If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, is it a duck? What if it doesn’t really, but still calls itself a duck? Over the past several days, via Twitter and Facebook, I’ve been engulfed by the swarm of comments that either condemn popular history writers for their “I’m a historian!” assertation or vehemently defend said authors. I thought I would take this to you and that maybe we could sort this one out together.
For example, let’s talk about Philippa Gregory, author of the novel The Other Boleyn Girl. The word “novel” should tip people off to the fact that this is a work of fiction, but I am always hearing that this is lost on so many. That’s not my problem and it’s not yours. In my opinion, the consumer (of the book, movie, etc) is solely responsible for being able to discern fact from fiction.
I have never read Gregory’s works; as some of you may already know, historical fiction is not my bag. I haven’t even seen the movie. There’s a lot of chatter from TOBG fans that Gregory has claimed truths in her work, a claim that many of you have a problem with. I’m going to leave that to anyone who has actually had contact with the book or film.
Her “About” section on her Facebook page says that “her love for history and commitment to historical accuracy are the hallmarks of her writing.” I’m only seeing fiction on her website; am I missing nonfiction works somewhere? That’s not snarky; that’s an honest question. Because if we’re talking about historical accuracy being an outstanding feature in TOBG I don’t know how that’s going to fly with actual historians. (For the record, there is an extensive list of sources for the Cousins’ War series she is currently working on.)
Let’s get to the issue at hand: When we talk about popular history-based works and their authors, I worry about deceptive advertising. On her website, Gregory states that she was “an established historian” before she ever penned a single Tudorrific thought. Gregory’s biography currently reads like this, although on Friday I got this (UPDATE: That, too, is no longer available. Next time I shall have the foresight to get a screen capture). “Philippa obtained a BA degree in history at the University of Sussex in Brighton and a PhD at Edinburgh University in 18th-century literature.” I still wonder why I can’t get to this page from her current site design, but there ya go.
Lest you think I am picking on Gregory (because that accusation has already started), let’s check out Alison Weir’s credentials. From her website’s biography page, “I was educated at the City of London School for Girls and the North Western Polytechnic, training to be a teacher with history as my main subject. I did not pursue that career, however, because I quickly became disillusioned with trendy teaching methods. Before becoming a published author in 1989, I was a civil servant, then a housewife and mother. From 1991 to 1997, whilst researching and writing books, I ran my own school for children with learning difficulties, before taking up writing full-time.”
Sounds like a thorough description of Weir’s education and work history, so cheers to her for detailing all that for us. But how does one make the jump from that to being “a historian”?
This depends on how we define such a word. Must that person have a PhD in history? Teach history at a university? Perform curator duties for a historical site? I would expect a true historian would be 100% forthright in providing accurate sources, and yet this is one of Weir’s notorious criticisms. She’s a wonderful storyteller and a prolific writer, but how do we refer to someone with her education, work history, publishing history, reticence with source material, and other experience? (Update: Alison Weir explains the lack of source material in her books here; thank you, Alison!)
Dictionary.com defines it as “an expert on history, an authority on history” and “a writer of history; a chronicler.” Merriam-Webster gives us “a student or writer of history” and “a writer or compiler of a chronicle.” Just for the record (since Wikipedia shouldn’t be given too much weight), Wiki says “A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it.”
As you can see, none of these (taken from a small sample of possible definitions) mention a degree or any specific work experience to call oneself as such. Yet there is often an underlying “S/he’s not a real historian!” that comes up for various history writers.
Is that a valid concern? Are people too picky? Or should writers be held to a higher standard if they’d like to use that description? Do you see deception? Or truth?
* Full disclosure: However you define “historian,” I’m not one. I don’t claim to be. My creds are clearly listed on my blog and on my website. So I have no horse in this race. I just saw the need for the discussion so we can all hash it out and then clink glasses and relax.