The Public Side of an Author’s Life and Being a Historian in Public

Meghan Tifft’s article for The Atlantic, “An Introverted Writer’s Lament,” conjures up memories of school dances in the streamer-decorated gymnasium, with the popular kids out on the dance floor, carefree and having lots of fun, while the rest of the attendees hang around on the bleachers, trying to look like they’re enjoying themselves but wishing they’d stayed home to watch “Fantasy Island” and “The Love Boat.” The large mass of the regular kids do well in the classroom, feel comfortable there, and may even excel. But not at the dance. Never at the dance.

Here’s Tifft’s full article:

I don’t agree with everything Tifft says, but she asks a question that each writer these days must answer for herself: “What if I just want to make something? What if all this communing actually hurts the primary means by which I set out to participate and communicate–my writing itself?”

I can almost hear the strangled screams of publishing marketing and publicity people. How can an author hope to sell a book if she’s not OUT THERE promoting it?

Still, the article made me wonder about historians who write for a general reading audience. Once they’ve written a “popular” history book, how public do they have to be, personally? Is it any different from what any other writers experience? Do some of these historians dread the prospect of public readings and/or of becoming the public “expert” on their topic? Or would most be at ease with these roles, given the other duties of their academic lives? What kinds of opportunities do historians have to promote their work when they have classroom obligations from August until May? Is it appropriate to talk up their book in their own classes?

Would love to know your thoughts.

One thought on “The Public Side of an Author’s Life and Being a Historian in Public

  1. Theresa–thanks for alerting me to this article. I think it’s provocative, in part because Tifft didn’t just slink away and start declining invitations to give readings from her books. (Maybe she’s still on social media–I don’t know.) It’s a manifesto!

    All along, I was thinking that Tifft must be a novelist or someone who lives by her writing alone, because those of us who teach and have students are used to standing up and talking and listening all day long, and those of us who write non-fiction see interaction with students and colleagues at conferences & on campus as opportunities to learn, not just to self-promote.

    But then I see that she teaches down the road from me at UC-Colorado Springs, so she IS a proffie! At least part-time, and maybe full-time too. I’m surprised, because although you can say a lot of bad things about proffies if you want to, the truth is that we’re used to doing lots of different things in our jobs, and most of us are pretty good at walking and chewing gum at the same time. Most of us do some form of writing, some form of research, and some form of teaching every day, all workday long & sometimes into the night.

    I found her evocation of stiff folding-chairs and competing with the whoooossshhh of the espresso machine charmingly anachronistic. Who knew that bookstores still existed?

    In the end, it seems like she’s just at the end of her rope in terms of the self-promotion on social media that’s expected of her. I personally find these interactions fun and enriching, although it’s true that we need to unplug (or at least stop looking at FB and Twitter) and do the damn work. There’s an unconvincing (for me) echo in her lament that reminds me of that old saw that teaching interferes with good writing and research, or that research interferes with good teaching, when they reinforce and support one another. The only conflict is the one we all struggle with: hours in the day. We’re all fighting time, the avenger.


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