all cost. My focus has been elsewhere since.

      For me the interesting part about my rather mercurial interests has been the way they all link together. My non-fiction history writing absolutely drew on the writing skills I’d been taught, which were more directed at novels but turned out to be fully applicable to non-fiction. The science totally backed the history – I found it illuminated questions that my non-science peers were struggling to understand and answer. And when I did get to write a more purely science book, it was a ‘stretch goal’ but not a ‘challenge’ per se.

      1. I read once that Barbara Tuchman received a fair amount of disdain from academic historians due to her book the Guns of August. It’s an excellent book, but she simply wasn’t part of the crowd.

        Some time ago I heard a British academic historian interviewed and he noted with some amazement, and actually praise, that in the are of military history there were a lot of non academic historians writing in the US. In the UK, it seemed, the field was dominated by academic historians. I can and do read some pretty dry material, but I will say that some British academic historians, as well, as American ones, seem to pride themselves on being dull. History is interesting. Indeed the history of nearly anything is interesting. Until it becomes the possession of those who would rather exclude all but the members of the club..

        1. Yes, there’s a lot of academic-military work in the UK – driven, I think, by the fact that their military colleges also act as universities. Dullness is a virtue in such environment!🙂 I suspect the kinds of questions they ask, and the way they are meant to be expressed and framed, lends itself to being uninteresting. Though I’ve always found John Keegan’s work readable, and there’s a good friend of mine, Chris Pugsley, who was a senior lecturer at Sandhurst and whose latest book – in particular – is a great piece of literature by any measure. Interesting, wonderfully brilliant, human and thoroughly well written for any reader. He’s a very talented writer and an excellent historian.

          Curious personal note here – the military-historical work of mine that the local ‘club’ were falling over themselves in their eagerness to publicly destroy, was received at the Royal Military College in Sandhurst with acclaim for my scholarship and contribution. And on that merit, the RMC put me forward to the Royal Historical Society at University College in London, who elected me a Fellow on merit. Kinda puts the local NZ people in their place, though it didn’t undo the financial damage they’d inflicted on me with their circus (lost book sales, exclusions from publishing opportunities, etc).

  5. Wonderful article, Matthew. As I read it a small light went on in my head and I gained a bit of insight into myself. I’ve struggled for years with my own self-identity trying to figure out where I should devote my time an energy. We live in a world where specialization is expected and even becomes a way categorizing who we are. We ask our children “What do you want to be when you grow up?” as if they only have a single choice. This very dilemma kept me from completing my college degree because I was never satisfied with any one field of study. I’ve felt a bit like an outcast because I have no singular profession.

    So bravo to you for taking a stance on diversification of knowledge. It’s a massive universe in which we live and why shouldn’t we have a burning passion to see and learn and know as much of it as we can?

    1. I agree – the onus is on us to understand as much as we can of the world and universe around us. And doing so by exploring more than one profession is definitely the way. It’s interesting, challenging, and always worthwhile.

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