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October 04, 2005

Desperately Selling Schama - or the Historian as Soap Powder

Posted by Jeremy Black

The books of certain historians - Schama, Ferguson, Starkey - are marketed as if they were soap powder. The latest work to get this treatment is Simon Schama's Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution. The selling of history books - and of their authors - as if it were soap powder may be distasteful to some, but does it make for bad history? This is the question raised by Jeremy Black, Professor of History, University of Exeter.

Simon Schama is not a bad historian. There are of course flaws, some serious, but the overall impression is a favourable one. In particular, his chronological and, even more, thematic range is impressive, as is his rate of production, and his clear engagement with the attempt to make history, in the shape of what he introduces, on the page or the screen, interesting to a wide public. It, indeed, is a comment on the current nature of higher education in Britain, that such goals are better pursued by a British scholar based in the USA. This is not so much a matter of the resources there, some of which in fact can be weakening (historians ought to do their own work, not rely on research assistants), as of the degree to which the bureaucratically-driven conformism that the Research Assessment Exercise helps engender in Britain is absent in the USA. Thus, David Starkey, Schama's closest counterpart, is outwith the British academic hierarchy, while Niall Ferguson, having been turned down for the Chichele chair in Oxford, has eventually ended up in Harvard.

It would be easy, if I was a journalist, to advance from this to arguing that the British academic system was therefore clearly redundant, with brilliant scholars of talent forced to take difficult courses. Easy, but flawed, because the situation inevitably is more complex. First, as far as university academics are concerned, it helps to be reminded that, however flawed, indeed stupid, systems of assessment of both teaching and research both serve to ensure a commitment to standards that the previous situation of tenured, collegiate chumminess could not provide. I have taught in a full-time position since 1980, first at Durham and, from 1996, at Exeter, and I have noticed a marked improvement in standards as professionalism has changed, albeit with considerable costs in terms of excessive regulation and poor morale.

Secondly, many of the stars in the public firmament are not what they seem. This can be approached by considering particular books, Ferguson's Empire is very poor on its last decades, Schama's Embarrassment of Riches does not cover the landward provinces adequately, etc. In part, this is a matter not of the capability of individual scholars, but of the way in which their industry is structured. Books pushed through agents, and signed with big advances, are not generally put through the process of academic scrutiny. There is too much riding on their success. Having been pre-sold, they are then pushed through sweetheart review deals and paid display space in bookshops. Book purchasers probably don't realise that the piles of books they see in the big bookshops are being pushed like soap powder. Reviews are fixed, i.e. allocated to sympathetic reviewers, and unsurprisingly so as there is usually a purchase-through-the-paper deal to accompany them. If a critical review is written, it is often spiked, and the reviewer paid a kill-fee, and told there were pressures on space.

Schama is a noted public historian. The interesting question is how far this affects the character and quality of his work. This, unfortunately, is not the question raised by the commentators and reviewers, who tend to go along with selling the soap powder. Again, unsurprisingly so. They often don't know much about the subject. See, for example, the portrait of Schama in The Independent by Boyd Tonkin (2nd September 2005), the paper's literary editor. The critical faculty you might expect in a serious newspaper is conspicuously lacking, and the other qualities are no better. Actually Schama's latest Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, is pretty good. He correctly notes that he draws partly on the work of others, particularly S. J. Braidwood's Black Poor and White Philanthropists: London Blacks and the Foundation of the Sierra Leone Settlement, 1786-1791 (Liverpool, 1994).

The tale, nevertheless, is one that most Americans know nothing about, the black Loyalists, many of whom ended up in Sierra Leone. Both the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor and key government supporters of the new settlement were motivated by humanitarianism springing from Christian convictions, gratitude towards black Loyalists, and abolitionist sympathies, and the settlement explicitly forbade slavery. Schama tells his tale well, is particularly impressive in the space given to individual black experiences, and uses his subject to reach out in many interesting directions criss-crossing the eighteenth-century Atlantic. The facile superficiality that characterised some of his History of Britain (2000-2) is kept at bay.

So, no neat juxtaposition. Just as British academe is not all dull, so its alternative is not all flimsy. The shallowness at stake with this new book is not the study but the salesmanship. Schama himself comes out of it rather well, noting that he has not written the sort of book the BBC really expected, which is just as well in light of the History of Britain. If criticism is to be directed, it should be aimed at the BBC, for its feckless profligacy with its licence fee revenues. Public subsidy for the soap powder business is questionable, although, then again, far better than what it is generally spent on.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).

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1. surely BBC Worldwide, who do the book deals, is now a commercial organisation, bringing profit to the BBC is *not* paid for by licence fee.
2. having reviewed for a decade for the Telegraph group, Guardian, Times and Independent, and said some pretty rude things about pretty big names, I can assure readers that the notion of unfavourable reviews being spiked is utter nonsense (Noel Malcolm was pretty lukewarm on Schama's latest in Sunday telegraph, as some other reviewers have been)

Posted by: Jonathan Bate at October 7, 2005 06:53 PM
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