Scholars Talk Writing: Kate Brown

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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Brown

If you need an example of an academic historian whose books make scholarly contributions and are enjoyable to read, look no further than Kate Brown.

Just this month, her latest bookManual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future — was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award in the nonfiction category. The Economist described her book as "a magisterial blend of historical research, investigative journalism and poetic reportage." The winners will be announced in March, and in the meantime, Brown agreed to talk shop for the Scholars Talk Writing series.

A professor of science, technology, and society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brown talks fast, thinks hard, and can out-hike and out-bike people half her age. She teaches environmental history, Cold War history, and creative-nonfiction history writing, and has written about population politics, linguistic mapping, the production of nuclear weapons, and the consequences of living with nuclear fallout.

Brown writes with verve and flair, with the clarity of the journalist she once was and the attention to elements of craft of a creative writer. Yet her books have also won major awards from a variety of scholarly organizations. She considers herself a historian "of the hinterlands" — places that are considered "modernist wastelands."

I’ve had a long-standing disagreement with historians who don’t believe in the use of the first person in scholarly writing. You are clearly on my side.

Brown: Since I was in graduate school, I have had a problem with the exclusive use of the third-person voice. For me, the omniscient third-person narrative voice sent a message that the narrator (whoever he or she was) had an unlimited view of the past and appears to have always known the facts making up that particular history. I could not square that narrative assertion with what I knew was a very subjective process of doing research. So, starting with my dissertation, I have employed the first person in my histories.

As the decades have passed, I see more and more reasons why the first person makes sense in our age of obsessive self-reflection in social media, selfies, and reality TV. Abstract knowledge, timeless truths, and general principles — knowledge that is presented as "one knows," or "we believe" — holds little credence in our current intellectual climate.

Consumers of our histories possess a sophisticated understanding of spin. They want to know, naturally, where information comes from, who is behind it, and how they came to know it. In the media, journalists are now sometimes using the first person (once a taboo) as a way to both explain and legitimize their perspective.

Once in the first-person mode, there are rhetorical advantages. I can dispense with awkward, passive phrasing because I don’t have to write myself out of the text. I can describe the narrative adventure of my quest to find knowledge about a certain topic and in that way show (not tell) my sources and methodology.

Thinking about writing in the first person has inspired me to get up from my desk and out of the archive to explore the landscapes and communities that are the settings of my histories. These strategies make for more intimate, active prose that leaves space for human emotions — principles that writing coaches describe as factors in good writing.

Finally, there is the question of objectivity. If I own up to the fact of being there when I research and write my histories, I send a message that the past I have reconstructed is that which I found. It’s due, in part, to the time in which I wrote it, where I happened to be, and whom I came across — those facts filtered through a particular political perspective.

Prose that acknowledges that I am a person who speaks from a particular time and place, that I carry along a personal biography and experience, will inevitably affect the stories I write. I can make a call, a judgment about the past, knowing that my reader understands the judgment is mine, culled from thousands of hours of research, but nonetheless, the argument is subjective.

In other words, I don’t feel the need to hedge or manufacture a balanced perspective if there is not one there already in the story. Taking ownership of my narrative voice allows me to edge farther out on a limb in terms of my arguments, and stay there. Admittedly, that approach sometimes gets me in trouble.

A few years ago, you wanted to put together a panel for the American Historical Association on "genre-busting" history. What did you mean by that?

Brown: History writing has taken off as a genre. Anthropologists and political scientists are turning to archives and chronological narratives. Geologists and geographers are teaming up with historians to chart the outlines of the Anthropocene. Major newspapers are featuring long articles or collections of articles about the past. Last year The New York Times devoted a great deal of attention to commemorate 400 years since the first slave arrived in the American colonies. The 1619 project serves to prod Americans to think historically about the recent reinflammation of white-supremacist activity amid renewed calls to, at last, have reparations.

These new historical voices by people of many different disciplines have helped inspire a departure from traditional historical narratives. Authors are branching out from chronology and biography to write histories in jumbled timescales that incorporate indigenous cosmologies and the perspectives of nonhuman actors. Recent highlights include:

  • Maggie Paxson beautiful new book, The Plateau, which is part memoir, part ethnography, and part history about the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France where residents over the centuries developed a tradition of sheltering refugees, most notably Jewish children during the Holocaust.
  • Timothy LeCain’s book, The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past, animates rocks, metals, and silkworms to show how these historical characters not only co-evolved with humans, but at times physically became part of human bodies.

Some of my favorite genre-busting histories are not new:

  • In Walking Since Daybreak, published in 2000, Modris Eksteins tells the story of refugees fleeing Eastern Europe after WWII. He starts in the middle of the story and works his way to the beginning and end.
  • In Stories of Scottsboro, which came out in 1994, James Goodman sets and resets the scene of an alleged rape case from the perspective of each witness, in a format that echoes the way events are told and retold in court.

What is wonderful about these books is that the writers let their subjects dictate the format of their histories. Rather than relying on a boilerplate, the authors sought a narrative approach suggested by the topic.

Alex Lichtenstein and I have founded a special section of The American Historical Review for authors to try out their experiments in a short essay format that does not need to be heavily footnoted (as do most AHR articles). The section, called "History Unclassified," started in June 2018 and has since published a number of breathtaking and thought-provoking essays.

One of the things I think about a lot when it comes to academics and writing is the question of bravery. Can you talk about what it’s been like to publish a book on a topic like nuclear power?

Brown: It can be scary to let a book go out into the world, especially if the topic is controversial. Within a few days of publishing my most recent book, Manual for Survival, a couple of industry scientists and a pro-nuclear activist took to social media and the conventional press to discredit me personally as a way to dispense with the evidence and arguments in my book.

The attacks felt miserable and left me in doubt. For a while I wished I had written a conventional ending to my history. A more cautious, nonproblematic conclusion would have been to shift from describing the outrageous injustice of the past to affirm in a concluding chapter that all those problems are fixed up now, the Soviets are gone, and such a cataclysmic nuclear accident could never happen here.

But I knew that wasn’t the case. I knew the problem of radioactive contaminants not only persisted, but was global and very much a part of our bodily existence today.

I learned through the process something that I wish I had known from the start, and that was to diligently follow up on my critics, answering their criticism case by case. There is a way to do it respectfully, with citations, hyperlinks: basically with loads of evidence, something in which scholars specialize. People who want to paint your work with a broad brush often do not themselves have much to back their claims. Once a scholar starts overwhelming them with evidence, then I found they retreat.

You started out publishing with big university presses (Harvard, Chicago, and Oxford) and then made the move, with an agent, to Norton. What do you wish you’d known about publishing as a graduate student?

Brown: I wish I had known as a grad student that editors can only do so much with your prose, analysis, and argument. I remember thinking that an editor would work with me, commenting and revising as I went. Four books later with terrific editors, I have yet to have that dreamed-of experience.

If I were in grad school again, I would do what I do as a professor: I’d start a writing group with colleagues I trust and admire. Over years, regular workshops can build into a wonderful form of collaboration.

In terms of trade versus academic books, I would advise grad students not to worry too much about whether or not to write for trade publishers. Some trade books have the problem of promising a great deal in the introduction, while failing to deliver in the rest of the book. I think that grows out of the emphasis placed in the trade world of crafting a book proposal that promises to make headlines (and money). Once out, the cycle of a trade book can be a lot of blasting noise and attention for the stretch of a media cycle (which is getting shorter each year), followed by a quiet pulping of remainders.

Instead of getting caught up in this minor cyclone, I would encourage graduate students to find an editor they can work with, whether in a trade or an academic press. All books should be enjoyable and interesting to read — not just trade books.

Good editors should encourage their authors also to be clear in both the complexity of their arguments and the value and limitations of their sources, but should not press them toward a thesis that they cannot sustain.

Finding an editor at a press that will help you strike that balance might be the best way to select a press.

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