A few years back the managing editor at Penguin New Zealand, who I knew quite well, suggested I needed to be careful about some of the titles I’d been selling.
At the time I wasn’t just writing serious histories for him – I was also writing more superficial books for one of the major book chains, under their own brand. He suggested that I wouldn’t be taken as a serious historian if I wrote that sort of stuff. My counter was that the money I was making from the weetbix books basically subsidised the other stuff I did, which made it possible to write his more technical books freelance.
There was also the point that – well, I wasn’t in the writing game to earn status with New Zealand’s intellectual history community, variously university and public-funded, but all supported by me as a taxpayer. They had already made clear that my efforts to earn an income commercially for myself and my publishers, all on my own enterprise and merit – but in the intellectual territories of the academy – was about as welcome as a skunk at a picnic.
Quite. I’d have been happy had any one of these strangers had the guts to approach me in person and obtain the facts. None have. Not one. So from my perspective – who cared? I was going to be publicly crucified by them no matter what I did, all while they cowered behind their status and asserted position. So why should I compromise a commercial income, which I was earning on enterprise, that these taxpayer-funded academics were going to try and destroy anyway?
The wider thing is that authors are often viewed as being only capable of what they are seen to write. If an author writes a history book pitched, by design, for a specific audience – let’s say the widest slice of the reading public, who’re interested in accessible history that doesn’t bog down too much in the self-referential arguments that exercise the academy – there’s a high chance they’ll be viewed by the academy as knowing only how to write fluff – seen as personally incapable of tackling what are actually socially-mediated technicalities that they used to define their place.
For my own part, I’ve written high-horsepower material from time to time, including various technical papers and the odd book that unleashes the necessary historical techniques, up front – Guns and Utu (Penguin 2011), for instance, which was designed to extend a historiographical argument within the academy, and said so. Of course I still got ruthlessly kicked by the academy for doing it – but more to the point, sales figures reflected the intellectual density, underscoring the fact that it’s better to write something more accessible, because more people are likely to be able to read and enjoy it.
The take-home lesson? Writing ‘fluff’ doesn’t imply ignorance of technique or inability to do it. Those who allege that’s the case are like classical musicians who deride rock musos as being apparently incapable. Really? Here’s Epica – a Dutch-Belgian metal band -playing the third movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 8, RV 315.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015