13 June 2008

The Real World of Writing

Fellow blogger and Virginian John Maas linked to an interesting piece on his blog the other day. The piece, titled Do You Need A License To Practice History, addresses the age old debate of the professional historian vs. the amateur and popular writing vs. academic.

I’m not going to rehash old arguments—I believe there is a place (and a need) for both. However, I do want to point out that this article reminds us that academic journals are subsidized by the universities, grant monies, etc.

“. . . in the years after WWII, when universities were expanding dramatically, more foundation grants were available, and so university historians no longer needed to earn extra money by writing or lecturing to the public.”

In other words, being subsidized protected them from market forces which will almost always lead to mediocrity—or worse. A person might be a good historian but a poor (boring and dry) writer and still get published in academic journals. But, in the larger scope of disseminating knowledge, what good does that do if no one outside of academia is interested in reading what you've written?

Many of these academics then criticize popular writers who often sell many more books and articles than they do. Their work creates buzz, they get radio and TV interviews, etc, etc. I think it's envy in some cases, legitimate criticism in others.

But the market rules. If you have to be subsidized for your work because it’s not interesting, then don’t complain when no one’s interested in reading what you’ve written. It’s called the real world.

One quote worth noting: "Too many academics believed that there is something naughty about good writing."

Read the piece. It’s informative, balanced, and well-written.


John Maass said...

Richard--the point you make about subsidies, grants etc is a good one in relation to "market forces." But--the most important factor in academia that creates this divide between accountability among profs and what might "sell" (either in the classroom or the bookstore) is TENURE. Once they have that the profs have no real incentive to write for the public.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


You are right John. Good point and one that I should have thought of. Thanks for writing.