Monday, August 4, 2014
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
GOOD ENOUGH FOR THE HOI POLLOI
Forgive me, dear reader, but today I shall be brief and my weekly sermon will be pithy.
I have just been commenting in my “Something Old” section on Frances Mossiker’s non-fiction book, published in 1961, called The Queen’s Necklace [look it up on the index at right if you are reading this some weeks after this posting]. It is a book which gathers together primary texts in order to reconstruct a famous scandal in French history, which occurred just a few years before the French Revolution.
I was primed to write about this book because in the estimable Literary Review, an English publication to which a generous benefactor took out a subscription for me, I came across a review of a new book about the same scandal. The review is in the June 2014 issue of the Literary Review and the new book was considered important enough to inspire the issue’s front cover cartoon. The new book (which, I emphasise, I have not read) is Jonathan Beckman’s How to Ruin a Queen, subtitled Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds and the Scandal that Shook the French Throne. Anne Somerset’s review of the book is titled “Diamonds Aren’t a Girl’s Best Friend”. Once again, I have not read the book being reviewed, so it may contain some new information that the reviewer didn’t mention. But I have read the review, which does little more than summarise at some length the contents of the book.
And as best I can make it out, the book offers no more information on the scandal itself than that which was offered in Frances Mossiker’s book half a century ago. Yet the reviewer writes as if this is all information that has been newly unearthed and represents a marvel of research by the author being reviewed. The information is presented as if readers will never have heard of it before.
I apologise in advance if I am misrepresenting Jonathan Beckman’s book, but I sense here a phenomenon I have encountered before.
Specialist historians and real researchers uncover a good historical story and write about it – perhaps in specialist journals and perhaps in scholarly books. The story becomes common currency among more highbrow readers, but never percolates down to the reading masses. Some time goes by, and the story is forgotten. Then some bright spark realizes that he could make a good bestseller out of it, and produces a new version, even though it offers no more information than the earlier publications did and relies on the same research. But it is good enough for the hoi polloi. Many reviewers (especially, but not only, in newspapers) are jobbing journalists who do not have the basic knowledge to know that this story is in fact a recycled story. And so they write it up as if it is amazing new information that nobody has ever heard before. Meanwhile, somewhere, a more scholarly historian will be grinding his or her teeth thinking how they too could have produced a lucrative bestseller from their original research, if only they had been able to write more demotically.
I first became aware of this phenomenon when I heard a radio interview some twenty or so years ago. It was about the famous Portuguese bank scandal in the 1920s, where the conman Alves dos Reis gained, by fraudulent documents, permission to print banknotes at Portugal’s authorised printer of currency, and thus bankrupted the nation’s economy by printing millions of notes as and when he wanted them. The interviewer gasped in amazement at this story as it was retailed to her by the author of a new book about it. And all the time I was thinking that this was all very old information, which I had read in another book decades before.
I know that new books can be written, legitimately, about historical events that other authors have covered previously. New information may come to light, new documents may be found in archives, new witnesses may come forward and therefore a new perspective can be offered. So of course I am not saying that every new book on a particular set of historical events is merely a recycling of old information. But many are. And when such second hand books are puffed or praised extravagantly, it tell us only about the limited knowledge of some reviewers, and the ignorance of some media interviewers.