Errors in students’ exam answers have attracted wry reflection on the pages of Times Higher Education recently. However, they are as nothing compared with the misleading character of all too many of the pithy commendations that appear on the back of academic books.
In the case of my subject, history, there is a particular problem as books are so often presented as “definitive” when, of course, the inherent nature of the subject denies such characterisation. As an academic discipline, history is an accretional subject in which we benefit from, and contribute to, the work of others, knowing that our own work will be absorbed, built on and superseded in the same process.
That, of course, will not do for the vanity of some authors, the exigencies of publicists and far too many blurb writers. If you say a book is good and builds ably on existing views, you are apt to find your blurb edited or dropped in favour of those who will say that the work is “definitive”, “outstanding” or “transformative”.
At every stage there is the argument by assertion in pushing works. Take, for example, an interesting and well-written recent biography of George II. This work is a competent and fluent contribution to a large body of literature by many scholars over the past four decades that has argued for the importance of the king. That, however, in the hands of blurb writers becomes “a groundbreaking study of a neglected monarch…a fundamental reappraisal…? the definitive biography…a watershed in our knowledge and understanding of Hanoverian England”.
Read full story…. and we should be thinking about what will be picked up by search engines, and the overflow of information… be ‘accurate’ about your work, and I’ll maybe come back for more…