The age of uncle books
January 6, 2016 10:30 AM   Subscribe

Why do male authors and subjects dominate history books? Digging into bestselling history books in the United States. (SLS)

Data spreadsheet. Best-selling history books of 2014 in some photos.
posted by doctornemo (30 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Not sure how to distinguish between what is here called "popular" history and just plain history, bjut a quick look shows these History books by women and of course one of the best historians around, Doris Kearns Goodwin
posted by Postroad at 10:43 AM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Last month I tried to read Tom Holland's Dynasty. It literally begins with how Rome was founded on rapey rape rapeness and macho posturing and honor and such. So I endured a couple of pages and went on to Mary Beard's SPQR, which begins about how the exact same legend of Rhea Silvia and Romulus and Remus is a fiction about which different versions Romans themselves disagreed a lot.

And this is why we need women writing history books.

(SPQR goes on contrasting the Roman legendary history with archaeological findings and it's an awesome book)
posted by sukeban at 10:48 AM on January 6, 2016 [25 favorites]


However, one could do without the age-ism in the first paragraph. Old people, so boring and stupid, amirite? You only give them boring stupid books with bad politics to keep by their old-fashioned chairs.
posted by Frowner at 10:59 AM on January 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


It's the gravitas, stupid!

I'm always pleased to see that many more women are now full professors of history than was the case when I graduated in the eighties. Unfortunately the shift hasn't quite made it to the popular nonfiction market in terms of percentages and popularity. May have to do with the demographic of who buys the books.

And I will note that one of my favorite "popular" history books of the last few years, "Lawrence In Arabia," was written by a guy (Scott Anderson).
posted by Sheydem-tants at 11:10 AM on January 6, 2016


Sukeban
Books are either well written or they are not. Mary Beard us a fine writer, but does that mean that any and all books by women history writers will be up to that standard? Here, for example, some ten books about the war by women historians...There may not be as many history books by women as by men, and I imagine this will change through the years, much as there are not as many women in Senate but this too is undergoing change. Quality. Not Quantity, is what I look for, by either gender, for there is today no special barriers for women to become historians if they choose to.
posted by Postroad at 11:33 AM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Books are either well written or they are not. Mary Beard us a fine writer, but does that mean that any and all books by women history writers will be up to that standard?

I was talking about worldview more than literary quality, and sometimes a different perspective is sorely needed. But lately I've been mainlining Anthony Everitt, too, who is *yet another* Brit who writes about Romans and doesn't go for the macho bullshit either.

Mary Beard is a fine writer indeed and I'd recommend SPQR or Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town as entry-ish level books to people interested in Roman history and daily life.
posted by sukeban at 11:45 AM on January 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


(By the way, the bit about Tom Holland isn't hyperbole. Dynasty begins like this and this. Feel the testosterone dripping from the page.)
posted by sukeban at 11:53 AM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


for there is today no special barriers for women to become historians if they choose to.

I mean, isn't this whole post sort of showing how there absolutely is some sort of special barrier that prevents women from at least one form of success as a historian?
posted by Gygesringtone at 12:01 PM on January 6, 2016 [22 favorites]


(By the way, the bit about Tom Holland isn't hyperbole. Dynasty begins like this and this. Feel the testosterone dripping from the page.)

I'm not sure why you feel the need to invoke Tom Holland's hormones - any more than you would ascribe Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophies to her levels of estrogen - in order to criticize his writing or historical worldview (which, from the excerpts you've posted, are worthy of your contempt).

Surely the point is that woman are just as capable as writing good (and bad) books on history as men are and, as in so many arenas, are being prevented from doing so by artificial barriers, which is a disgrace.
posted by smithsmith at 12:22 PM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's a slight derail, but I'd like to mention that one of the best history books I've ever read was written by a woman: Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. It's a history of the first stage of WWI. It's slightly outdated now, being published in 1962, but the writing is excellent.

I'll leave you with the very first paragraph:
“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and green and blue and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”
posted by Harald74 at 12:25 PM on January 6, 2016 [14 favorites]


Mary Beard us a fine writer, but does that mean that any and all books by women history writers will be up to that standard?...for there is today no special barriers for women to become historians if they choose to

Then it might come as a shock to you that Mary Beard disagrees with you on this.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:26 PM on January 6, 2016 [12 favorites]


Oh gods, the dependence on that "uncle book" conceit is so sexist and infuriating that I really struggled to finish the article.

There's no argument from me that a majority of the big-name biographic subjects are going to be men, but why are the writers so staunchly gendering the subject matter in general? I really resent the framing that defines "politics, economics, warfare, the nation-state...the heroic individual who bends history to his will...presidents, the founding era, the Civil War, World War II, Abraham Lincoln, or royalty" as male topics.

Their explanation for the popularity of WWII is just full of convenient contradictions to my ear:

it was recent enough to have happened within living memory, and within a historical paradigm that doesn’t require too much contextual explanation; the event continues to yield new approaches and angles; and the war offers clear and uncontroversial lines of good and evil.

Huh? The events of WWII are rather on the tail end of living memory, seeing as how people born at the end of it are over 70 years old now. WWII doesn't require contextual explanation but continues to yield new approaches and angles...uh, isn't that contextual explanation? Doesn't all this fertile ground for new angles demonstrate that the lines of good and evil are NOT clear and uncontroversial?
posted by desuetude at 12:29 PM on January 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


Old people, so boring and stupid, amirite? You only give them boring stupid books with bad politics to keep by their old-fashioned chairs.

I would agree, being one of the so-called "uncles" that the paragraph snidely targets. But showing them the list of books I'm reading and want to read would probably get a comeback of, "Oh, look, how cute. The old fart is trying to look relevant!"
posted by blucevalo at 12:31 PM on January 6, 2016


What I mean is, I would agree that one could do without the rampant ageism.
posted by blucevalo at 12:31 PM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Mary Beard us a fine writer, but does that mean that any and all books by women history writers will be up to that standard?

Of course not. But the same could (and should) be said for books by male history writers.

I'm not sure who first put forward this argument, but: the true test of equality is not whether there are women in a particular field who can perform as well as the elite of men, but whether mediocre women have as good a chance of success in that field as mediocre men.

Rebecca Mead wrote a New Yorker profile on Beard last year: The Troll Slayer: A Cambridge classicist takes on her sexist detractors.
posted by bettafish at 12:54 PM on January 6, 2016 [16 favorites]


I'm not sure why you feel the need to invoke Tom Holland's hormones - any more than you would ascribe Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophies to her levels of estrogen - in order to criticize his writing or historical worldview (which, from the excerpts you've posted, are worthy of your contempt).

I had a very opposite reaction to the excerpt. Before seeing the excerpt, I wasn't expecting to be much bothered by beginning a Roman history by talking about rape or honor or macho posturing; they are after all concepts that were important to (some) Romans themselves and they play a major part in their founding myths.* The excerpts rubbed me the wrong way, though, because Holland's writing feels self-consciously masculine, as if he can't separate his subjects from himself. I think his hormones are part of that.

*Although in 2015, I would expect a history of Rome to begin with the actual, not mythical, foundations of the city.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:15 PM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


the true test of equality is not whether there are women in a particular field who can perform as well as the elite of men, but whether mediocre women have as good a chance of success in that field as mediocre men.

Right now, and I mean in mostly realtime, I'm also following the reaction to the 30 nominees of this year's Grand Prix d'Angoulême being all of them men. Angoulême is the most important comic con in Europe. This award is for achievement and nowadays has an international pool for nominations. In the past, it has been awarded to only one woman, Florence Cestac.

One of the organisers, délégué général Franck Bondoux, has said "Il y a malheureusement peu de femmes dans l’histoire de la bande dessinée. C’est une réalité. Si vous allez au Louvre, vous trouverez également assez peu d’artistes féminines" ("Unfortunately there are few women in the history of comics. This is the reality. If you go to the Louvre, you will also find very few female artists") and "Le Festival aime les femmes, mais ne peut pas refaire l’histoire de la bande dessinée…" ("The festival loves women, but it can't rewrite the history of comics").

Since all of us (and the French comics market has an excellent selection of female mangaka and homegrown talent) can quote out of the top of our heads at least a dozen worthy women comic artists without sweating, yeah. It's everywhere.
posted by sukeban at 1:31 PM on January 6, 2016 [7 favorites]


That's also good FPP material, sukeban.
posted by zombieflanders at 1:39 PM on January 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


Yes, but since most of the coverage is French, the English language links aren't too explanatory and are barely a few hours old, it's a developing story and there's already this thread I'm not terribly sure it would be a good fit.
posted by sukeban at 1:56 PM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


The excerpts rubbed me the wrong way, though, because Holland's writing feels self-consciously masculine, as if he can't separate his subjects from himself. I think his hormones are part of that.

I largely agree with you - insofar as "masculinity" is an artificial social construct - but disagree with your concluding sentence. I'm not sure why what happens to be secreted by his adrenal glands plays a more fundamental role (or any role at all) in forming his worldview than, say, his upbringing or his advancement within a patriachal academia, which are both worthy of criticism and, most importantly, mutable.

There are plenty of male writers (who no doubt have the similar hormone levels to Holland) who have approached the subject with nuance and sensitivity.
posted by smithsmith at 1:57 PM on January 6, 2016


Because history is based on recorded sources and women were not written about anywhere near as often and accounts of their lives were less preserved.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:47 PM on January 6, 2016



" The events of WWII are rather on the tail end of living memory, seeing as how people born at the end of it are over 70 years old now."--a comment. Golly. I was in the army, at Fort Dix, when the actual peace treaty with Japan was signed in 1947--the fighting stopped in 1945. I do have some memories of that time. And yes, I do read uncle books and even some niece books tool
posted by Postroad at 3:54 PM on January 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


Oh god, yes, Tuchman. She is a beast of a writer.

A Distant Mirror is my favorite of hers. Holy smokes, the Catholic Church in that book.
posted by Sauce Trough at 4:32 PM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Annette Gordon-Reed wrote "The Hemingses of Monticello: an American family," which won her the Pulitzer Prize in History along with 15 other awards. She's an absolutely fantastic historian and writer; the way she broke apart and analyzed the evidence for and against a sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sallie Hemings in her first book was clear, logical, and spellbinding. By the end of the book, I felt that I, too, knew the facts of the matter and could declare Jefferson the father of Hemings's children.
posted by epj at 5:11 PM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Hah, I just checked out both of the Gordon-Reed books about the Hemings!
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:45 PM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


A fascinating figure in history as well as a "Diarist of History" was Mary Chesnut. As Commentary, it is a terrific portrait of the upper class south from someone who holds anti-slavery thought. Ken Burns, who I believe takes the Narrative view of history fot the most, used her work in The Civil War.
I like her contribution as it is a prime example of a purported primary source being re-worked and published long after the war. Historigraphically, it's a headache but a fascinating read.
posted by clavdivs at 7:47 PM on January 6, 2016


Barbara Tuchman is certainly in the running for the best American popular historian over the last century.

Just coincidentally, now reading "The Thirty Years War" by C.V. (Cicely Vivian) Wedgewood. Written in the 1930s, when she was not yet 30, in the shadow of WWII. Magisterial, totally convincing.
posted by zipadee at 8:27 PM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


There's also a sort of institutional inertia to take into consideration as well. The "uncle books" on WW2 and US Presidents have well-established marketing, distribution, and discussion networks. So not only is the subject matter familiar to most people, but it also has ways of reaching larger numbers of people than less established topics.

Just on a small scale, I've seen this effect on the history podcast I host and produce. The format is interviews with people on their various subjects of interest/expertise, so the topic can vary wildly from episode to episode. The podcast had episodes on WW2 and the Roman military, which were well and widely received. However, those episodes also bookended a couple episodes on Regency Era/French Revolution fashion, which got significantly less downloads.

Now, maybe there's just an absolute larger number of people who want to hear more about French artillery than French dresses, but there's another factor at play as well. It was much easier for me to find places to advertise the former than it was the latter. The "ecosystems" for subjects like WW2 are very large, and therefore easier to get more ears/eyeballs. It's the tautology of these subjects consistently being popular because they are popular.
posted by Panjandrum at 9:43 AM on January 7, 2016 [4 favorites]


Jill Lepore has a few books on the "founding period" (The Whites of Their Eyes and The Book of Ages and New York Burning) and you'd be pretty hard pressed to call them "uncle books." The Whites of Their Eyes is a sort of compare-and-contrast of the actual Boston Tea Party patriots with the modern-day "Tea Party" and their imagined past. Jane Franklin is just an awesome "biography of an unfamous person," which is also a discussion of the historical method and how limited it can be, in application to unfamous people and women in particular.

I already wrote an overly long comment gushing about Jill Lepore over on the green, so if you are interested in further description of what it is she writes please by all means click through...

But I think her books really show how simplistic their categories are, in the FPP link.
posted by OnceUponATime at 11:56 AM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


"Now, maybe there's just an absolute larger number of people who want to hear more about French artillery than French dresses, but there's another factor at play as well. It was much easier for me to find places to advertise the former than it was the latter."

With respect, you could have merged the two into soft furnishings from hard lines.
posted by clavdivs at 11:32 PM on January 7, 2016


« Older The State of the HIV Epidemic   |   Magic+ Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments