We talk a lot about accessibility in historical writing. Many of us worry whether the academic historical profession has much to say to a broad popular audience. It’s a pretty old form of anxiety. But what do the general public in the United States really want from their history books?
A few days ago, I decided to try an experiment. I collected all the one-star customer reviews at Amazon.com for the last twenty years of Pulitzer Prize winners in history. (No award was given in 1994, so I included books from 1995 to 2014.) I wanted to see whether I could identify common complaints. Obviously, this wouldn’t be a very scientific experiment, but at least it would be reasonably systematic—slightly better, perhaps, than relying on anecdotes from acquaintances.
As I expected, some of the reviews were amusing. There was, for example, a review that complained about the lack of “pictures or graphs” in the audio CD version of a book. Another reviewer observed that the author “lives in Mass., which probably pins him as an unrepentant Federalist or a modern day fascist.” (Who hasn’t entertained that thought at some point?) Another admitted that the book was “an enlightening one”—but “one sentence, [on] p. 375, makes you wonder.” My favorite was the review observing that Daniel Howe’s What Hath God Wrought has “a low amount of information per page.”
Actually, my favorite is a tie. I’m also very fond of this one: “Only the Bush administration could produce such a pack of lies. The Salk vaccine ‘safe?'”
Of course, Eric Foner’s Abraham Lincoln book drew out one very angry neo-Confederate, upset (among other things) that “no true southerner sits on the Pulitzer Selection Board” and “Joseph Pulitzer was a thief, liar, and an untrustworthy Union mercenary paid to kill Southern women and children.”
I collected all of these one-star reviews—115 in all—and started trying to categorize their specific complaints.
First, I decided to exclude the reviews of the 2001 winner, Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers. This was a hard call, but that book was an outlier in important respects.* That left me with 80 single-star reviews to consider. I drew up a list of possible categories and tallied up the number of reviews falling into each category. (I decided a review could make multiple complaints, but none of them could make more than three. In the end, few reviews fell into more than two categories anyway.)
Unsurprisingly, I found that 30 reviews complained about boredom, dryness, wordiness, or incomprehensibility—what we tend to call a lack of “accessibility.” Nearly all the Pulitzer winners, whether they were published by universities or by trade presses, prompted these complaints.
Also unsurprising were the many complaints about liberal or left-wing bias. I counted 16 complaints about left political bias, 2 complaints about right political bias, and 18 complaints about bias that could not be placed in either category. (These typically implied the author showed some sort of personal hostility toward her subjects.) Among reviews with an identifiable partisan inclination, complaints about left-wing bias clearly dominated.
All of that was predictable. As I started tabulating complaints, however, I was struck by other things. Most importantly, the one-star reviewers surprised me with how substantive their complaints were. In a handful of cases, they provided detailed lists of alleged inaccuracies. In many more cases, they at least attempted to show that their ratings were responses to scholarly shortcomings. Out of 80 reviews, 30 complained about poor use of evidence or unsubstantiated claims on the part of the author; 6 complained that the book provided nothing new in the way of information or interpretation; and 5 complained that the author did not analyze the topic in enough depth. (Very few of the reviewers involved seemed to be professional academics, though at least one was.)
In other words, I counted roughly the same number of complaints about scholarly quality (41) as about bias (36)—though of course these complaints often appeared in the same review.
Crucially, however, complaints about scholarship often seemed to be motivated by underlying complaints about political bias. The Hemingses of Monticello, the 2009 winner by Annette Gordon-Reed, provided several good examples of this confluence. One typical reviewer called the book’s Pulitzer “a sad testimonial to our culture of political correctness, and a terrible indictment of our left-leaning academic institutions that celebrate such shoddy research and opinion-laden work.” Another managed to combine complaints about evidence, wordiness, and bias in a single demeaning image: “Her manuscript ought to have been passed through the sieve of serious historical scholarship instead of being plumped up with the Hamburger Helper of her agenda.”
A review of another book presented this in equally stark terms: “About halfway through the book I began to wonder if this was a history book or a political statement.”
Such reviews raise the question whether it’s possible for scholarly historians to address other barriers to wider public appreciation apart from the political discomfort their work can cause. When a reviewer implies that “an objective examination” is incompatible with “being a liberal,” or another reviewer contrasts being “objective” and having a coherent narrative with an author’s supposedly “constant put down of everything American,” we have reason to think that the problem of accessibility might be part of a deeper problem of public taste. The Hemingses of Monticello is a large book about an elusive subject, but part of the reason some readers find it wordy or unconvincing is that they resist fully entering the world it creates—a world that is a very uncomfortable place for them to imagine.
On the other hand, it is also true that the most consistent complaint from these scathing reviews was that the books were dry or impenetrable. This complaint appeared in reviews of almost every book, often apart from any discernible complaint about bias. The most plausible view of the evidence at hand is that accessibility is a real problem for historical scholars.
With that in mind, I think it’s important to observe that five books—Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town, Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods, Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet, David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, and Gene Roberts’s and Hank Klibanoff’s The Race Beat—had no single-star Amazon reviews at all.
I will leave it for the reader to decide whether that is because these five books are so accessible, so unthreatening, or so unread.
* The 35 single-star reviews (out of nearly 600) for Founding Brothers would have skewed the results. No other book in the list came close to that number of reviews. More importantly, a very high number of the negative Founding Brothers reviews came from self-identified high school students reading the book on assignment. That was rarely true for reviews of the other books, and I decided that accessibility to high school students is a different thing from accessibility to adults. (Had I included these Founding Brothers reviews, I would have counted far more complaints about dryness, wordiness, and boredom.)