Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
As soon as you mention that you’re thinking about doctoral research or a career in academia people—wise, sane and well-meaning people—will warn you off. They will give a range of good practical reasons for this, but one of the things that they might all mention is the solitariness that research and writing demands. In recent years this has changed a bit as collaborative projects and public engagement become more common. But it’s still a truism that writing is hard because it requires an isolation that is physical, intellectual and (maybe this is pushing it a bit) psychological and emotional. I have talked in the past on this blog about how one of the most pronounced difficulties of writing is the solitude and space on which it often depends. This has become more pronounced for me since moving to a new job and a new city at the start of September. At the same time, I think it is also important to recognise the presence of any number of other voices in our work—and, indeed, in whatever location we sit alone and write.
All writing is co-writing. As I suggested a while ago, it’s co-writing because I need to find ways of getting along with the idiosyncratic idiocies of my younger historian self as I rework papers written almost a decade ago. It’s also co-writing because I (we?) depend on conversations with friends, colleagues and other interlocutors to develop our ideas and push them further. Look at the screen shot above and imagine the scene: you struggle on a chapter for months; you write, rewrite, delete and then frantically look for the ‘undo’ button; you grind your teeth and stomp around the flat; you invest time and energy and just a small part of yourself in the bloody thing and then finally you think it’s good enough and so you (nervously, perhaps) send it to someone for their thoughts. And then a few weeks later you get this: your beautiful prose and careful analysis broken apart on a wave of green comments and through a series of carefully targeted questions that expose your ideas for the undercooked nonsense they are.
And breathe… Moments like this are tough. They are also what make our work better. No matter how constructive the criticism, reading annotated comments like this can be bracing. If nothing else, they mean that we have to go back to something we thought was finished. When you’re writing, it’s important to take such annotations as the helpful and supportive intervention they are meant to me. When you’re look at a friend’s work, in turn, it’s important, to read with the grain of what they are trying to do—to understand their project and tune your observations into it rather than simply criticize. Although I find it daunting, looking at this screen shot I am struck above all by how neatly it manages to capture the idea that all writing is co-writing in a single visual image. If nothing also all that green suggests the ongoing dialogues and conversation without which my work would be impoverished. This is true in a more proximate sense, as well. When I write about 1920s mass culture or subjectivity I often find myself listening to the voices in my head. Sometimes those voices come from my inner demons, but more often they are from the friends and historians whose work I most admire and whose guidance I most often turn to. One of them shouts at me to focus on the prize—to identify the argument I want to make and ignore any material that is irrelevant, no matter how rich or interesting I might find it. Two others seem to sit on my shoulders and voice very different demands of my approach and analysis. Sharpen your theoretical framework and analytic categories, one demands; don’t forget the importance of doing justice to your subject’s complex lives and emotions, counters the other. Somehow talking to them and reading their comments over a long period of time means I’ve internalised at least some sense of what their response to different parts of this book might be.
I have been thinking about the other voices that animate our writing for several reasons in the past couple of weeks. As you will gather, in part this is because I am at a stage where I regularly send draft chapters to friends and colleagues for their feedback. It is also because writing The Prince of Tricksters is forcing me to make difficult decisions about the way that I engage with (and talk about) the historiographical and theoretical work that underpins so much of this project. One of my aims is to write something that will be read and enjoyed by audiences beyond the academy. The book tries to trace the flamboyant lies and lives of an international confidence trickster and man of mystery—setting out the contradictory stories that he told about his own exploits. Added to the gentle suggestions of my editors, each of these aims creates a slightly different pressure to strip back the explicit historiography and absorb it into the intellectual substructure of footnotes and bibliography. That makes sense as a narrative device; it certainly frees me up to explore how telling stories can carry historiographical and theoretical arguments and to push my own “style” as a writer further.
At the same time, making historians and historiography implicit rather than explicit sits uneasily with my sense that this project (like all historical writing) would be impossible without the wonderful work done by those who have come before me. Following the “Prince of Tricksters” has taken me into fields in which I have very little expertise—histories of crime, journalism and the press, and monarchy—and I have relied on the rich existing historiographies to sustain my own analysis and arguments. That is something that I have to recognize now and in the book itself. Acknowledging our intellectual debts remains one of the most important things we need to do as scholars. From past experience I know how much it nags at me when I realize I’ve got it wrong and not done that properly in my published work and this blog. I also know how much it annoys me when someone publishes on a subject I have written about without acknowledging or citing my work. Are the pressures of the contemporary academy making this practice more common? My doctoral research and first book were in the history of sexuality and LGBTQ history. Even in the late-1990s and early 2000s it would have been impossible for me to claim this was breaking new ground or that I was particularly radical and daring in opening up a new field. For sure, I challenged some of the ways in which queer British history had been understood and I found a few new sources, but my work would have been impossible without the genuinely pioneering and brave work of an earlier generation of sociologists, historians, activists and community organizations working in sexuality studies and women’s history. But those battles were long-won when I started my work, and when I see younger historians claiming to be exploding the “myths” of Victorian sexual restraint or the “closet” that shaped same-sex relations in the past I wonder at the shallow understanding of historiography and lack of intellectual generosity that makes such claims possible. As the pressures of the job market, the REF and commercial publishing increase—as the need to be “original” and make a splash becomes more keenly felt—it is more important than ever to recognise that all writing is co-writing.
This blog is part of my ongoing attempts to share the process of writing a book from behind the scenes. You can find out more about the project here.