Writing History


Since I first began writing historical nonfiction books fourteen months ago, I have had to emphasize to everyone, from friends and family, to the caseworker reevaluating my EBT application, that my job isn’t nearly as impressive as it sounds. Yes, it requires monumental effort and a certain degree of skill to research, write, and publish a 35,000-word manuscript on a different historical subject every month. But the money it pays barely folds, and as for prestige, my publisher—some guy in New Jersey I’ve only ever communicated with via email—sticks a male pseudonym on the covers and pays me a lump sum only after I sign an NDA. I see no royalties, and my name never appears in connection with the published books.

My job is a strange one. It only exists thanks to the invention of the e-reader, which, unbeknownst to me until fourteen months ago, created a seemingly bottomless market for short books of extremely variable quality—romance novels, self-help books, memoirs, and a stunning number of books on historical subjects. I only discovered the world of terrible history books and the fly-by-night LLCs that publish them because so many of those publishers hired me for short-term proofreading gigs. The first few times I took these jobs, I was utterly flabbergasted by the sheer illiteracy of the manuscripts I was expected to “correct.” They were so poorly written and therefore incomprehensible. I couldn’t see why the editor was even bothering to engage my services as a proofreader, since the misspelled words and missing commas were barely noticeable alongside statements such as this one, which I present to you without context because context will not improve it one whit: “Despite being a part of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the love for the Greek language with the people at that time, Cleopatra was a ruler who did learn her native Egyptian.”

The “books” I was being hired to proofread resembled high school research papers of the sort that any decent teacher would return to the student with the words “SEE ME AFTER CLASS” scrawled furiously in red ink across the top of the page. They usually contained long passages, or entire chapters, that had been copied and pasted directly from Wikipedia or other online sources. Often, the witless plagiarist had copied the text into Word without even bothering to strip the html, so I didn’t have to Google for proof, just click. Who was buying these books, I wondered? If I’d paid $14.99 for a biography of Charlemagne, only to encounter this paragraph—

Charlemagne was forced into resuming the war with the Saxons in 775 with what became known as his second campaign against them. The reason why he felt the need to go back was due to Widukind leading a number of attacks against Frankish territory that was largely unchallenged. Charlemagne felt this was something that could not be allowed to happen any longer, so he turned his attention back to his old enemy and, yet again, attempted to subdue them.

—I would demand a refund. Amazon generally refuses to issue refunds for digital purchases, but that would not have stopped me from trying or from writing a scathing customer review, warning other readers that none of the books sold by this publisher were to be given the benefit of the doubt. I couldn’t understand how the publishers stayed in business. Were the purchasers of these books so financially solvent that they didn’t bat an eye when they discovered that they’d wasted fifteen bucks on a book they could easily have improved upon by downloading a series of Wikipedia articles to their Kindle? Or—a chilling thought—did the purchasers of these books not care? Were they, perhaps, unable to distinguish between writing of such poor quality and the work of a legitimate historian like Ron Chernow or Robert K. Massie?

The very existence of the books I was being paid to edit offended me as a writer, a reader, and a person who has taken a storyteller’s interest in history since I first read about Joan of Arc in a children’s encyclopedia in first grade. But far worse was the inconvenient and irreducible sense of responsibility I felt over my role in releasing them into the world. I was the closest thing there was to a gatekeeper in this industry. I didn’t have the time, energy, or desire to rewrite substantial portions of these books when I was only being paid a small sum to proofread them, but sometimes I did anyway, because it was more than I could bear to let such monstrosities pass unaltered through my hands. I could only improve them to a certain point, of course; my edits were largely cosmetic in nature, though I googled to verify suspicious-looking “facts” and excised content that was downright offensive. Yet when I returned the edited manuscripts to the publishers, I entertained the disquieting thought that perhaps I had only made matters worse by gifting these books with a veneer of plausibility. By this time, I’d caught on to the fact that the publishers were paying people to leave favorable reviews and five star ratings on their Amazon pages. I felt as if I was colluding in a conspiracy to defraud readers and abet the spread of misinformation.

I transitioned from an editor of terrible history books to a writer of mediocre ones in November of 2015. I was offered the job by a publisher who got the bright idea that he could save a little money by contracting the writing to someone who was capable of proofreading their own work. I accepted the job for two reasons (three, if we count hubris). One: I needed the money desperately. I was just getting started as a freelancer and I was finding it difficult to line up any jobs at all. The writing gig paid three times as much as the proofreading gig, and though it would take considerably more than three times as much effort, I was underemployed and had time on my hands. Two: the editor wanted someone to write a book about “The Third Reich,” and I was honestly afraid that if I didn’t write it, the person who did write it would produce something unutterably offensive. I later learned that this editor has a taste for conspiracy theories along the lines of “Jewish bankers organized the assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” so I think my instincts were sound.

There was also the fact that, having edited so much of the kind of material that this editor considered publishable, I was pretty sure I could produce a manuscript superior to anything he’d ever published before by letting my cat walk over my keyboard a few times. I didn’t have the time or the training to do original research, but I padded out my summaries of other people’s research with lengthy excerpts from texts of Himmler’s speeches, firsthand accounts from concentration camp survivors, and whatever else I could find. A history major friend had told me once that all historical analysis begins with original sources, so at the very least, I could provide the hapless Amazon customers who mistook my book for a real work of scholarship with as many of those sources as I could reasonably work into the text. The result would be, if not a valuable contribution to our understanding of the past, at least no worse than the average elementary school history textbook.

As I started writing, I built my image of my reader around the premise that they had purchased, and maybe even enjoyed, other books released by this publisher. I pictured them as someone who maybe liked to watch historical documentaries on TV, but whose high school history classes were a vague and distant memory. One day, this nebulous image came into sharper focus, and I realized that I was trying to write at a level that I thought my parents could understand. Neither of my parents went to college. They both liked history, in a general way, but they’d grown up poor and working class, and they weren’t readers. My mother had once asserted that Hitler was a communist, not understanding that fascism and Soviet communism were both totalitarian ideologies but founded on different principles. I decided that a reader like my mother would appreciate it if I took the time to explain what the word “reich” means in German. She wouldn’t be aware that the nation of Germany, as we know it, had only existed for about sixty years when the Nazis first came to power, so I explained about Bismarck and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. I even attempted to explain something of the history of anti-Semitism in Europe, because I knew that my mother—along, it must be said, with plenty of college graduates—didn’t really grasp that the Nazis weren’t the first people to enact a campaign of systematic brutality towards Jews.

Proper historians don’t always bother to break down these very basic concepts for readers; they have to assume that the reader brings some degree of background knowledge to the table, or books that are already the size of doorstops would take on the dimensions of encyclopedias. But people who don’t possess the necessary background and context that higher education provides can still possess intellectual curiosity. I had often seen my mother try to read books, only to get frustrated and discouraged and set them aside. It reminded me of when I tried to read books in French or Italian; I know you’re not supposed to stop and look up every unfamiliar word, but my knowledge of those languages is so poor that I don’t have a choice if I want to gain even a vague understanding of what I’m reading. In my mother’s case, even if she wanted to look up the background concepts she would need to understand weighty historical works, she wouldn’t know where to begin. Since there was absolutely no chance that my book on the Third Reich was going to broaden the existing body of knowledge on the subject, I decided that it could, at least, maybe serve as a kind of primer for “the casual student of history,” which was the hopefully not-too-condescending phrase I used to refer to the reader in the book’s introduction.

When I explain my job to people, I reflexively emphasize that I am in no way a real historian, as though I’m afraid someone will accuse me of thinking that the books I write have any pretension to being works of real historical scholarship. But as I was working on my most recent book, I found myself entertaining a strange and disquieting thought. Maybe I am a historian. The say history is written by the winners, but on a more immediate level, history is written by people who write history. I’ve written fourteen books at this point, with a fifteenth on the way. All fourteen of my books are available on Amazon. At least one of them has, incredibly, become a bestseller. They’re e-books, so they possess the eerie and intangible permanence of all digital media. Is it possible that I have placed myself in the absurd position of having a small but discernible role in shaping the historical record—not because I have any right to do so, but simply because of the sheer volume of my output and the nature of digital media? If anything, I thought I might be ensuring the enduring impact of my writing by bringing literary sensibility rather than scholarly rigor to bear on my subjects. Our modern concept of Julius Caesar, for instance, has been shaped less by Plutarch than by Shakespeare, who was also in no way a real historian. Parson Weems’s largely fictitious biography of George Washington created our image of our country’s founder as a boy so honest he could not lie about chopping down a cherry, a man so strong that he could throw a coin across the Potomac. Dubious histories are nothing new in the history of the world—if anything, they are often more enduring than the alternative.

Being a reader changed my life. As a child, the books I read shaped me into an anomaly, a person whose choices and values are difficult for my family to relate to. So I suppose it’s only natural that I think deeply about the potential impact of the books I’m writing, even if I was only driven to write them out of dire financial necessity, even if they are so embarrassingly mediocre that I’m glad my name isn’t on the covers. The sense of responsibility I feel might be arrogant or misplaced, but I can’t reason it away. My books contain little in the way of original thought, but they nonetheless tell history’s stories through the filter of my values. My biography of George Washington emphasizes the fact that, while Washington freed his slaves on his deathbed, he also doggedly pursued the slaves who escaped him during his life. My book about the Rothschild family begins with a summary of the persecution experienced by the Jews of Frankfurt; it only mentions conspiracy theories about Jewish bankers to explain why they are ridiculous. Every time I accept another contract, I think about the fact that, for at least some of my readers, this may be the first and last time they read anything about the person I’m writing about. My theories about Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality (quite possibly gay), or Elizabeth I’s love life (almost certainly died a virgin) may stand as the final word on the subject. In this sense, I am contributing to the historical record whether I like it or not, whether I deserve to or not. It’s a daunting thought.

My favorite novel is Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers’s brilliant depiction of the secret inner life of a fictional Oxford women’s college in the 1930s. As it happens, the plot centers largely around the dons and scholars’ conflicting beliefs about as to whether it is permissible to sacrifice scholarly integrity in order to meet the demands of ordinary life. One of the dons—a history scholar—complains in the early pages of the book about a former student who has published a life of Thomas Carlyle. “No research at all,” Miss Lydgate complains, “and no effort at critical judgment. She has reproduced all the old gossip without troubling to verify anything. Slipshod, showy, and catchpenny. I am really ashamed of her.” Very often, when I am sitting down to write my books, Miss Lydgate’s words ring in my thoughts like a warning. Because I am a novelist, not a historian, I take a great deal of pleasure from “the old gossip” when I’m writing a biography. I am much more interested in people than in events, so the love lives, the scandals, the personal quirks of my subjects tend to take center stage in my books. And intrepid googler though I am, I can’t pretend that I’m really capable of verifying those stories to Miss Lydgate’s exacting standards.

But Gaudy Night is also an encouragement to me when I sit down to the daunting task of churning out 3000 words of readable prose in a single evening. Miss Lydgate, I think, would feel that the sense of responsibility I bring to my writing is neither misplaced nor arrogant. Many aspects of my job are absurd, but in the final account, the writing and publishing of books deserves to be taken seriously, however one comes to it. And in our present climate of fake news and dubiously factitious presidential Twitter accounts, perhaps I am simply doing my part to stem the tide—or at least, the particular rivulet that my publisher represents—of fake history. In hindsight, it’s clear that when I wrote my first history book in November of 2015, our present political climate was weighing heavily on my mind:

It is difficult for us to see the Nazis as humans. We cannot imagine having anything in common with a Nazi. Probably we all like to believe that if we had been living in Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s, we would have seen the swastikas and immediately drawn the connection to the torture and murder of millions of people, the gas chambers and crematoriums, the tanks and the bombs…

But the great danger in reducing the Third Reich to a cartoon, or a realm of fairytale monsters without human qualities, is that it takes us off our guard; we cease to see the patterns when they are reproduced in our own societies. When the same racist rhetoric is applied to Muslims, to immigrants, to refugees, do we always see the resemblance between our own prejudices and those exploited by the Nazis?

When I consider the possibility that my history books will have an enduring impact, perhaps I’m not being carried away by my own arrogance. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking.


Image credits: feature image, image 1, image 2.

B.N. Harrison ekes a precarious existence as a writer in Baltimore. Her work can also be found at Language and Light. More from this author →