The Cool Kids Table

in univerCity

Malcolm Gladwell, they say, re-processes academic work for the NYer crowd [so, the nyer crowd never went to college? is my oft retort]. There is, though, truth to the sentiment. We, the academics, tend to produce dense, jargony, historiographically involved, footnoted and blockquoted works that are designed mostly to get us the jobs, the tenures, the endowed chairs and the drooling collection of sycophantic graduate students. The popular press has no choice but to either have Gladwell write it or have a journalist help write it. Its success, though, clearly demonstrates that the public wants to read serious work of academia – as long as the footnotes are endnotes, there is a human-centric narration, and no mention is made of the “in-betweenness of their enunciative modality” [as blake just put it]. Then, the books sell.

In a classic case of blogging serendipity, just as I was composing this, I read Rebecca’s Thoughts on popular and academic history in which she discusses a recent popular history – Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower – which makes grand claims about debunking and demythifying history. Myths, Rebecca notes, that have been busted by two or three generations of scholars already. Philbrick, then, has built a straw-man of doddering historians, feebly clinging to ancient wisdom. As anyone in academia would be quick to point out: it is on the carcasses of our ancestors that we build our ivory towers. But Philbrick has the same need for claims of uniqueness. So, he solicits controversy.

Because, the books sell better when there is a ‘controversy’ or a ‘de-bunking’ or a ‘revelation’. And, here, I think lies the genesis of the conflict between popular vs academic publishing. The claims made by the publisher or the press or the author about the ‘new-ness’ of the book. I highlight, for example, a recent interview of William Dalrymple – author of the forthcoming book on Bahadur Shah Zafar and the Uprising of 1857, The Last Mughal – by BBC in which Dalrymple says:

BBC: Do you think Indian historians deliberately overlooked or ignored the historical evidence when researching the mutiny?

WD: No, but it is rather remarkable that all these papers in the National Archives have never been properly explored before: I feel rather like an Indian historian would feel if he were to go to Paris and find almost unused the complete records of the French Revolution sitting in the Bibliotheque Nationale. I think the difficulty of the Urdu shikastah script, and the strange late Mughal scribal conventions must have deterred many researchers.

Now, I have not read Dalrymple’s book either. But, how would the Indian historian respond to a overwhelmingly patronizing statement like that? [even if he is right?] At least one historian has called Dalrymple on such claims.

William Dalrymple, though, has his fans – even among academics. I certainly have a soft spot for him. Mostly along the lines of Rebecca’s conclusion: If some readers come away from his book with a better understanding of seventeenth-century Massachusetts, that’s great. But I think readers should understand that he has done a disservice to scholars in the process: without our many generations of work, his neat, tidy, and entertaining interpretation would not even be possible.

So, is there always going to be such a divide between the popular press and the academics? I think not. Look, for example, at the Call for Papers for the 4th Annual South Asia Graduate Student Conference. This conference, conceived by CM friend Bulbul Tiwari, is aimed at exactly the sort of issues that academics need to ponder if they want the Nathaniel Philbricks to quit harping on them. And guess who is giving one of the keynotes? William Dalrymple! I promise you, it will be grand fun. So, if you study the South Asia, join us at the cool kids table.

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