The Profession

Does Size Matter?

Sarah Maza, September 2012

I was trained and began my career in the "long 1970s," back before monographs were nearly extinct, when great beasts still roamed the land. It was the Age of Big Books. Just about every important work assigned on our graduate syllabi, or touted by obnoxiously "in the know" fellow students, was a whopper. The Old and New Testament combined took the form of E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (848 pages). At Princeton we all labored under the shadow of Lawrence Stone's major works on the crisis of the English aristocracy (841 pages) and the origins of the modern family (800 pages). Obligatory reading, or the faking thereof, included for all of us regardless of field Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic (716 pages), Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll, which rolled on for 823 pages, and Eugen Weber's Peasants into Frenchmen (615 pages of very small print). Annales history was then at the peak of its prestige, and since the books written by historians in France devolved from massive thèses d'état, theirs were always longer than anyone else's. To this day just about every historian of my generation owns the two volumes of Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean, even though it is a truth universally acknowledged that nobody actually reads more than one volume of anything unless it is fiction by a Young Adult novelist.

In my early days as an assistant professor I noticed that colleagues spoke reverently about job candidates who were about to produce, or had produced, a "big book," with extra helpings of admiration for evidence of multilingual research and globe-trotting archival prowess. This made me very nervous. At the same time, it was becoming apparent that many of the emerging cohort of women who produced game-changing scholarship (Natalie Zemon Davis, Lynn Hunt, Joan Scott, Nancy Cott) did so in the form of essays or concise books. Is there a gendered issue here? You bet.

At this point many readers will be indignantly accusing me of crude essentialism, and mentally lining up instances that do not fit the pattern. Yes, there are plenty of examples of male historians who have written influential short books (John Demos, Carlo Ginzburg), as well as of women authors of lengthy works, even on feminist subjects (Caroline Walker Bynum, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). It is worth noting, however, that the novelist Meg Wolitzer has recently picked up on a similar pattern in fiction written by men and women: she wonders "if book length, intentionally or inadvertently, signals to readers a novel's importance," and surmises that women may more be more inclined to edit themselves, or let themselves be edited.1

All normative judgments aside, patterns in book sizes are probably not unrelated to enduring traditions of socialization. Men have usually been encouraged to cultivate deep focus even if it verges on the obsessive, to ignore social demands which compete with work, and to assert their presence in space. Women are taught early on to be attentive to social cues, to avoid holding forth at great length or overstaying their welcome. Female academics can be many unpleasant things but "pompous" is rarely among them, and anybody who has suffered politely through a blind date with a windbag knows in their bones that seven hundred pages is just too long.

Needless to say, authorial gender is only one possible variable: subject matter, intellectual style regardless of sex, and methodological moment can be just as important to a volume's heft. The mammoth books of the 1970s are not just avatars of a certain kind of mandarinal tradition, but also instances of a specific form of descriptive and accumulative social history which flourished between quantification and the rise of Geertzian microhistory.

For better or worse, the megabook on a specific subject appears to be headed for extinction. Behemoths are nowadays only allowed into print if they deal with huge subjects and appear to be synthetic (Jonathan Israel), are authored by a reliably bankable superstar (Simon Schama), or both (Eric Foner). Under financial pressure, academic press editors have become intolerant of authorial logorrhea, and most writers can be effectively cowed with the threat of either illegibly small print or a ridiculously high price. In addition, many of us nurture the fantasy of the "book that will be assigned for classes" and are well aware that anything much over two hundred pages does not stand a chance of landing on a syllabus. The Very Big Book was also an artifact of a bygone social world in which a spouse could be counted on to cheerfully pack up the house for a year's research abroad, and to have the children picked up and dinner on the table when the scholar emerged from his study.

Finally, ours has become, over the last few decades, a society which values product over process. As we all churn out whatever we can for our yearly reports to our deans, or fret about not doing so, the age of the revered scholar/teacher, admired even as he took decades over a book, is long gone. But even as the career-making tome has shrunk from T-Rex to midsize dog, the issues raised by book length continue silently to shape our appraisals of scholarly merit. What is the relationship between quality and quantity, between scale and significance, the proper ratio between argument and evidence? Does the rise of transnational and global history herald a return to longer books, a ratcheting up of scholarly expectations? How much "stuff" is too much, and conversely, what degree of brevity is unacceptable, and why?

The issue of book length is worth raising precisely because it is one of those obvious matters that are rarely discussed. We tend to judge works of history as platonic essences, divorced from accidents like style, structure, and length, not to mention multiple constraints on the author's life. While a degree of abstraction is certainly appropriate in the interests of professionalism, recognition that good historical work comes in all sorts of different packages is also necessary and healthy. It may seem frivolous to dwell upon the difference between a short book and a whopper even as young scholars are anxious about getting a job in the first place, and, should they be so lucky, about placing their manuscript with a press any way they can. But the more candid we are about the social realities that lie behind abstract ideals of scholarship, the more welcoming our profession will be for scholars of different backgrounds and intellectual temperaments.

Sarah Maza is the Jane Long Professor in the Arts and Sciences and professor of history at Northwestern University, where she is also the director of the Chabraja Center for Historical Studies. She is the author of several books, including Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris and The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie: An Essay on the Social Imaginary, 1750–1850.

Note

1. Meg Wolitzer, "The Second Shelf," The New York Times Book Review April 1, 2012, 12–13.