Writing in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Gordon S. Wood of Brown University presents a penetrating analysis of the prevailing trend among professional historians away from narrative, or storytelling, and toward "monographic history," which Wood defines as "technical, specialized analyses of particular events or problems in the past." In a paragraph that contains broader implications, Wood observes:
"The results of all this for history have been little short of chaotic. The technical monographs pour from the presses in overwhelming numbers--books, articles, newsletters, research reports, working papers by the thousands. Historians are more and more specialized, experts on single decades or single subjects, and still they cannot keep up with the profusion of monographs. Most now make no pretense of writing for the educated public. They write for each other, and with all their scientific paraphernalia--the computer printouts, Guttman scales, Lorenz curves, and Pearson correlation coefficients--they can sometimes count their readers on their hands . . . "
Wood's words bear attention here less because of what they say about the current controversy among historians than because they provide a succinct and pointed illustration of a larger problem. The fascination among historians with the minutiae of the past, and their concomitant rejection of the "educated public" as a readership to be actively sought, are symptomatic of the times. In the age of specialization, the so-called "general reader" is not merely neglected, but is held in contempt; the specialist--whether historian or scientist or computer technician--does not want anything to do with anyone save those who speak the same arcane jargon that he does.
It's obvious that the general reader is left out as a result of this new form of intellectual and/or technological exclusivity. What may be less obvious is that along with those who are left outside are others who are trapped inside. This was brought home to me quite forcibly last week during a conversation with a friend, a scholar and writer of indisputable range and accomplishment. We met to discuss his work in progress, a book on an abstract but enormously interesting subject--a book that has the potential to reach a substantial audience and to have considerable influence. My friend is a tenured professor at a distinguished university and is thoroughly experienced in the politics of academia, but he would like to break the rules and go for a wider audience; the problem is how to do so without alienating what is, by professional necessity, his basic readership.
In point of fact, he is caught somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea, damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. To my comment that a section of the book I'd read is brilliant but excessively difficult for the general reader, he replied that what had given me trouble is included in the manuscript in substantial measure because it is expected of him by his academic colleagues. To maintain professional standing--which of course is every bit as important to a scholar as it is to a lawyer or a physician or even a journalist--he has to speak in the language of the profession; but in doing so he almost immediately excludes the larger audience he seeks.
If he writes a book that meets professional expectations as he perceives them, its fate is almost certain. Within the relatively small world of his scholarly specialty, it will be a major event: reviewed exhaustively in the professional journals, discussed at seminars, debated in scholarly papers. Outside that world, it will be reviewed in the major newspapers and general-circulation magazines, but probably in reviews that summarize the book's ideas and arguments--reviews that tell ordinary readers as much as they are likely to want to know about the book and that are therefore not "selling" reviews. The audience of serious but unspecialized readers will be lost to him.
If, on the other hand, he decides to make his pitch directly to the general reader, his fate is equally certain. He strips his abstract arguments down to their barest and clearest bones, adds anecdotes to lighten the book's tone and imposes a narrative structure in order to give it internal movement--with the result that the book is taken by a club, sells well in the stores, and gets him onto a couple of talk shows. The price he will pay for this success is criticism, perhaps vilification, by his peers. He will be accused of "selling out," of "popularizing," of cheapening his professional standards in order to make a quick buck. He will be lumped with Barbara Tuchman and John Kenneth Galbraith and Carl Sagan, and others whose great offense is that they treat serious subjects in ways accessible to a large audience and that as a result--horrors!--they gain money and fame from their books.
The pressures on the writer caught in this situation are enormous, and the greatest pressures are those that come from his colleagues and/or peers. There is absolutely no guarantee that if he writes for a popular audience he will get one; the odds, in fact, are strongly against him no matter how skillfully he performs the task. But there is similarly no doubt that if he writes for a popular audience he will be subjected to professional scorn. The world of his colleagues is the world he must live in once the book is over and done with, not the world of talk shows and newspaper interviews. If he chooses the certainty of respect within a small world over the slender chance of success within a larger one, who is to blame him?
And if he makes that choice, he is far less the loser than is our culture. The specialist who chooses to stay within the secure confines of his discipline may not get on Johnny Carson's television program, but he can lead a comfortable and rewarding life. His ideas, though, are lost to the world beyond, save as they are filtered through the work of journalists and other "popularizers." Quite simply, this writer and his largest potential audience may never make direct connections; whenever this happens, and whatever the reason, it is always a pity.