Academic or ‘commercial’ history?

I’ve been reading a number of books of late, and the dazzling difference between academic and commercial history has made itself frightfully clear on a number of occasions. I’m not going to name any names but in the last week alone, I’ve read an account of the fifteen year run up to the Norman Conquest that shocked me (in fact I’ve read two), and likewise, I’ve read about four different interpretations of events at Eamont in 927 (I’m working on a novel about the battle of Brunanburh in 937 which can be found on wattpad).

There seem to be a number of reasons for such vast differences of opinion and I think much of it has to come down to the ‘sources’ that historians use, and how sceptical they are, or not, about those sources. In recent years (to clarify, in academia recent years i.e. the last fifty), there have been many new critical interpretations of the early sources available for the pre Norman Conquest period, and clearly, this has a ‘knock-on’ effect to any past interpretations. Those who work in academia work to the latest interpretations, but the more general readership doesn’t move with any changes to academia and that means that outdated ideas are still current and accepted by many.

Of course, another problem for commercial history is that it needs a tag-line to sell. And these claims are often a little outrageous and wholly incorrect. I doubt it’s the author’s fault although maybe it is. If they’ve managed to ‘hook’ an agent and a publisher they’ve made their way through a huge slush pile of query letters and opening chapters. And that can only be because someone thinks it’ll sell. Maybe there’s an anniversary coming up, or a resurgence in interest in that time period (need I say the Tudors!) or a TV and film that touches on the issue. For whatever reason, the author has managed to get their work published, and then the publisher needs to sell it. But, can it really be classified as ‘history’ when it’s riddled with mistakes and errors? Who checks all the facts and makes sure that they’re credible? I haven’t yet found the answer to that.

In the meantime, I’ll have to retreat to the word of academia and the Library, because academic history books are somewhat on the expensive side. (I suppose it’s similar to my aversion to ‘history’ documentaries on the TV. I don’t watch them. They make me cross!)

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